March 21, 2021

KEMPFF | What We Can Do With The Phi Kappa Psi House

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I went for a COVID test a few days ago at the former Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity house on West Campus. You catch glimpses, between the sterilized tools and their sanitized distributors, of a place that was once a home. 

As we emerge from the pandemic, the house will need a new use again. So what should be done? How do we deal with a space that played a role in a horrific tragedy that continues to affect the entire Cornell community? 

Here’s my proposal: use it for a noble pursuit, namely a veterans center. Or dedicate it to another higher purpose. As a member of the Greek community, I can also tell you what it should not be: a fraternity.

Since Cornell revoked  Phi Kappa Psi’s recognition on campus, the home has been quiet. Late last semester a group of Cornell veterans began to advocate for a new house purpose. They proposed converting the space into a dry program house to serve their community.

The plan received widespread support, including a large letter writing campaign. However, the school changed course and offered another former fraternity to the organization. So what’s the next step for the house?

That’s a difficult question. And the University doesn’t know the answer either. When asked about the future of the house, Cornell avoided an answer. Cornell’s Senior Director of Media Relations, John Carberry, only mentioned the additional power Cornell has with the house “It is important to note that this property is owned by the university, unlike some other fraternity and sorority houses that are privately owned and therefore would not be available for such repurposing.”

There are many fraternities that may be pining for a house like Phi Kappa Psi’s; however, the fraternity’s difficult history makes a replacement seem too fast.  It would be better to put the building to a productive use for a community in need. This is a position that’s shared by the Phi Kappa Psi alumni board.

Board member and spokesperson, Joel Anker ’89, described the hope that “the house is used by a group of people as a community gathering space. We would like it to still be used as a veteran’s center to reach that community.Hopefully it can reach those underserved areas at Cornell. With everything that’s happened we don’t think a fraternity should go in at this time. ”

How does the veteran community feel about the proposal? Reaching out to multiple members of the Cornell veteran community leadership yielded no responses. Using the house as a space in contrast to their new housing, however, might yield some advantages. One can imagine a group of like minded individuals being able to use the extensive space in the house.

There are a lot of underserved communities at Cornell that need to be addressed. I propose a community center that deals with the economic inequality inherent at Cornell and empowers more individuals with a seat at the table. I believe that the sponsoring of nontraditional undergraduates, like veterans, is a first step in that mission. 

A group who may have better direction is the Student Assembly. According to Morgan Baker, a freshman representative for the S.A., the topic of a student veteran space was brought to the University Assembly floor. The issue, however, has since been shelved since the veteran housing deal.

I urge student leaders like S.A.  members to lead  the charge of establishing a veteran’s center. It’s not often that a space like this becomes available and it would be a shame to lose the opportunity. Hearing the perspective of the Cornell community is important as the university moves forward with this decision. 

Anker mentioned how nice it has been for the university to perform COVID testing in the space, but, hopefully sooner than later, this pandemic will be gone. The house will need a new function, and it’s important that the community knows what it could have. 

Although I’m a member of a fraternity on campus, I believe placing a new Greek organization in the space would be a mistake. Let’s work to change the house into something new. There are many ways we can help veterans or similar groups at Cornell. Rushing to fill it with another Greek house doesn’t do anything for them.

As I exited the COVID testing site a few days ago, I couldn’t help but notice the potential of the home. There are a lot of great and meaningful ways it could be used. Let’s create a legacy for a house that could build a stronger community here at Cornell.

Brendan Kempff is a sophomore in the School of Hotel Administration. He can be reached at bkempff@cornellsun.com. Slope Side runs every other Monday this semester.

Update, March 24, at 10:00 p.m.: This column has been updated to include a better characterization of last year’s events involving Phi Kappa Psi.