Feb. 25 marks the 11th anniversary of the tragic death of George Desdunes ’13 in a 2011 fraternity hazing incident that rocked Cornell’s campus and sparked national outrage. Now, eleven years later, Desdunes’ fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon is reopening its doors.
An investigation into Desdunes’ death found that the sophomore had been involved in a “reverse kidnapping” hazing ritual in which pledges tied up brothers of the fraternity with zip-ties and duct tape and gave them copious amounts of hard liquor until they vomited repeatedly.
According to the New York Times, after Desdunes passed out from alcohol consumption, brothers of the fraternity brought him back to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house and left him on a couch in the library. Desdunes was found unresponsive the next morning by cleaning staff. Three freshmen pledges were later charged with misdemeanor hazing, and a fourth was charged with hazing and tampering with evidence.
After Desdunes’ death, the University revoked its recognition of Sigma Alpha Epsilon for at least five years, all brothers were forced to vacate the chapter house and the fraternity was fined $12,000 in state hazing penalties.
In 2018, prompted by Desdunes’ death and other hazing-related issues, University President Martha Pollack also announced new anti-hazing policies for Greek life, including three-year suspensions for chapters involved in coerced alcohol or drug consumption, violence and sexual misconduct, as well as mandatory alcohol, drug and sexual misconduct training for all Greek orgnizations. Additionally, annual public scorecards now display hazing violations of Greek organizations at Cornell.
New guidelines as of fall 2021 require full-time live-in advisors in all fraternity and sorority chapter houses and ban hard alcohol in such houses.
“The councils (IFC, Panhellenic, and MGFC), the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life, our dedicated alumni, and student leaders have done extensive work over the last decade to strengthen and increase hazing prevention efforts for the sorority and fraternity community since the tragic loss of George,” said Kara Miller McCarty and Lee May, representatives from Cornell’s Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life.
The New York Alpha Organization of Sigma Alpha Epsilon has also been a sponsor of educational programs for fraternities and sororities, including an anti-hazing event in 2019.
Now, with its five-year expulsion over, Sigma Alpha Epsilon has returned to active chapter status at Cornell and is recruiting this semester. McCarty and May said that the fraternity had applied for reinstatement twice in the last eleven years and was granted approval on its 2020 application for return in spring 2022.
According to James Glenn ’55, a Cornell alumni and Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother, a committee of alumni members, many of them brothers who graduated Cornell in the 1980s, was heavily involved in bringing Sigma Alpha Epsilon back to Cornell. They worked with Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national office and the University administration to reinstate the fraternity.
“I have supported Sigma Alpha Epsilon returning to campus for ten years. I feel very strongly that I benefited tremendously from my fraternity experience at Cornell and I would like other people to have the same kind of benefits,” Glenn said. “Cornell and Sigma Alpha Epsilon were a tremendous growing experience for me.”
In a statement to the Sun, Johnny Sao, manager of communications and public relations for Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national office, wrote that he hopes the chapter will make the campus better for members and non-members alike.
“[We are] enthusiastic about [Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s] upcoming return to Cornell with men who exemplify our… creed, The True Gentleman, and serve as leaders on campus,” Sao said. “The goal is to provide a meaningful, safe and beneficial experience for our members and the greater Cornell and Ithaca communities.”
Nationally, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon organization is no stranger to controversy. In 2015, the fraternity’s chapter at the University of Oklahoma came under fire for an incident in which members sang a racist chant vowing that the organization would never accept Black members. An investigation into the matter found that members had learned the chant at a national leadership retreat sponsored by the national Sigma Alpha Epsilon organization.
Despite the controversy surrounding the 2011 hazing incident, Glenn said that he would not write off the members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon involved in Desdunes’ death.
“I feel that a brother is a brother for life,” Glenn said, “Not just a brother for four or five years.”
The chapter will remain on probation for three years following its reinstatement. According to Cornell’s Sorority and Fraternity Life office, Sigma Alpha Epsilon will be allowed to return to its former residence, 122 McGraw Place, in the fall of 2023, provided that the fraternity has recruited enough members to occupy the house.
“It was necessary for Sigma Alpha Epsilon to leave campus after George’s death,” McCarty and May said. “They have now completed an extended suspension away from campus. We are hopeful the chapter can return and create a strong culture that makes us all proud.”