More than a decade ago, in 2011, former Cornell University president David Skorton penned an op-ed for The New York Times after a 19-year-old Cornell sophomore named George Desdunes “died in a fraternity house while participating in a hazing episode that included mock kidnapping, ritualized humiliation and coerced drinking.” Pledging to take action to “remedy practices of the fraternity system that continue to foster hazing,” Skorton noted that, at Cornell, “high-risk drinking and drug use are two to three times more prevalent among fraternity and sorority members than elsewhere in the student population.”
Scores of hazing deaths have been recorded nationally — accounting for at least one death on a college campus per year since 1970 — but that does not begin to tell the story of what is wrong with the Greek system. What befuddles so many students and faculty is why it continues.
The Greek system encourages excessive drinking, abusive bullying under the guise of hazing, groupthink and sexism in various forms ranging from the objectification of women to sexual assault. Thus the Greek system runs counter to the values espoused by contemporary colleges and universities.
Fraternities and — perhaps to a lesser extent at some colleges — sororities impose a kind of conformity that stifles growth and creates anxiety about being different. In the form of shared social, ethical and political attitudes and behavior, members are expected to adhere to the accepted mores of their Greek houses. Membership in Greek organizations stifles student innovation and creativity. Greek life absorbs time that could be better spent on academic work and more rewarding extracurricular activities, including community service.
Since I first discussed this issue at length in my book How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning, I have seen no significant change and am even more certain than before that the Greek system, while providing value to some individual members, has outlived its usefulness.
While my most intimate knowledge necessarily comes from Cornell — where only a third of undergraduate students belong to fraternities and sororities — I have for over half a century been reading about the Greek system and talking to colleagues and students during campus visits across the country. Although two Cornell students have died since 2011 due to two separate fraternity hazing incidents that received national attention, comparatively little has been done to control the Greek system here. In fact, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity that was the site of Desdunes’s 2011 hazing-related death and was disbanded for a decade, has recently been allowed back on campus.
Just this past weekend, the Cornell police issued alerts reporting that one student was sexually assaulted and at least four others were drugged at off-campus residences affiliated with registered fraternities, prompting the temporary suspension of all fraternity parties and social events.
These temporary measures raise a more timeless question: Why are these organizations tolerated by universities? We know from studies that alcohol abuse is more common among those belonging to the Greek system than among other students and that membership in residential Greek organizations is associated with binge drinking and marijuana usage through midlife. As if that was not bad enough, a recent New York Times article on the University of Alabama’s sorority rush highlighted the superficiality and frivolity of this system and the significant cost in dollars that membership entails.
To be sure, one can find alumni and students who believe fraternities and sororities do enrich the lives of young adults. Yet, virtually every current and almost all recent female sorority members to whom I have spoken about the Greek system over the past few decades think it is obsolete and should be terminated. While not as close to unanimous, most of the fraternity members to whom I have spoken one-on-one — as opposed to in the presence of their fraternity brothers — have similar views. Most current students—and almost all of the women — do not think that men and women should be segregated by gender, as is the case with the Cornell Greek system, except for pre-professional fraternities which are not really part of the traditional Greek system and not the subject of this essay.
The Greek system makes my university, Cornell, less than it should be. I know of no student or faculty member who thinks that the minor tinkering that has been done these past few years sends the necessary message. Cornell needs to abolish an antiquated, sexist, classist, elitist, discriminatory system that encourages excessive drinking, sexual abuse and dumbing down of the intellectual environment, even as it discourages interaction among diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. I recently spoke to a group of fraternity brothers where I saw some ethnic diversity but very little economic diversity, in part because membership in the Greek system is expensive.
Notwithstanding announcements of reforms, the perception among present and former students is that nothing substantive has been done. I understand from reading and discussion with students and colleagues that the same is true at many other colleges and universities despite significant efforts to abolish the Greek system on many campuses.
It is fair to say that a great many students and faculty believe on this issue that their administrations have been rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
It is puzzling why college presidents and trustees ignore this community cancer, since they must know that the combination of hazing, bullying, predatory sexual behavior and binge drinking contributes to long-lasting physical and emotional injuries. One reason for inaction is pressure from older alumni donors who treasure their Greek days in hindsight. But we know from colleges that have abolished the Greek system — Amherst, Colby, Middlebury, Swarthmore and Williams Colleges, among others — that fundraising goes on just fine in absence of fraternities.
Another reason for inaction is that the Greek system supposedly helps solve housing problems. But were the Greek system to be terminated, the national organizations could sell the houses to the university at a nominal price since they would have no reason to sustain them. The result would be no loss of housing space.
The principal reason given by students for joining the Greek system is to overcome loneliness and give students a sense of belonging. But now there are a plethora of clubs and activities from a cappella groups to juggling groups, adding up on Cornell’s campus to well over 1,000 opportunities for students to find friends and cohorts and to make networking connections for future employment.
At a time when there were few organized activities on campus, the origins of the Greek system developed from a need for male bonding and, later in the 19th century when women began attending college in numbers, female bonding. The Greek system flourished during the time of parietal rules governing relationships between men and women on campus. But now these rules are vestiges of the past and an irrelevant encumbrance to university goals. The question is whether, in 2022, colleges and universities are better off with the Greek system, and my answer — shared here by the vast majority of students and faculty I’ve spoken with — is a resounding no.
Dan Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.