November 22, 2022

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Re: “The Shame of the Greek System”

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In his guest article, Prof. Schwarz, Department of Literatures in English, provides criticisms of Greek life that are especially relevant to Cornellians today, given the recent incidents surrounding Greek life on campus. We would like to join him in acknowledging and condemning the disgusting and abhorrent nature of these incidents. 

Greek organizations deserve immense blame for recent events. All infractions should be swiftly and severely punished. Cornell should immediately remove the responsible actors.

However, we believe that Prof. Schwarz has drastically mischaracterized the purpose of Greek life at Cornell. Such mischaracterizations are deeply unfair to the many thousands of students who find a home away from home within their fraternal or sororal organizations.

We would thus like the opportunity to provide our own views on Greek life, with the hope that we may help both Prof. Schwarz and our fellow Cornellians to better understand why fraternities and sororities still have their place on campus today. 

To Prof. Schwarz, Cornell’s many student clubs are a more than suitable replacement for Greek life. The logic follows that because campus clubs are so inclusive and available to everyone, Greek life is irrelevant.

We strongly dispute this claim. 

First, student club culture at Cornell can be harmful and exclusive. How many columnists on this paper have opined on the cutthroat exclusivity of pre-professional clubs and societies on this campus? Prof. Schwarz cynically posits that “overcoming loneliness” is a primary reason students turn to Greek life. If clubs were to replace fraternities and sororities, would such a cutthroat club scene really be an improvement for students looking for friendship?

Many clubs at Cornell have also been accused and reprimanded for hazing — should Prof. Schwarz not subsequently characterize all student clubs as “counter to the values espoused by contemporary colleges and universities” as he does for the Greek system? If we shouldn’t judge all clubs by the actions of a rotten few, then why should we make such a generalization within the context of Greek life?

We will not make the same mistake as Prof. Schwarz by finding all clubs guilty of being unwelcoming. Our point is simply that, just like Greek life, clubs at Cornell are not wholly perfect. It is thus entirely unfair for Greek life to be subjected to the damaging generalizations that student clubs are conveniently immune to. If anything, Cornellians should be trusted to judge each organization — regardless of whether they are a student club or Greek — on a case-by-case basis. 

In the opening paragraphs of his piece, Prof. Schwarz references former Cornell University president David Skorton’s 2011 opinion piece on Greek life. In that piece, President Skorton also writes that “the Greek system is part of our university’s history and culture, and [that] we should maintain it because at its best, it can foster friendship, community service and leadership.”

We believe that this statement, which Schwarz ignores in his piece, remains at the heart of why Greek life is able to do so much for so many Cornellians. 

We acknowledge that the historical and cultural precedent of Greek life is no excuse for deplorable actions today. However, we maintain that in an increasingly digital world, in-person social contact between Cornellians remains more relevant than ever before. 

If anything, Prof. Schwarz’s argument that “male bonding” has become irrelevant today is baseless. Evidence from the pandemic era has shown that teenagers barred from “normal” social contact emerge developmentally delayed, antisocial and lacking in purpose. Cornell should thus be encouraging social behavior post-pandemic — not curbing it — especially in the face of alarming male suicide and depression rates.

Furthermore, Prof. Schwarz repeatedly attacks the personal and academic integrity of students in the Greek system by implying that students in Greek life cannot be trusted to manage their own time, intellectual pursuits and academic engagement. Prof. Schwarz even implies that students in Greek life are lazy and unproductive, writing that their “time could be better spent on academic work and more rewarding extracurricular activities.” 

We certainly hope that our peers — all of whom are adults and are especially talented — are smart enough to make their own decisions regarding balancing their social and academic lives. And besides being disrespectful, these generalizations about Greek life members also appear to be factually incorrect. Indeed, the average member of Greek life at Cornell has a GPA that is on par with the university-wide undergraduate average (which changes year to year).

Prof. Schwarz is not incorrect in all of his claims, however. It is entirely believable that alcohol and drug consumption is more prevalent amongst those in Greek life. After all, students who join Greek life tend to drink more simply because they attend more social functions than others might.

However, there is no guarantee that those who choose to drink and partake in substance use would stop if Greek life were to lose University recognition. Even without Greek organizations, parties would still happen. They would simply move from being hosted at University-recognized houses with systems of repercussions in place should anything go wrong to unknown, untraceable off-campus locations. So, if anything, drinking and substance use would simply be driven even further underground, thereby becoming even more dangerous for Cornellians. 

Prof. Schwarz also repeatedly refers to anecdotal evidence for why Greek life is supposedly irrelevant from his personal interactions with students. “Virtually every current and almost all recent female sorority members to whom [Prof. Schwarz has] spoken over the past few decades,” for example, apparently thinks Greek life should be terminated, as do “most of the fraternity members to whom [he has] spoken.” 

First, Prof. Schwarz erroneously assumes that his personal interactions with students in Greek life are representative of all student perspectives. Additionally, such a claim just feels off: why would almost a third of the student population agree year after year to continue in a Greek system Prof. Schwarz calls an “irrelevant encumbrance” if they despised its very existence?

We hope that we have helped paint a sufficiently clear picture of a Greek system that is still very much a valuable part of Cornell’s modern campus, and not the irrelevant and shameful relic Prof. Schwarz believes it to be. Indeed, we believe that Greek organizations are an irreplaceable aid to helping thousands of Cornellians develop into mature, sophisticated and aware leaders through self-governance, communal living and tight-knit camaraderie. As long as this is true, Greek life will have a place on this campus. 

Kevin Cheng ’25 & Aaron Friedman ’25