November 29, 2022

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

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I want to thank Kevin Cheng ’25 and Aaron Friedman ’25 for their thoughtful response to my Nov. 16th article entitled “The Shame of the Greek System.” Their letter is an important and necessary part of the dialogue which needs to occur as we look forward to the Cornell of the future.

While it is wonderful that we have extracurricular activities, my overriding principle is that the mission of a great university is to impart knowledge to our students and do research, and the further we get from that focus, the less of a university we become. 

It is worth noting that in what are considered Cornell’s most demanding colleges, the percentage of Greek system members is the smallest, with only 10 percent of Architecture, Art, and Planning students and 14 percent of Engineering students, according to Kara Miller McCarty, Director of Sorority and Fraternity Life at Cornell.

Is there anyone who believes that were Cornell University to open its doors today, we would even consider introducing the Greek system? Simply put, the world has changed and with it our student body, and we need to imaginatively look forward to new forms of living arrangements other than those whose inception came from a different world.

In my book How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning, I took a critical but more measured stance on the Greek system, but the continuing change in the student body, further interviews with students and recent developments since 2016 — including another death, date rape and women telling me about the horrors of some fraternity parties — convinced me of the toxicity of the Greek system.

There have been over seventy officially punished violations of hazing on the part of Cornell Greek houses — the vast majority of those have been fraternities — since 2004. From all other Cornell organizations, including sports teams, I count six such violations. (Statistics provided by Kara Miller McCarty, Director of Sorority and Fraternity Life at Cornell). Ask yourself, what kind of fraternal organization does physical harm to its members?

When I arrived here in the late 1960s, there were many sororities and fraternities with no members who were Jews, African Americans or Asian Americans — which is why these groups have developed their own Greek life — or those who were physically challenged, part of the LGBTQ community, or from working-class and other first-generation college backgrounds. It was a long time before this substantively changed; even now many of the fraternities and a few of the sororities have limited diversity. 

To claim, as Kevin Cheng and Aaron Friedman did, that I attacked “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” combines hyperbole with reductive nonsense and has no relation to what I wrote.  

I have taught a few thousand students in the Greek system and deeply respect and admire a great many of them as individuals. 

Cheng and Friedman ask, “[W]hy 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?”

The answers I have heard over and over again are “loneliness,” “lack of friends,” and “the need for a group experience in an impersonal university much larger than high school.” Students who have been recognized as prominent leaders in high school no longer feel that they are the center of attention. But many of them, particularly women, see the irrelevance of the Greek system as they progress through college. 

We need to remember that most students join Greek life here after their first semester Postponing pledging until the sophomore year would, I believe, limit the number of those who join because many more students are established in extra-curricular activities. But I no longer think that this measure would adequately address what I believe is the strong and dire necessity to look toward the future without the Greek system.

So far, not one of the messages I received defending the Greek system came from a woman, including those who read the article on the Inside Higher Ed site where it was also published. 

Most of the scores of Cornell sorority members whom I have spoken to over my 55 years teaching here — and especially recent and current ones — know that segregation by gender in the Greek system encourages sexism, harassment and immature objectification of women. Along with most other undergraduate women, they are fully aware that people of all genders living together in a diverse environment encourages intellectual, cultural and personal growth.  

When I speak one-on-one with fraternity members whom I have taught and who trust me, I hear — even from those who value their fraternity experience — stories of alcohol abuse and anti-social behavior. My guess, based on past experience, is that the same would be true after a few years, were I to get to know the now sophomores Kevin Cheng and Aaron Friedman.

Cornell requires campus leadership which reimagines living options and speaks to the current and evolving student body.  With community input, our senior leaders must consider the best options for fulfilling students’ potential for growth and providing possibility and opportunity for all. For reasons I developed in my original Sun article and expanded today, I do not think the obsolete and often harmful Greek system can be part of that vision.

Dan Schwarz, Professor of English