Cornell President Vows to End Fraternity Hazing

A Pledge to End Fraternity Hazing

Ithaca, N.Y.

IN February, a 19-year-old Cornell sophomore died in a fraternity house while participating in a hazing episode that included mock kidnapping, ritualized humiliation and coerced drinking. While the case is still in the courts, the fraternity chapter has been disbanded and those indicted in connection with the death are no longer enrolled here.

This tragedy convinced me that it was time — long past time — to remedy practices of the fraternity system that continue to foster hazing, which has persisted at Cornell, as on college campuses across the country, in violation of state law and university policy.

Yesterday, I directed student leaders of Cornell’s Greek chapters to develop a system of member recruitment and initiation that does not involve “pledging” — the performance of demeaning or dangerous acts as a condition of membership. While fraternity and sorority chapters will be invited to suggest alternatives for inducting new members, I will not approve proposals that directly or indirectly encourage hazing and other risky behavior. National fraternities and sororities should end pledging across all campuses; Cornell students can help lead the way.

Why not ban fraternities and sororities altogether, as some universities have done? Over a quarter of Cornell undergraduates (3,822 of 13,935 students) are involved in fraternities or sororities. The Greek system is part of our university’s history and culture, and we should maintain it because at its best, it can foster friendship, community service and leadership.

Hazing has been formally prohibited at Cornell since 1980 and a crime under New York State law since 1983. But it continues under the guise of pledging, often perpetuated through traditions handed down over generations. Although pledging is explained away as a period of time during which pre-initiates (“pledges”) devote themselves to learning the information necessary to become full members, in reality, it is often the vehicle for demeaning activities that cause psychological harm and physical danger.

About 2,000 alcohol-related deaths occur each year among American college students. Alcohol or drug abuse is a factor in more than a half-million injuries each year — and also in sexual and other assaults, unsafe sex, poor academic performance and many other problems.

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. During the last 10 years, nearly 60 percent of fraternity and sorority chapters on our campus have been found responsible for activities that are considered hazing under the Cornell code of conduct.

Why would bright young people subject themselves to dangerous humiliation? Multiple factors are at play: the need of emerging adults to separate from family, forge their own identities and be accepted in a group; obedience to authority (in this case, older students); the ineffectiveness of laws and other constraints on group behavior; and organizational traditions that perpetuate hazardous activities.

Alcohol makes it easier for members to subject recruits to physical and mental abuse without feeling remorse and to excuse bad behavior on the grounds of intoxication. It provides a social lubricant, but it impairs the judgment of those being hazed and lowers their ability to resist.

Even more distressing, although 55 percent of college students involved in clubs, teams and organizations experience hazing, the vast majority of them do not identify the events as hazing. Of those who do, 95 percent do not report the events to campus officials.

Doctors, nurses and other student-health professionals have tried to address high-risk drinking and hazing through individual counseling, a medical amnesty process that reduces barriers to calling for help in alcohol emergencies, and educational programs. But the problem has persisted.

There are signs of progress. Jim Yong Kim, president of Dartmouth, has helped organize a multi-campus approach to identifying the most effective strategies against high-risk drinking. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has established a college presidents’ advisory group to develop and share approaches to this problem.

There is a pressing need for better ways to bring students together in socially productive, enjoyable and memorable ways. At Cornell, acceptable alternatives to the pledge process must be completely free of personal degradation, disrespect or harassment in any form. One example is Sigma Phi Epsilon’s “Balanced Man Program,” which replaces the traditional pledging period with a continuing emphasis on community service and personal development.

We need to face the facts about the role of fraternities and sororities in hazing and high-risk drinking. Pledging — and the humiliation and bullying that go with it — can no longer be the price of entry.

David J. Skorton, a cardiologist, is the president of Cornell University.

New York Times, Op Ed Page

August 24, 2011