Hazing: This Time We Really Mean It?

August 24, 2011

In today’s New York Times, Cornell University President David Skorton pledges to end fraternity hazing.  I’m more than a little puzzled.  As he acknowledges, “Hazing has been formally prohibited at Cornell since 1980 and a crime under New York State law since 1983.”  So now we need a “pledge” to stop it?  What is Skorton proposing to do differently?

Last year, a Cornell student was killed in a hazing ritual.  That’s what has prompted Skorton to act.   Here’s what he is doing:

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.

So even though hazing has been a violation of Cornell policy for more than 30 years, fraternities and sororities were continuing with pledging rituals, “the performance of demeaning or dangerous acts as a condition of membership.”  How are such pledging rituals not hazing?  Why have they been allowed for the past thirty years if hazing has been prohibited and against the law?  Hazing has continued, Skorton says, “under the guise of pledging, often perpetuated through traditions handed down over generations.”  Are we to believe that Cornell didn’t recognize the hazing because the fraternities called the activities “pledging?”

Why not ban fraternities and sororities as dozens of other colleges and universities have done, Skorton asks.  Because “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.”  I take this to mean: because students and alumni wouldn’t stand for such a ban.  So we’ll just stamp our feet and say this time we mean it.

Fraternities and sororities could play a constructive role on college campuses if they were responsible, self-regulating communities of students that taught new students how to make a transition to adulthood.  But fraternities and sororities too rarely play that role today at Cornell or elsewhere.  How to encourage peer-taught habits of responsible behavior is a challenge at nearly every institution of higher education.  But fraternities and sororities have had their day and have failed too consistently.  That’s why other colleges and universities have just said no.

I believe Skorton and Cornell have simply reset the clock.  Now we’ll just see how long it takes until the next harmful hazing incident.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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4 Responses to Hazing: This Time We Really Mean It?

  1. dave says:

    Maybe this is for the same reason why Earlham did not crack down on the use of tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs under your tenure even though: 1. all three of these things were recognized as problems on Earlham’s campus and were in some instances illegal and in all dangerous, 2. Earlham had once banned these substances and enforced this policy strictly, 3. Earlham proclaims itslef as a “dry” campus, and 4. other colleges have banned one or all of these substances and actually lived by that policy rather than being hypocritical.

    • Doug Bennett says:

      “Crack down?” We acted clearly and forcefully against reported instances of drug and alcohol use. But yes, students rarely reported such use. Would you have preferred unannounced searches of student rooms? Drug and alcohol use by students is a nationwide epidemic for which I fear there is no good college policy, but I’ll stand by Earlham’s unusual approach.

      Earlham’s alcohol policy says that we ask that no one bring alcohol onto campus or serve alcohol in conjunction with Earlham-sponsored events. The responsibility to live up to that policy rests squarely with everyone, even or especially students, not just “the administration.” (That is, we don’t promise a “dry campus.”) Yes, students don’t always live up to those expectations, but the level of alcohol-related destructive or self-destructive behavior was and is much lower at Earlham than nearly anywhere else. Our no-alcohol policy isn’t our our only principle; expecting students to bear individual and collective responsibility for their behavior is at least as important.

      Fraternities were once progressive organizations because they promoted collective responsibility; they no longer do: that’s the experience on countless college campuses. Colleges that recognize and encourage fraternities are playing with fire. At Earlham, we continue to pursue the inculcation of individual and collective responsibility.

    • Bob says:

      In response to what Dave said I saw this article on CNN, http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/08/31/smokefree.college.campus/index.html?iref=allsearch . I had two questions for Doug about this: 1. Didn’t Earlham College have a no tobacco policy before the early 2000’s when this article claims these became popular? 2. Why hasn’t Earlham returned to having such a policy as it appears Dave is advocating?

      • Doug Bennett says:

        Several decades ago — well before the culture changes of the 1960s — Earlham allowed no smoking on campus anywhere. Then it came to be allowed in some places indoors and in most areas out of doors. I made some students very unhappy by forbidding all indoor smoking. Why unhappy? because I didn’t wait for a time-consuming consensus process to arrive at the only posture that was now medically sound: no indoor smoking. In time, I believe Earlham will once again be a smoke-free campus. But it will be better if it arrives at that posture through its highly participatory processes. That will take time.

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