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.