Cornell’s Hazing Problem Redux

George Desdunes, son of a single-mom Haitian immigrant, joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at Cornell University in part because he thought fraternity connections would help him find a good job after graduation. He never made it to that proud day. In the early hours of Friday February 25, 2011, the 19-year-old sophomore died in a hazing incident at SAE’s house on McGraw Place.

Kidnapped, blindfolded, wrists and ankles bound with duct tape, Desdunes drank a shot of vodka for every incorrect answer to a trivia question until he passed out. Fraternity pledges hoisted him onto a leather sofa, where custodians found him motionless a few hours later and called 911. Marie Andre wailed when she saw the corpse of her son in the morgue.

When President Martha E. Pollack announced frat-house reforms last week, it was but the latest effort by successive Cornell administrations since the senseless death of George Desdunes to put an end to the hazing scourge that, as Pollack puts it, “threatens the health and safety of our students and casts a shadow over our community of scholars.” Pollack set ambitious goals for her administration: not only to “eradicate hazing,” but to “present an example for other universities to follow.”

It remains to be seen if Pollack’s announced changes—banning hard liquor, stiffer penalties for hazing violations, mandatory educational programs, tighter house supervision—will have any greater impact than the ballyhooed initiative “to end pledging as we know it” put forth in 2011 by David J. Skorton, who was Cornell’s president at the time of the tragedy on McGraw Place.

An illustrious Cornell figure, Skorton, a cardiologist, is currently head of the Smithsonian Institution; his name and words are engraved in stone on an edifice on the Ithaca campus—the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives (“Bring your strength and spirit and heart to develop a caring community everywhere there is the name Cornell”). Yet Skorton’s own ambitious effort to stamp out hazing—which he heralded in a forceful Op-Ed in the New York Times—seems to have been a total failure. By Cornell’s own reckoning, at least 28 of the university’s fraternities—nearly half of them—have been sanctioned for hazing since Desdunes’s death.

Cornell disbanded the SAE chapter for a minimum five-year period after George Desdunes died. A judge found the fraternity guilty on state hazing charges and imposed a $12,000 fine. Three SAE pledges were acquitted of hazing charges. Desdunes’s mother brought a $25 million wrongful death suit against the national fraternity, and eventually reached a multi-million dollar out of court settlement.

Pollack’s initiative, which omitted any reference to Skorton’s “comprehensive strategy,” appears to be driven by another spate of cases and allegations this academic year—her first full year at Cornell—including the three-year suspension on hazing charges of the Gamma Theta chapter of Sigma Nu fraternity last Friday as Pollack was making her announcement in an email to the Cornell community. The hazing allegations against Sigma Nu cited by the Cornell Daily Sun included phrases like “I want this to stop,” and “makes me want to kill myself.”

A Cornell hazing incident made national headlines in February when the university’s Zeta Beta Tau was put on probation over a fat-shaming contest. Called the “pig roast,” new fraternity brothers were awarded points for having sex with overweight women.

Pollack announced changes to be enacted in four phases.

Effective immediately:

—Substantiated acts of hazing will result in a chapter’s suspension and loss of recognition. A minimum of three years will be applied for those cases that include coerced alcohol or other drug consumption, sexual and related misconduct, or other forms of violence or mentally abusive behavior that poses a threat to health “and safety…

—Hard alcohol (more than 30 percent alcohol by volume) is not permitted in a residential chapter house at any time.

Effective Fall Semester 2018:

—Each Greek letter chapter must submit a new member education plan prior to participating in new member recruitment. Chapter leadership will assume accountability for adhering to the approved plan.

—Prospective and current members must participate in mandatory educational programming (including, but not limited to, university expectations, hazing awareness, and policies on alcohol, drug use, and sexual and related misconduct) in order to be eligible to participate in the new-member recruitment and intake processes.

—A systemwide, online scorecard will be published and updated annually to include, among other things, the full judicial history of each chapter. This website will be publicized to the campus community and to the parents of all students.

—A comprehensive review of event management guidelines will be conducted and submitted for my approval. The review will include, but not be limited to, the training required for sober monitors, the use of independent bystander intervention services, the distribution of beer and wine for large events, and the number of large events permitted.

Effective Spring Semester 2019:

—Leadership positions in residential Greek letter organizations must be held by junior or senior students who reside in the chapter house.

—A comprehensive review of the Chapter Review Board process that governs recognition for fraternities and sororities will be conducted and submitted for my approval. The review will include, but not be limited to, structure, procedures, process, membership and community expectations.

Effective Fall Semester 2021:

—All residential fraternities and sororities must have a full-time, live-in adviser with clearly stated objectives and expectations for the role.

Said Pollack:

“The behavior in question goes well beyond innocent fun. It includes extremely coercive, demeaning, sexually inappropriate and physically dangerous activities that jeopardize students’ health and lives. The danger of such reckless actions cannot be ignored. Such activities are not tolerated in society and must stop in our Greek letter organizations… I do not take these steps lightly.”

Six and a half years ago, Skorton expressed similar determination in his Times Op-Ed:

“This tragedy convinced me that it was time—long past time—to remedy practices of the fraternity system that continue to foster hazing, 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.”

In a November 28, 2012 memo titled “Plan to Meet President Skorton’s Challenge ‘To End Pledging as We Know It,’” Susan Murphy, vice president for Student and Academic Services, announced that Shorton had approved a “comprehensive strategy” for eradicating hazing.

Based on the recommendations of a special task force, the Fraternity and Sorority Advisory Council, and university administrators, staff, and alumni, the comprehensive strategy, as outlined by the Cornell Chronicle, included the following phases:

Effective immediately, fraternities and sororities must:

—Remove the “power differential” between members and initiates, which often leads to coercive behavior, and construct a model that treats all members, prospective or current, as equals;

—Transition from a pledge model to a membership development model that focuses on the organization’s core principles and extends through graduation;

—Secure approval for orientation events, by Cornell and such partners as the national organization, before they occur;

—Shorten new membership orientation to six weeks in 2012-13 and to four weeks thereafter;

—Communicate transparently, including online postings, about all infractions;

—Increase alumni involvement.

Effective Spring Semester 2013:

—The start of formal decision-making about live-in advisers in chapter houses and other issues.

Effective Fall Semester 2014:

—Training will be coordinated and standardized for live-in, chapter and alumni advisers, and consistent academic standards will be established for the Greek system.

“I applaud the work of students, staff and alumni to design a new membership approach for the Greek community,” Skorton said afterwards. “It is clear that progress has been made through this collaborative process. It is equally clear that we are not yet where we need to be.”

The Greek community is the heart of much of the social life at Cornell. About one-third of the university’s 15,000 undergraduates belong to one of 64 recognized fraternities and sororities. Neither Pollack nor Skorton proposed an indefinite alcohol ban on the Greek system—though most undergrads and virtually all pledges are under the New York State drinking age of 21—and both vigorously defended fraternities as part of a proud Cornell tradition.

“Greek letter organizations have a long history at Cornell University and have been a prominent feature of the undergraduate experience since 1868,” said Pollack last week. “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,” said Skorton in 2011.

In its editorial after Pollack’s announcement last week, the Cornell Daily Sun called the new changes “a good first step” but voiced skepticism about their ultimate effectiveness. The Sun said many of the ideas had been tried before, and speculated that Pollack’s alcohol ban would be unenforceable or ignored. “We have a new president, but a very old university, and old habits have an old habit of dying hard,” the Sun said.