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.

Cornell Coalition on Mental Health

On March 9, Cornell University launched its Coalition on Mental Health. The coalition comprises over 80 students, staff, and faculty members and is chaired by Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi.


The coalition serves as a forum for discourse and information dissemination on emerging trends, research findings, and campus initiatives related to campus health and well-being. The coalition will examine student health priorities including the promotion of mental health and the prevention of suicide, alcohol and other drug abuse, and hazing. It will also address the intersection of these priority areas with sexual and interpersonal violence and bias.

The coalition builds on the role that the former university Council on Mental Health and Well-Being played from 2004–2016, as well as past councils on alcohol and other drugs and hazing prevention. The university’s Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention continues to serve a corresponding role in relation to sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating violence, and stalking.

The coalition’s first meeting focused on Cornell’s Mental Health Framework. A standing-room-only turnout underscored the importance of mental health to the Cornell community. Coalition members discussed the framework, potential new strategies, and areas for improvement.

The coalition’s April meeting examined Cornell’s participation in JED Campus, an initiative of the JED Foundation. The first phase of Cornell’s involvement in the initiative was an external review conducted by JED. The review’s report and Cornell’s response are posted here on the Cornell Health website.

One function of the coalition is to facilitate communication about upcoming events and the activities various student organizations, including Cornell Minds Matter, Reflect at Cornell, and the Student Mental Health Task Force. In addition, the coalition includes representatives from the undergraduate Student Assembly and Graduate and Professional Students Assembly.

In the coming academic year, the Coalition on Mental Health will meet at least twice a semester and continue examination of ideas, challenges, and opportunities to support the health and well-being of the Cornell campus community. For more information (including meeting minutes and membership list), visit Cornell Health’s Campus Leadership & Health Campaigns page.

—By Timothy Marchell

Timothy Marchell, Ph.D., M.P.H. is a clinical psychologist and director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell Health

Saying “The S Word” at Cornell

The uncomfortable topic of suicide was the main theme of a four-day-long “Mental Health Weekend” organized by the student mental health advocacy group Cornell Minds Matter. As part of its effort to encourage open discussion about suicide and to destigmatize mental disorders, the group hosted a screening for the Ithaca community Sunday evening of The S Word, a new award-winning documentary by director Lisa Klein. The event was sponsored by The Sophie Fund.


Reba McCutcheon, Cornell University associate dean of students; Garra Lloyd-Lester, director, New York State Suicide Prevention Community Initiatives; Lisa Klein, director of The S Word; Kelechi Ubozoh, mental health activist; and Cooper Walter, president of Cornell Minds Matter

The film follows the remarkable journey of suicide attempt survivor Dese’Rae L. Stage as she “documents the stories of courage, insight, and humor of fellow survivors.” Klein was on hand to personally present the film on the Cornell University campus, and, along with one of those survivors, Kelechi Ubozoh, took part in a panel discussion immediately following the screening. They were joined by Garra Lloyd-Lester, director of the New York State Suicide Prevention Community Initiatives.

Klein is a survivor of both her father’s and brother’s suicides. She has struggled with the “whys” for years, along with the guilt, shame, and confusion that lingers in suicide’s wake. She made The S Word to spur more open conversations about suicide.


Watching The S Word at the Biotechnology Building conference room Sunday evening

“Tragically, 1,100 college students die each year by suicide, making suicide one of the leading causes of death among college students and young people generally,” said Cornell Minds Matter President Cooper Walter. “We hosted The S Word to increase the awareness and understanding of suicide. By expanding the conversation, we hope to contribute to the growing Zero Suicide initiative in Tompkins County.”

Other Mental Health Weekend events included a Speak Your Mind student panel in partnership with Active Minds at Ithaca College, where students could share their personal stories about suicide. On Saturday evening, the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service of Ithaca hosted Dancing for Life, its 6th annual fundraiser for the local crisisline that provides 24/7 support for people in crisis.

The Sophie Fund is a nonprofit organization advocating for improved mental health policies and practices in Tompkins County. It was established by the family of Sophie Hack MacLeod, a Cornell senior who took her own life in Ithaca in March 2016 while on a health leave of absence.


Sophie Jones, a Cornell University student and volunteer with The Sophie Fund, at The S Word screening

(Photography by Sarah Horbacewicz/The Sophie Fund)


Click here to read the Cornell Daily Sun‘s story on the screening of The S Word

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the Crisisline (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]


Thank You, GreenStar Family

The Sophie Fund is proud to be a recipient in GreenStar Natural Food Market’s “Bring Your Own Bag, Use it for Good” donations program. Last week, GreenStar delivered a check to The Sophie Fund for $290.10—the result of $0.05 donations by 5,802 GreenStar customers.


GreenStar’s support for The Sophie Fund’s work for improved youth mental health in the Ithaca community doesn’t stop there. The coop is the prime sponsor of the Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest organized by The Sophie Fund each October. GreenStar also welcomed Cornell University and Ithaca College students into its stores last fall to collect donations supporting mental health in Tompkins County. The students raised a total of $829.50, which was presented to the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service last month.

Established in 2014, the Bring Your Own Bag, Use it For Good program has raised more than $10,000 for local nonprofits ranging from the SPCA of Tompkins County to the Cayuga Nature Center. The program, which gives customers a 5-cent donation token for providing their own grocery bags, has also spared the environment some 230,000 carrier sacks.

Thank you, GreenStar family!

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Cupcake Buttons: Supporting Suicide Prevention

The Sophie Fund presented a donation check for $829.50 on Wednesday evening to the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service (SPCS) of Ithaca. Cornell University’s Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter and Active Minds at Ithaca College raised the funds in The Sophie Fund’s “cupcake button” campaign last fall.


Alpha Phi Omega President Winnie Ho hands a check to Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service Executive Director Lee-Ellen Marvin

Both student organizations set up fundraising tables on their campuses as well as at GreenStar Natural Food Market’s stores in the West End and Collegetown. Alpha Phi Omega also raised funds in the Ithaca Commons during the Apple Harvest Festival. The Sophie Fund selected SPCS to be the recipient of monies collected in the 2017 cupcake button campaign.

“We sincerely thank Alpha Phi Omega and Active Minds, as well as all the many people who made generous donations, for supporting the cause of suicide prevention in Tompkins County,” said Scott MacLeod, an officer of The Sophie Fund.

“The student organizations not only collected money, but they engaged meaningful conversations within their own circles and with the campus and Ithaca communities about mental health. The commitment of these organizations is nothing less than amazing. Hats off to GreenStar for allowing us to raise funds at their locations and for their tremendous support for mental health and well-being in the community.”

Alpha Phi Omega President Winnie Ho handed over the donation check in a brief ceremony to SPCS Executive Director Lee-Ellen Marvin. Ho was joined by Alpha Phi Omega members Joanna Hua, Trisha Ray, and Ashley Kim.

“As college students who have the privilege to interact with so many different organizations across our campus and in our local community, we have had the chance to see how critical it is that mental health and wellness is supported on every level,” said Ho.

“The partnership between Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter and The Sophie Fund is the result of a dedication to improving mental health on collegiate campuses. We are thrilled to be working with incredible organizations such as Ithaca Suicide Prevention & Crisis Services who have done so much for students and community members. There is important work still left to be done to support our peers, but we are optimistic about the future of this collaboration.”

S. Makai Andrews, co-president of Ithaca College’s Active Minds chapter, and an intern at SPCS and The Sophie Fund, led the Active Minds effort. “We wanted to participate in the button selling as a means to increase mental health visibility in the Ithaca area and reduce the stigma surrounding these situations,” said Andrews. “We were happy to serve as examples of college-aged students who have struggled with our mental health and spoke with many interesting people in the community about what changes they would like to see in how we talk about mental health.”

“Gifts like these always give us a lift, helping us continue the work we do by reminding us that the community cares,” said Marvin. “The staff, board, and volunteers of Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service are grateful for this donation because we know that it represents a big effort by student members of Alpha Phi Omega at Cornell and Active Minds at Ithaca College.”


Peri Margolies and S. Makai Andrews of Active Minds at GreenStar Natural Foods Market during the cupcake button campaign

SPRC operates Crisisline, offering free and confidential crisis counseling, staffed 365 days a year by trained volunteers who respond to calls from Tompkins County and across the 607 area code. It also provides “The Chat,” an Internet chat service for young people who are reluctant to talk on the telephone.

The Crisisline is a member of the National Suicide Lifeline system and is accredited by the American Association of Suicidology. It is also a founding member of the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition established last July.

The overall mission of SPCS is to promote constructive responses to crisis and trauma and to prevent violence to self and others through direct support and community education.

SPRC’s Education Program provides suicide prevention and mental health programs to youth and adults in public schools, colleges, and universities, and community-based settings.

Another program is After-Trauma Services, which provides free short-term counseling and support groups to those who have lost a loved one to suicide or unexpected death.

SPCS traces its history back to 1968, when Ithacans lobbied for a 24-hour crisis line following a series of suicides in the community. Reverend Jack Lewis took the first call in 1969, from a young man who felt so upset that he had decided the only solution was to kill himself. With the help of SPCS’s first volunteer counselor, the young man renewed his hope and sense of possibility.

“We’re so thankful for the essential work that SPCS does to educate the public and provide support for people struggling with mental disorders and suicidal thoughts,” said MacLeod. “Calling the Crisisline, if you or somebody you know is experiencing difficulties, can literally save a life.”

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the Crisisline (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]