Matt Carberry (kingpin248) wrote,
Matt Carberry

Cornell's pledge on pledging

Last week, Cornell President David Skorton took to the op-ed page of The New York Times to announce to Cornell and to the world that his university would eliminate pledging as it is currently constituted from the new member intake processes of its Greek chapters. In a Monday column in The Cornell Daily Sun, Skorton said that he has gotten a strong majority of supportive responses. Even so, there are a lot of objections. After giving this some significant thought, I support what Cornell wants to do here and think Cornell will end up stronger for it.

One of the reservations pertains to the truth of Skorton's declaration that he wishes to preserve a strong Greek system. A lot of people think that this most recent maneuver, in concert with the alcohol restrictions put in place last year (that I opposed) and accelerated after the tragedy in February (which I also oppose), are nothing more than a pretext to eliminate fraternities and sororities from the East Hill. I share this concern, if only about the form as opposed to the substance. I'm not sure whether Cornell should abolish its Greek system; that's a topic to which I would have to devote some more thought. But if the Greek chapters are on trial for their lives, they deserve to be told so directly, to have the case against them laid out to the Cornell community in full, and to mount a full and fair defense.

There's another objection, raised by Elie Bilmes at MetaEzra, that chapters might be stripped of the ability to vet new members and have them become familiar with the chapters' history and traditions. I am deferential here, being insufficiently familiar with the internal workings of a fraternity to challenge the assertion. Finally, there's the matter of some of the statistics Skorton invoked to make his case. Both Bilmes and Cornell Professor Jan Katz take issue with the contention that students' membership in fraternities and sororities spurs them to drink more. I agree that Skorton committed the logical fallacy of conflating correlation and causation. Though this is the case, it's irrelevant - any relationship between Greek membership and alcohol consumption is ultimately unnecessary to the result Cornell reaches.

Given that the Greek chapters operate with the recognition of the University, the evaluation of Cornell's decision to end pledging as presently performed turns on two questions, and two questions only. The first is "should Cornell accept hazing?" This one is entirely subjective, a matter of opinion. Personally, I agree with Cornell that hazing has no place on its campus (or any other, for that matter). My own experience tells me that it isn't necessary. We didn't haze in the Big Red Marching Band, and I never felt that the social cohesion of that organization would have been enhanced with the performance of acts of humiliation. The closest parallel from my tenure in the Navy were the initiation ceremonies known as "blue nose" and "shellback." Though I endured them, I found them both of little use - I don't think they brought the crew closer, and they are based solely on crossing a particular line of latitude. Cornell is quite right to state that student organizations to which it grants it blessing must refrain from hazing in any form.

We thus proceed to the second question: "can the Greek system extricate hazing from its current pledging process?" Unlike the previous question, there's no two ways about this one. There are two figures that those opposed to this change do not impeach. To quote Skorton in the Times:
Hazing has been formally prohibited at Cornell since 1980 and a crime under New York State law since 1983.
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.
As far as I'm concerned, it is therefore incontrovertibly true that Cornell's Greek chapters are either unable or unwilling to end hazing. As such, if Cornell's stance on hazing is to be more than mere words - if it is to have any substantive meaning - then the University's move to kick pledging to the curb is entirely justified. And to those who say that self-governance should control here: go back and look again at those quotes I listed above. An analogy from President Skorton's own profession captures the situation quite simply. Pledging is a body part infested with the disease of hazing, and the only remaining choice is to amputate to save the patient.

The lingering question in my mind is how committed Cornell is to the eradication of hazing. Are they serious this time, or will this initiative burn off after a while? I hope not. If Cornell really wants to minimize the presence of hazing - in all of its student organizations, not just the Greeks - it might want to go about that the same way that the Navy clamped down on drugs: zero tolerance. If a group hazes, even one time, it gets de-recognized. End of story. That would really send the message that Cornell has decided to stop being polite and start getting real.
Tags: cornell
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