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How Messaging Can Save the Greek System

I'm a little late to the party on this one, but some hockey-related nostalgia has pushed my thoughts back towards those good old days on the Hill, and to Greek-related issues in particular.

If you've missed the hoopla over the proposed changes to the Greek system's social policies, take a look over here. The Sun hit on a few good points in its editorial from nearly two months ago. I'll discuss a few more.

One theme that no one seems to be talking about too much is the role of messaging. Over two years ago, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs (OFSA) gravely informed the chapter presidents that the trustees were becoming increasingly displeased with the state of the Greek system and were wondering openly whether it was essential for Cornell to retain Greek houses. Even at the time, this scenario seemed a little implausible; many trustees are not only Greek alumni, but belonged to the houses which today engage in some of the worst hazing rituals and violations of alcohol policy.

Still, the OFSA managed to unite with the Interfraternity Council (IFC) executive board to pressure chapter leaders to make changes. We acquiesced, and the next couple of months produced many hours of thoughtful discussion and the beginnings of positive changes to our new member education policy. (Chapters are now punished if their new members' grades drop during the pledging semester.)

This push for reform culminated in the events of that bizarre night in November 2008, when the IFC passed - and then immediately revoked - a resolution that would have mandated one night of dry rush. A strong lobbying effort by then-IFC president Greg Schvey '09 was ruined when several chapters' delegates refused to accept the resolution's passage and bullied the IFC into allowing a re-vote on the same issue, but not before they called their friends in absent chapters and begged them to come quickly to the Memorial Room to vote "no."

Regardless, for a system that is slow to change, the Greek System seemed in Fall 2008 to be moving in the right direction. The alliance of OFSA and IFC executive board, under the pretenses that something must be done to save the Greek system, succeeded first by opening a productive debate about difficult issues, and then by spurring actual changes in policy.

One wonders how much was forgotten in two short years.

In 2010, the atmosphere of cooperation was replaced by antagonism. The new initiatives were handed to the Greek system in top-down fashion. Chapter leaders reacted instinctively and attacked the changes as unreasonable, unnecessary, unsafe, and unfair. IFC leaders seemed unsure where they should be standing as the gulf widened between OFSA and their own chapter membership.

While the 2008 debate was framed in terms of mutual cooperation to sustain a vibrant Greek system, the 2010 initiatives appear to some to be a backhanded attempt to demolish the Greek system. An attack on underage alcohol consumption somewhere is viewed as an attack on alcohol consumption everywhere.

The OFSA's poor messaging reached a comical low point with the open forum in September. As former Sun sex columnist (and Greek) Jeff Katz '10 noted in the online comments accompanying the Sun article, anyone looking at the picture of the room from the forum - with Apgar, Hubbell, and Murphy huddled at a small table in the front of the room, with a blackboard full of "rules" behind them and a group of angry fraternity men in front of them - couldn't help but think of the similar scene from the film Animal House, when the fictitious Dean Wormer led the charge against lovable Delta House. If the Cornell administration wants to be taken seriously, it should seek to limit the easy parallels to National Lampoon.

Another aspect of that film proves instructive here. Recall that in Animal House, the top-tier house (Omega Delta Chi) was no less guilty of alcohol and hazing violations than were the Deltas. However, the Omegas had the connections and the financial means to avoid getting into trouble.

The same is true at Cornell. Although regulations apply equally to every house, their effects are different. The larger and wealthier houses have the financial means to better avoid the true consequences of these new regulations. They have the money to maintain annexes in Collegetown that can serve as venues for parties for freshmen, away from the prying eyes of the IFC/OFSA. They have the money to hire buses and limos to take prospective members to Turningstone, strip clubs, and other out-of-town sites that are not monitored by IPD and CUPD.

Any new rules and regulations will negatively affect the small houses. The wealthier houses will continue to find ways to do what they want. To get the smaller fraternities on board for these changes, the administration will need to provide assurances that enforcement will be thorough enough so that the rules will be the same for everyone.

The last issue that I will address here is safety. As a former chapter president and risk manager, I can assure you that safety was always on my mind when alcohol was involved. At our events, chapter officers and older brothers were on hand to ensure that everyone had a good time, but that no one was unsafe. When someone had too much to drink, we put other obligations aside to ensure that they were cared for. We ensured that they got home safely and, if necessary, contacted the proper authorities.

Removing alcohol from fraternities will not persuade freshmen that drinking is unnecessary. Rather, doing so will persuade freshmen to turn to hidden bottles in dorm rooms and off-campus parties in Collegetown to fulfill their new student desires. Whether it is with a cohort of their 18-year-old friends, or with older students whom they do not know in Collegetown, these freshmen will not be as safe there as they would be in the average fraternity. If a freshman becomes sick in Collegetown, they will be thrown out of the house party and onto the street. Accompanied by underage friends who do not understand the Medical Amnesty Policy and have equally limited experience by alcohol, they are unlikely to receive the attention they require.

I am not advocating underage drinking, or an alcohol-centered rush week. Instead, I'm asking those in charge to recognize that freshmen in 2012 will want to drink, and that a fraternity is not the worst place to have it happen. Any sensible changes in alcohol policy must apply in practice to all houses equally, and they must be accompanied by a strong understanding that the Greek system is here to stay.

Elie Bilmes | Posted on October 20, 2010 (#)

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