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More Than a Slap on the Wrist

Whether the cause is H1N1 flu or suicides, Cornell has proven over the last couple of years that student deaths are not taken lightly. It seems logical to expect that the university will respond forcefully to the alcohol-related death last Friday of George Desdunes '13 at his fraternity house, Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

On Tuesday, Matt implied that Desdunes' death might have been prevented if Cornell had taken steps in previous decades to disband the Greek system, or at least limit its influence. Over at Ithacating, Brian drew a connection to the student death that led Ithaca College to ban Greek life. Matt and Brian expect that the Greek system at Cornell will endure, and I agree.

It is impossible to change the social culture of Cornell by disbanding the Greek system because the social culture of Cornell is the Greek system. Underage students at every university want to drink. Some colleges maintain a lax policy on alcohol in the residence halls that allows these students to drink together in the dorms. Other colleges are located in areas with bars that don't look too carefully at fake IDs. Rural institutions of higher learning are prime places for students to go into the woods, or the fields, to party. At Cornell, students go to fraternities.

This isn't such a bad thing. When organized well, a registered fraternity party is a relatively safe place to party. Brothers are posted at key points throughout the house. Security officers, hired by IFC, stop by to make sure that the proper procedures are in place. The fraternity knows that any major incident will result in unwanted attention and possibly even the closure of the house.

However, plenty of unregistered partying takes place at fraternities. "Closed" events like mixers, date nights, and formals are rarely registered. There are also nights when brothers simply decide that they are going to drink. For better or worse, this is part of the fraternity culture.

Although some will call for a ban on fraternity parties, Cornell cannot eradicate these types of high-risk activities without also destroying the major outlet for underage drinking. If fraternity parties go away, freshmen will look for new places to drink. Though an interesting idea, the proposed campus pub in Willard Straight will not replace Greek parties. More likely, underage students would engage in riskier activities in dorms, and fraternities would use Collegetown annexes to host the same types of parties.

The total shutdown of the Greek system is simply not feasible.

One point to consider is that this tragedy provides another example of a recurring paradox: the fraternities with the most influence to set the rules are the ones that are most likely to violate the rules.

Houses like Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Alpha Delta Phi have some of the most influential active brothers and alumni. Two 2009 graduates from SAE serve as aldermen, and both held high-ranking positions in the InterFraternity Council. With impressive physical structures, lots of money, and successful recruitment weeks, SAE and Alpha Delt were held up as examples for the rest of us.

Even last spring, Uncle Ezra was busy scrubbing the names of influential SAE brothers from a question that asked why the fraternity was allowed to haze its new members. Also last spring, after someone leaked an email that demonstrated that hazing was an accepted part of the culture at Alpha Delta Phi, the house was given little more than a slap on the wrist.

There is no easy solution to prevent future deaths. Cornell cannot shut down the Greek system completely, and the university would be foolish to shut down fraternities without considering where underage students might go instead. Moreover, to continue to place responsibility for self-governance and policy creation in the hands of the most influential fraternities is to ignore the fact that these houses are the ones most likely to violate any new policies.

My suggestion: Remove SAE from Cornell. Although severe, this move would send a signal to every fraternity that any alcohol-related death will result in house closure. The move would do more to prevent high-risk situations than would any new regulation voted on by the IFC.

Elie Bilmes | Posted on March 05, 2011 (#)

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