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Cutting Pledging, and the Good Which Comes With It

In a decision which is at best misguided and at worst the precursor to the closure of the Greek system, President Skorton took to the pages of The New York Times today to announce that Cornell will ban pledging from the Greek system.

Pledging, of course, is not easily defined. Pledging in most fraternities and sororities consists of learning about the chapter's history, members and values; socializing with the active members; and engaging as a new member class in activities that build relationships. All of these components might also be found in the training program for new executives at a Fortune 500 company. In many Greek chapters, the team-building pledge activities toe the definition of hazing, in practice if not in intent. (Consider, for example, a high school sports team that hazes its freshmen by asking them to carry the team's water.) For a few chapters, out of control behavior leads to tragedy, followed by repercussions for the rest of the community.

My concern is that Greek membership has little meaning if its requirements are diminished. If it is no longer necessary to study the history and values of a chapter, to learn and participate in secret rituals, or to overcome challenges with ones classmates, what is the worth of Greek membership? Through my fraternity experience, I was pushed to become a better person. I learned to build relationships, believe in myself, and remain calm when faced with adversity. Had there been no pledge process, no period in which to see what was expected of me as a fraternity member, I would not have had the determination to make the most out of my Cornell experience. I fear that by eliminating pledging, we are throwing out all that is good in an attempt to correct the actions of a few bad chapters.

The elimination of pledging would follow the course of similar reforms and punish the good chapters while making the bad chapters act more recklessly. Take the recent examples of banning hard alcohol at parties, creating a dry day during rush week, and banning freshmen at fall fraternity parties. In each of these cases, the chapters who follow the rules are punished because they are handicapped in their ability to recruit people to those social events. The bad chapters, meanwhile, do not change and decide to operate in violation of the rules, but they do so more secretively. As such, they do not register their social events or regulate the consumption of hard alcohol, so these events are more dangerous. These bad chapters are less likely to seek medical attention for those who need it because to do so would reveal their illegal activity.

In the case of eliminating pledging, I expect that the bad chapters will once again disregard the new rules and continue to haze, but they will do so even more secretively. They will continue to be reckless by holding pledge activities in locations that are off campus so as to avoid detection, and they will continue to hesitate to seek medical care when it is necessary.

The good houses, on the other hand, will have their hands full trying to design a pledge process that maintains all of the positive aspects of their chapters' experiences, but satisfies whatever nitpicky requirements are established by the university. They will be annoyed that the bad houses continue to haze, and they will not be surprised when the bad houses make more news and once again bring the wrath of the administration on the entire Greek system.

Skorton seems to believe that eliminating pledging will solve all of Cornell's drug and alcohol woes:

At Cornell, high-risk drinking and drug use are two to three times more prevalent among fraternity and sorority members than elsewhere in the student population.
Skorton ignores the fact that students who drink or use drugs are much more likely to join the Greek system in the first place. Cornell students will continue to want to drink and have fun. Putting more pressure on the Greek system will only force those activities further underground, where they become even more dangerous. The bad chapters get worse, while the good ones get frustrated.

Elie Bilmes | Posted on August 24, 2011 (#)

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