The Death Knell of Greek Life?

2 03 2011

In some sense, I’ve learned to dread days where I see the number of hits to this blog skyrocket, namely because days with extraordinarily high hits can be correlated unfortunately well with the untimely death of a student at the university. So it was with some hesitancy that I glanced at the Sun’s website this weekend.

The news is unnerving and tragic. A student is dead. Secondly, the Tompkins County sheriff has gone on the record to say that the death was likely alcohol-related. The student, George Desdunes, was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, and was found unresponsive at the fraternity house on Friday morning. At this point, it was yet to be established to what extent the fraternity is responsible in his untimely death, but SAE has been suspended temporarily.

When I first heard the news, I kept hoping that the fraternity wouldn’t be responsible. SAE is considered to be one of the most visible Greek houses on Cornell’s campus. It has one of the largest memberships of any fraternity at Cornell and holds a fairly strong presence in Greek affairs, and to some extent campus affairs (a number of their members and recent alumni, such as Svante Myrick ’09 and Eddie Rooker ’10, hold prominent positions in and around the university and surrounding city). So if SAE was responsible for the death of one of its members, the effects would be profound and far-reaching through all parts of the system.

Given the problems of the system and the recent reforms forced onto it by the university, I am honestly wondering whether or not it is a sign of the end of the system. the first thing that comes to mind was Ithaca College’s ban of Greek life after the death of Joseph Parella in 1980, during a fraternity pledge event in which he was hazed. But, it’s not easy to compare the two systems. For one, Ithaca College’s fraternities were generally housed in dorms (in comparison, Cornell owns  about one-third the Greek houses), and for two, their system represented a much smaller proportion of their student body than Cornell’s does.

I suppose the usual arguments will come out – the biggest donors to the school are Greek, they can’t touch private houses, and so forth. The problem is, if SAE is found responsible, their role in the death of a student would be a very powerful and legitimate reason to favor de-recognition of Greek life. Addressing argument number two, while many chapters own their own property and would not be immediately affected, they lose the protection that the university gives — i.e. every party thrown is a target for local and campus police to bust underage drinkers. So the system wouldn’t be “shut down” per se, but it could easily be crippled.

Perhaps a better comparison would be a case from MIT that occurred about 15 years ago. On September 26, 1997, a pledge of FIJI at MIT died after a pledge event due to alcohol poisoning.  MIT is, like Cornell, a prestigious institution with substantial Greek Life – at MIT, it comprises about 42% the student body. There had been signs Greek Life had been getting out of control prior to the death of Scott Krueger. As a result of the event, RAs were put in fraternity houses, mandatory CPR training was established, all freshmen were required to live in dorms, MIT paid a $6 million settlement to the family due to negligence in preventing the event from occurring, the fraternity was shut down (and has never come back), and several of the former FIJI members were convicted of criminal offenses. It forever changed the way MIT dealt with its fraternities. But they still have a large, influential system.

But comparisons only offer ideas, not results. So what will happen with Cornell’s system? A good question.  But not one that can be answered just yet, while Cornell students mourn the loss of one of their own.

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