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Citing health and safety concerns, Pollack initiates Greek life reforms

President Martha E. Pollack has initiated reforms to Greek life at Cornell. In a message to the campus community May 4, she outlined a series of changes that will take effect – some immediately – through fall 2021. The announced reforms follow the release of the university’s decision to uphold the suspension of Sigma Nu fraternity for three years for hazing violations.

Pollack said she aims to strengthen fraternities and sororities by elevating behavioral expectations and cultural norms among their leaders and members, and making sure they can demonstrate the efficacy of self-governance.

Pollack noted that fraternities and sororities have a prominent history at Cornell and that members of these organizations have made great contributions to the university, helping to “foster a vibrant community spirit on our campus and in Ithaca through leadership, volunteer work and other forms of engagement.”

But, she said, that legacy has been marred over the years by many accounts of hazing and other misconduct – including several other recent still-pending cases and allegations of “extremely disturbing” hazing on campus – which have become an “ongoing pattern,” she said.

“This misconduct threatens the health and safety of our students and casts a shadow over our community of scholars,” Pollack said, noting that this behavior includes “extremely coercive, demeaning, sexually inappropriate and physically dangerous activities that jeopardize students’ health and lives.

“Such activities are not tolerated in society and must stop in our Greek letter organizations,” she said.

As part of a series of reforms, Pollack, after extensive discussions with many stakeholders, including faculty, students, parents, alumni and the board of trustees, has directed the Division of Student and Campus Life to work with student and alumni leaders to finalize and implement a series of changes, several of which will take immediate effect. Others will be phased in over the next few semesters, with final changes implemented by fall 2021.

  • Effective immediately, substantiated acts of hazing will result in chapter suspension and loss of recognition, with a minimum three-year suspension for cases including coerced alcohol or drug consumption, sexual or related misconduct, or other forms of violence or mental abuse. In addition, hard alcohol is no longer permitted in residential chapter houses at any time.
  • By fall 2018, an online scorecard will be published and updated annually to include the full judicial history of each chapter, and it will be shared with the campus community and with parents of all students. Each Greek letter organization will have to submit new member education plans before being able to participate in recruitment and intake activities. A comprehensive review of event management guidelines for all chapters also will be conducted and submitted to Pollack for approval.
  • By spring 2019, leadership positions in residential Greek organizations must be held by junior or senior students who reside in the chapter house, and a comprehensive review of the Chapter Review Board process that governs recognition for fraternities and sororities will be conducted and submitted to Pollack.
  • By fall 2021, all residential fraternities and sororities will be required to have a full-time, live-in adviser.

“The stakes are high,” Pollack said, “and leaders of these organizations must come to understand their responsibility to promote the health and safety of our campus community. … this effort is intended to strengthen fraternities and sororities and to help ensure that they remain a part of Cornell for years to come.”

Pollack’s reforms follow a series of phased reforms announced in 2012 by then-President David Skorton. Following the 2011 death of a student in an alcohol-related hazing incident, Skorton had challenged students, staff and alumni to “end pledging as we know it”; a task force worked for more than a year to draft comprehensive recommendations.

While the three phases of the 2012 reforms were intended to take effect in stages through the 2014-15 academic year, not all of the elements of those reforms came together as planned and several recommendations had stopped short of full implementation.

Those efforts to end hazing – which included reducing the traditional eight-week new-member “pledging” period to a four-week period focusing on orientation of new members – “have made a difference, but they haven’t eradicated it,” said Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life. “I see President Pollack’s reforms as building on some of the recommendations that came out of the work that took place back then, and in other cases, doing some things differently.”

Lombardi said he also sees Pollack’s directive as a specific blueprint with increased levels of accountability, transparency and consistency, as well as specific intentions and expectations around new member education related to hazing awareness, alcohol policies, drug use, sexual and related misconduct and other topics throughout the Greek system.

Lombardi also noted that he and the university are committed to ending hazing in all Cornell organizations, not only in the Greek system. Pollack’s reforms are directed at the Greek system in particular due to issues that have occurred within the Greek community and, as a result, include elements unique to the Greek community.

Cornell is home to one of the largest Greek systems in the country. More than 4,500 students – nearly one-third of Cornell’s undergraduate population – belong to one of 63 chapters on campus.

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John Carberry