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President Pollack announces reforms for Greek life at Cornell

President Martha E. Pollack sent the following message to the Ithaca campus community Dec. 18:

More than seven weeks have passed since the tragic death of Antonio Tsialas. Unfortunately, we still do not have a full accounting of the circumstances that led to his passing. We do know that he was last seen at an unregistered fraternity party at Phi Kappa Psi on the evening of Thursday, October 24, and that his body was found in the Fall Creek Gorge two days later. Despite an intensive and ongoing investigation, Cornell University Police, working with state and local law enforcement and the Tompkins County district attorney, have not yet been able to determine what happened to Antonio between the time he was last seen at the party and when his body was discovered. We remain in close contact with Antonio’s parents, and they deserve the closure of knowing what happened to their son. I implore anyone with information to please contact the police at 607-255-1111 or cup-inv@cornell.edu.

As I noted in my November 19 community message, the unregistered fraternity party, during which freshmen were served alcohol and participated in drinking games, violated a number of Cornell’s Greek life policies. I find it particularly disturbing that Phi Kappa Psi had just attended a judicial hearing the day before for additional misconduct. The chapter has been placed on interim suspension pending a full review by the Greek judicial system.

Regrettably, this is not an isolated incident. We have on this campus, as do many of our peers on their campuses, a persistent culture of misconduct in the Greek-letter system; a pattern that dates back years, if not decades, and one that I have witnessed during my two-and-a-half years as Cornell’s president. Indeed, a series of troubling hazing episodes in the winter of 2018 led to my announcing a set of new Greek policies in May of that year. At that time, naysayers told me that the new policies would not have their intended impact of eliminating misconduct. Unfortunately, those naysayers were correct. In the 19 months since those new policies went into effect, fully six Greek organizations have engaged in behavior so problematic as to merit suspension of their recognition by the university. This number does not include the current interim suspension of Phi Kappa Psi.

It is clear to me and to my leadership team that in order to promote the health and safety of our students we must impose additional – and meaningful – reforms on Greek life at Cornell.

We have deliberated carefully about a wide variety of options, and in the process have received a great deal of thoughtful input from a variety of stakeholders. We heard from alumni who spoke of their positive Cornell Greek life experiences and who implored us to protect that system, even as we considered meaningful change. We also heard from alumni who had positive Greek life experiences and who implored us to radically alter the system; in some cases, even imploring us to abolish it altogether. We heard from parents, students and faculty who expressed a range of views while noting, with very few exceptions, that something needs to be done. And, we followed closely the decisions made by the Interfraternity Council (IFC) and Panhellenic Council (PHC) to address the situation: first, by putting in place a ban on social activities for the remainder of this semester and swiftly and seriously sanctioning houses that violate the ban; and second, by introducing policies aimed at reducing dangerous behavior. As we considered all of this input, we also studied the experiences of other universities in dealing with similar problems.

There is no doubt that Greek life plays a valuable role on campus, providing many students with communities that can make our large university feel smaller and more welcoming; serving as a place where lifelong friendships are often formed; and often offering opportunities to learn important leadership skills and to positively contribute to the local community. Yet, while there are things to applaud in Greek life’s contributions, there is also much that is wrong in that system, both at Cornell and nationally. We must find ways to permanently curtail behaviors that are putting the safety of our students at risk – from excessive and harmful drinking and substance abuse; to sexual harassment and assault; to demeaning and extremely troubling hazing activities.

IFC policy enhancements, such as its decision to ban alcohol at spring rush events, are a start, and Vice President Lombardi and his team will work with fraternity and sorority leadership to refine and expand those policies next semester. But we only have to look at our recent history – from former President Skorton’s 2011 decision to abolish pledging to my above-mentioned 2018 reforms – to see that these additional policies will not, on their own, be sufficient. We need to be clear that policies are to be followed, and, critically, we need to bring about a culture change within Greek life at Cornell to address the root causes of the misconductI am therefore announcing today a series of stringent new reforms, driven by my responsibility as Cornell’s president to provide a safe environment for our students.

Strong Enforcement

There is no question that we need even more rigorous and timely enforcement of the policies that govern behavior in our Greek-letter houses. Accordingly, effective immediately:

  • Greek-letter chapters that host events on or off campus in chapter houses, annexes or third-party venues will be required to retain independent event monitors for all events; and for large events, they must retain third-party vendors for both alcohol service and security.
  • A university-staffed, roving security team will be deployed nightly to undertake random spot-checks of on- and off-campus properties for potential violations of event management policies or the law. Any indication of misbehavior will result in immediate notification of appropriate law enforcement agencies with a request that noncompliant events be shut down.
  • Should any violations, at events or otherwise, pose health and safety risks (including but not limited to underage alcohol consumption, insufficient event monitoring/controls, or failure to register an on- or off-campus event), the chapter will be immediately placed on interim suspension, with all chapter activities ceased pending the outcome of a Greek judicial proceeding. Should the outcome of that proceeding substantiate the violations, the final sanction will range from a minimum of a three-year suspension to permanent dismissal from university recognition.

Achieving a Culture Shift Through Changes to the Recruitment Process

We also must address the exclusionary culture that contributes significantly to the problems that we see. Peer pressure that results from feeling that one may be excluded leads to bad and risky behavior choices, which is only heightened during the annual recruitment process; hazing, of course, is a direct result of an “in-group” coercing others who aspire to join that group. It is time to bring our Greek policies in line with Cornell’s core value of being a community of belonging. Accordingly:

  • Vice President Lombardi and his staff will work with Greek leadership to design an entirely new recruitment process, one that promotes inclusion, reduces competition and advances the positive aspects of the Greek life system. The process will be implemented for the 2020-21 academic year and will include more structured opportunities to meet potential new members during and prior to recruitment, a member selection process that is less exclusionary, as well as a cultural shift that replaces parties with philanthropy and service activities as core process components.
  • Effective immediately, all formal and informal recruitment and new member education activities must be entirely substance free, and no recruitment activities can take place after 8 p.m. Failure by any chapter to adhere to these guidelines will result in immediate removal from the recruitment and new member process, with no new class recruited that year.

I recognize that these reforms will impact the character of our Greek system. That is intentional. I also recognize that this cultural shift, so desperately needed, will be difficult to realize. But this shift will help to ensure that our Greek-letter organizations continue to be places where students can form communities of friends, develop leadership skills, and contribute to our campus and local communities in healthy and positive ways. Importantly, once these changes are implemented and embedded in the Greek community, they will be applied to other campus organizations as well. 

I look forward to working with all of you on implementing these changes and to creating a different – but stronger and healthier – Greek system for Cornell.

Media Contact

John Carberry