Cornell University’s president, David Skorton, took a bold and public stand when he called for “an end to pledging as we know it” in a 2011 New York Times op-ed article. The message was clear: if the Greek system was to survive at Cornell, it would need to find a new way of doing business. The call to action followed the alcohol-fueled hazing death of Sigma Alpha Epsilon sophomore George Desdunes.
Having seen the progress made by SigEp’s Balanced Man Program and similar efforts by other national fraternities, universities like Cornell are expecting more from Greek life.
Since then, Dr. Susan Murphy, Cornell vice president for student and academic services and coauthor of the recent USA Today editorial, “Hazing is never OK,” has continued to make headlines with her proactive, no-nonsense approach to saving the Greek system.
Dr. Murphy is quick to say that things need to be better at Cornell, but she believes in Greek life. Through her involvement as a sister at Pi Beta Phi’s Cornell chapter, she’s felt the positive impact of Greek organizations, and she is committed to helping them improve. Her staff members are rolling up their sleeves to help undergraduates, alumni and many national headquarters lead change similar to that championed by SigEp in the early 90s. The Fraternity needs the support of universities like Cornell to seed long-lasting change. SigEp’s CEO Brian C. Warren Jr., visited with Dr. Murphy to discuss Cornell’s changing culture and how SigEp can continue to lead.
Brian Warren: Thanks so much for talking with me today, Dr. Murphy. What led to the decision in 2011 to initiate this process of ending pledging as we know it?
Dr. Murphy: It was a student death. It’s a very simple answer. We had a student in SAE (Sigma Alpha Epsilon) die from freshmen hazing the upperclassmen. They left him lying on his side, and he died from an alcohol overdose. But it would be silly and irresponsible of me to say, “Well, that only was a problem at SAE at Cornell.”
BW: So this was systemic.
SM: That particular event was an SAE problem. But you and I both know, ‘there but for the grace of God would go’ many other organizations. The president [Skorton] said, “We have to look at this beyond just the individual chapter, and I want there to be changes,” His challenge to the Cornell students: “You’re at an institution that believes we’re educating the leaders of tomorrow. Lead on this effort. There is no place for hazing to exist in a membership organization.” There’s just no reason for it. There’s no reason for your new members to feel demeaned before they can be considered full members. So that’s the systemic aspect.
BW: I often hear that the goal of a rite of passage is to build a strong brotherhood and develop strong relationships. How do you feel that the strongest relationships are developed?
SM: When I think about my closest friends in the world, we didn’t become close friends because one of them was a year older and beat me up until she deemed I was equal to be a sister. It’s because we spent hours together talking about life, doing fun things, playing sports, and we discovered we had a lot to share in life, and a huge amount of respect for one another. There was nothing about demeaning me or my having to prove that I was worthy of her granting me sisterhood.
BW: I think this is probably the exact conversation we had at SigEp when we started to develop our Balanced Man Program, that strong relationships are built on positive experiences, not ones that are based on hazing, alcohol abuse or drug abuse. How receptive are organizations on campus to current efforts to end pledging as we know it?
SM: All 65 of our chapters are not in the same place, but I just spoke with a chapter president who was pretty unhappy last spring with what we were saying had to happen. He shared that he spent over 45 hours this summer with his alumni president completely revamping the new member program. His national staff is so excited that they want Cornell to be the leading chapter for change across their national structure. That’s music to my ears.
BW: Absolutely. That would thrill me too. What’s been the hardest part about changing the Cornell culture?
SM: Many of them just don’t want to go through the energy of figuring out how to change. They want to just take the rule books that they had last year and just do it again.
BW: If you could snap your fingers now and change one thing on the Cornell campus, what would you address?
SM: Alcohol abuse, because most of the other misbehaviors are a function of there being too much consumption of alcohol. Students end up engaging in behavior that, when they’re sober, they would not do nor tolerate. I don’t mean by that being teetotaling at all. But I would like them to learn, if they’re going to choose to drink, to do it at a level of responsibility so it does not impair their judgment.
BW: What can SigEp do to help contribute to the larger effort of culture change?
SM: Part of it is getting the alumni to acknowledge that change is happening. There were things that happened in the 60s and the 70s and were considered okay that, today, aren’t okay. A fraternity or sorority system or individual chapter exists because it’s making a difference in the lives of students on campus today, and our job as alumni is to support that.
BW: If you could send one message or charge our undergraduates to do one thing, what would that be?
SM: Give your university or your organization a reason to be your advocate. Take your core values about scholarship, service, and leadership, and live them, and demonstrate them on your campus and in your community.
BW: How would you challenge alumni?
SM: The Greek system exists not for us as alumni. It exists because it’s making a difference in the lives of our students while they are students. We happen to have the benefit of a lifetime commitment with this organization. That’s one of the privileges and the responsibilities that comes with it, but a Greek system or individual chapter exists to make a difference in the lives of students on campus, and we need to support that.
BW: Thank you so much, Dr. Murphy. I really appreciate your time.
SM: You are welcome. You guys are vital partners, and we can’t do this alone at Cornell. SigEp can’t do it alone as an individual chapter, so we need to figure out a way to work together.