90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cornell University’s Promise: End Pledging As We Know It


At Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, students, administrators and alumni are engaged in a process to change the way students pledge fraternities and sororities.

The university president, David Skorton, promised to change the system in a New York Times op-ed last year, after sophomore George Desdunes died in a fraternity house.

Desdunes was involved in a hazing episode that included mock kidnapping and coerced drinking.

Four Cornell students are facing charges and Desdunes’ family has filed a $25 million wrongful death suit against the fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

SAE’s national office argued in a defense brief filed earlier this year that Desdunes died because of his own “culpable conduct.”

But Skorton wrote in the NY Times that:

“This tragedy convinced me that it was time — long past time — to remedy practices of the fraternity system that continue to foster hazing, which has persisted at Cornell, as on college campuses across the country, in violation of state law and university policy.”

The university has already taken steps to prevent fraternities from using alcohol as a recruiting tool, by banning pledges from attending any fraternity parties with alcohol. Only after they become members are they able to attend those parties. And the university says, the fraternities are only allowed to serve students 21-years of age and older.

A committee is considering several options, like replacing the current pledging process with outward bound activities or group community service projects.

That may be a hard sell for students used to alcohol-infused parties.

But Tim Marchell, Cornell University director of mental health initiatives, said students want to change, they just need some help.

“I hear them begin to recognize, the discrepancy between their stated values, their personal values and what they find themselves doing,” said Marchell. “That gives me some hope we can really make headway.”


  • Travis Apgar, Cornell University associate dean of students
  • Tim Marchell, Cornell University director of mental health initiatives

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Kay Smith

    What do you do with fraternities and other college groups who are acutally making money by selling videos of their hazing to adult websites dedicated to any sexually oriented hazing behavior?

    • Guest

      What are you talking about? I know of some local groups in California that have allowed adult movie companies to use their house as a set. One such production includes having the members present to make it look like a fraternity party. But, I have never even heard of anything remotely like you describe. I think you watch a little too much porn and maybe lost touch with reality.

  • cadet

    Aside from the dangers of, College hazing is mostly pointless. I went to a Military Academy and the hazing was a focused and a mostly effective peer pressure to bring cadets in line with the mission. Very rarely did any student overstep in applying the methods. I’m not saying it is right or wrong, this is just my experience. It worked.

    • major

      That’s exactly what it is in fraternities as well. And very rarely does anyone step over the line. However, in a military situation, you carried out much of that training in the open. You had a supervisor who helped you learn to effectively train your subordinates and monitored the activity via a chain of command. When it is prohibition-style outlawed and everything goes underground, then you’re relying on 19-20 year olds to make decisions about where that line is and concerned more with secrecy than appropriateness. The system creates the problem. Because of our litigious society, that is what has happened.

      • cadet

        Actually, I was referring to secretive hazing often administered by relatively low ranking individuals toward like ranking cadets who were not performing. This was not top-down. it was, however, part of the culture.

        • Guest

          I understand. There are many situations as a leader in which you apply pressure to the group in order to cause the subordinates to fix their peers. That isn’t necessarily hazing. And it is to an extent top down in that the leader either knew or should have known that they were creating the causative environment. Plus you’re responsible for all the unit does or fails to do. Again same thing going on in a fraternity.

  • Eric

    Nearly everyone you spoke with was just spewing  “HAPPY TALK”
        This is criminal behavior,  and the adults at these institutions are clearly 
         guilty of criminal behavior.    But OH  NOOOOOO,  we need another committee
          to study this  -  after all these criminals are just learning about   “TEAM BUILDING”

    Give me a break.


  • Paulhk

    If students were allowed to use marijuana, which is incapable of causing a fatal overdose, there were be no alcohol-related deaths and violent crimes against co-eds would decline dramatically.

    • Guest

       Really? What percentage of alcohol related deaths do you think are actually a result of overdose? Very very few. Most are intoxicated falls, car wrecks, etc. The idea that violent crime would drop is equally ludicrous. And by the way, half of them aren’t allowed to legally use alcohol either but they still do. So what makes you think they aren’t using marijuana? Try to put down the joint and think about what you’re saying.

      • Guest

         Are you kidding? Death from excessive alcohol consumption is surprisingly easy and very common. Especially for young people who don’t know their limit.

  • craigc

    Some years ago I was very happy to see my fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, ban all alcoholic beverages at its chapter houses.  I think this improved both behavior and fraternity experiences for our members.  Have any other national fraternity officials issued such a ban?

    • Dennis

      Have you been to many chapters since then? They still have parties in their houses. Just now when they get caught they aren’t covered by the insurance. It created an environment where chapters on certain campuses are forced to break the rules and lie about it or cease to exist. It drove behavior underground where it is even more unregulated. That’s why many other nationals who adopted the same policy have since repealed it.

    • Chip1218

       Yeah…that didn’t last long…

      Major chapters and alumni from big Phi Delta campuses, like Cornell pushed hard against that.  They might be “dry” but they still have parties at their houses, or just somewhere else, like say an annex that houses almost every brother, but is not owned and/or insured by Phi Delta Theta’s national organization.

      Moving drinking out of fraternity houses doesn’t get rid of drinking – it pushes into places that are less monitored or not even monitored at all – the dorms, apartments of students, or at bars/restaurants where they have to drive home!

      Before anyone says that the RA’s in dorms are capable of preventing excessive drinking, I was a student at Cornell and saw how worse things were in the dorms than in the Greek houses – and that was 15 years ago, when drinking had yet to been pushed into the dorms.

      I have the utmost respect for Travis Apgar and Tim Marchell, I know they mean well and are not trying to destroy the Greek system.  However, if the university pushes all the social events geared towards freshmen and under-21s  away from a monitored and insured social network, like the Greek system, it will be pushed into more hard to monitor locations, such as private student housing, and bars/restaurants outside of campus and the bus network.  The only benefit from that is, technically, I do not believe Cornell University can be held liable.

  • Elementaryteacher

    I’m surprised no one brought this up in the conversation:  Hazing is a form of bullying.  Peers exerting power and pressure on each other, in ways that are often threatening and dangerous.  Bullying is not tolerated in elementary or secondary schools, why is it tolerated at the university level?  

    • Guest

      No it’s not. People are not bullied into doing things they don’t want to do. Positive and negative reinforcement are applied to achieve educational goals. As a teacher, you know that there is more to education than grades. That’s what goes on. Social pressure can be applied in good or bad ways. No one has a problem holding a fraternity accountable for behavior of members over which they have no legal or practical control. Social pressure is the only tool they have in that case and they’re prosecuted if they don’t use it. Then you want to flip the coin and prosecute them when they do use it. The tool is not the problem. And this is not bullying.

  • Mark Dooley

    Nonsense! Blame the adults. They’re educators, for god’s sake, and adults. They won’t let the kids smoke, but they’ll let ‘em haze! This is a no-brainer: A single instance of hazing equals the death of the organization.

    • jason

       What kids are you referring to? We’re talking about 18-22 year olds right? Last I checked, the constitution of the US says they’re adults with all rights and responsibilities of any other adult of any age. Quit treating them like children and they’ll quit acting out.

  • Jason

    Outward bound or community service projects? Okay. When do these people have the transformative educational experience in the secret ritual, principles, and purpose of the organization? Are they supposed to do community service for a semester, show up to a ceremony where they’re told some words, and suddenly they’ll feel bound to spend their entire life advancing the cause of those beliefs? In Christianity, there is an educational process before you’re baptized. You don’t just duck your head under the water and call it good. That’s meaningless. The two things are exactly parallel. That’s what pledgeship is. We have a very short amount of time to accomplish very high goals in individuals. We can talk about techniques, but the process must happen regardless of what any university says.

    More broadly to the all too common statement about losing touch with their values. Their values are not publicly stated. Some orgs state some things for public consumption, but not the actual principles on which they’re based. I would argue that a university has no idea what the values or purpose of any Greek org may be. Instead, they attempt to imply and insert their own assumptions on these sovereign groups. Academics for one. Yes, an individual may also be a student, and that should be his primary focus while in college, but that has nothing at all to do with a Greek org. We want them to make grades so they’ll be successful and better able to spread our message beyond college. We want the school to stay off our back. But, the purpose of our org has absolutely nothing to do with college. You could pick it up and put it in another town with 40yo members and nothing about the purpose, principles, beliefs, ritual, etc would be different. A person can co-exist as both a student and a fraternity member, just like they can have an outside job, and just like colleges need to learn to co-exist with the outside interests and activities of their students without interference.

  • Jacartist2002

     People send their children to college to get an education not to engage in dangerous, juvenille behavior. When something happens and someone dies or a criminal act is commnitted, these young people ruin their lives over something that they should be mature enough not to engage in.

  • Anneg616

    The story mentioned that Williams college banned fraternities.  But, I was a student at Dartmouth in 1991 and I am aware that the students at Williams had created underground fraternities. My boyfriend, who was a member of Zeta Psi fraternity at Dartmouth, hosted a group of guys from Williams for a weekend of initiation via the Dartmouth chapter of the fraternity.  And, I attended a party at Williams that was hosted by one of the underground fraternities.  So, maybe it prevented hazing on the Williams campus, but it didn’t stop the hazing.  I wonder what would’ve happened if a Williams student had died during a hazing incident at Dartmouth?  I have no idea if Williams still has underground fraternities, but I’m guessing that banning fraternities wouldn’t necessarily stop hazing from happening.

  • Rscott

    Hazing is a complex problem which has some characteristics similar to bullying, military training and social peer pressure, as noted in several comments. Some say it is ingrained in the various systems. I think it is more a part of human nature that needs to be addressed on ethical and moral grounds as all parties involved all share the blame. Change is threatening to individuals and especially institutions, yet change is an inevitable fact of life. Irony: we’re closer to savage behavior than we suspect.

  • Chip1218

     Moving drinking out of fraternity houses doesn’t get rid of drinking -
    it pushes into places that are less monitored or not even monitored at
    all – the dorms, apartments of students, or at bars/restaurants where
    they have to drive home!

    Before anyone says that the RA’s in dorms are capable of preventing
    excessive drinking, I was a student at Cornell and saw how worse things
    were in the dorms than in the Greek houses – and that was 15 years ago,
    when drinking had yet to been pushed into the dorms.

    I have the utmost respect for Travis Apgar and Tim Marchell, I know
    they mean well and are not trying to destroy the Greek system.  However,
    if the university pushes all the social events geared towards freshmen
    and under-21s  away from a monitored and insured social network, like
    the Greek system, it will be pushed into more hard to monitor locations,
    such as private student housing, and bars/restaurants outside of campus
    and the bus network.  The only benefit from that is, technically, I do
    not believe Cornell University can be held liable.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/5JMZVLX4QSCILIYFGDHB4IWY2A Shwax

      If incidents occur because of drinking in dorms, owned and operated by Cornell, they will certainly be liable. Also consider that not all fraternities operate through housing or  property owned by Cornell, thus defusing liability.  I honestly do no think Cornell administrators are as worried about liability as much as they are sincerely concerned with safety at the school (although perhaps outside perception plays an integral role).  For this, I am glad. However, I do not think the current and/or proposed methods utilized by the university will achieve these goals. You’re probably right that it will only exacerbate the problem. Underage students at any college will find a way to drink and certainly, more than a few will find ways to drink heavily. Students are Cornell are brighter than the average 18 year olds and will have no difficulty in this endeavor.  The unfortunately fact that school administrators are apparently ignorant to this is confounding.

      The other issue here is the correlation/causation between drinking and hazing. Hazing can and does occur without drinking. In my opinion, these hazing instances are more concerning as they tend to mimic bullying and can lead to both mental and physical injuries, something students at Cornell especially do not need in light of the stresses they face. There is no place in the Greek system for this type of hazing.  Unfortunately, it seems that underage drinking is the chief concern despite the fact that 99% of students know how to drink with some responsibility and/or to recognize when someone else is in danger after drinking.  I think the hazing seminar required of pledges as well as information disseminated to freshmen do a good job of raising awareness and the statistics regarding EMS calls reflect this awareness (as opposed to reflecting an actual increase in alcohol-related emergencies). 

      The administration should work more on raising awareness and should continue to work with members of the Greek system to improve the pledge process.  To completely remove or revamp it is preposterous, both because it will potentially remove long-standing traditions that each chapter has — traditions in place to help teach new members the ideals of the chapter — and because it frankly will not succeed.

  • http://www.bullysafeusa.com/ Suellenfried

    I concur with the perspective that hazing is a form of bullying. Bullying is commonly
    defined as an intentional act to cause harm or suffering, over a period of time, where there is an imbalance of power by one or more persons. There is no age limit to bullying -
    it happens in schools and continues on into the workplace. It’s time for our society to recognize the devastating consequences of bullying/hazing and make a commitment to
    prevent it. It is not normal to get pleasure out of causing pain for others.

  • Mike

    When it comes to the reasons/causes for fraternity related hazing today’s show missed the point. Hazing as in the humiliation and degradation of someone else is pervasive in our culture.  Too often parents do it to their children, teachers do it to their students, coaches do it to their players, choreographers do it to their dancers, prison guards do it to their inmates and bosses do it to their employees.  Combine this with onlookers who think it’s OK to do nothing and you get hazing. Degradation and humiliation is about the strong versus the weak with bystanders who won’t act. By the time the entering freshmen hit campus almost all of them have either been a bully, bullied someone else, been a bystander or a combination of the three.  As long as people continue to believe that the “new guy” has to “get it” or you have to “pay your dues” to advance our college students will remain vulnerable to hazing.  I do applaud Cornell’s approach with it’s Greek community but this effort will be undermined if faculty pick on the students under the name of “academic rigor” just as the fraternity in question cloaked their abuse as “building brotherhood.”

  • Mascia Teresa

    This issue is not “just a few bad apples” in fraternities going overboard. As a recent college graduate, I can say that this speaks to a corrupted college culture as a whole. We’ve heard about lower academic quality, well the same goes for social activities. Binge drinking is the norm for most college students. I would argue it’s normal for a student to consume 6 beers in an hour and chugging is a game. So, it doesn’t surprise me that binge drinking is involved in hazing. Not all fraternities are bad, but probably all social ones are. You should’t need to do these things to prove you have true friends, nor be a part of something to feel good about yourself. If you’re signing up for a social fraternity, you’re probably insecure to begin with. Not to mention, most of today’s college students are socially inept due to Facebook, etc. Again, these hazing activities really don’t surprise me given all these factors, being incredibly drunk and incredibly emotionally naive and insecure. It doesn’t make it less perverse though. To me, I think the discussion of how to have fun and socialize with friends without being completely obliterated; in short, how can a young person have a great night without blacking out? Maybe we need to go back to some kind of social etiquette to help this problem? Maybe the drinking age should be lower so that kids don’t start drinking as late as 21 and know how to handle their alcohol and avoid bad situations before college?

  • Steven A. Ludsin

    The discussion was very helpful and the comment about fear of social rejection puts the hazing issue in perspective.

  • Steven A. Ludsin

    I wasn’t sure if this letter to the editor I wrote to The New York Times last summer was posted so here it is:
    TO THE EDITOR:David J. Skorton’s article reminded me of the hazing I avoided atCornell University when the restrictions were not as emphatic.The Greek system of fraternity and sorority membership has been amajor part of student life on campus. It pro¬vided friendship and asense of be¬longing and housing.I remember a sleepless night spent in the fraternity basement with mypledge class as part of the ritual. The fraternity brothers offeredsome super-spicy food for breakfast, and I refused to eat it. I wastold to eat or leave, so I left.I ended up accepted anyhow and went on to be social chairman of thatfraternity and then the Interfraternity Council, comprising allfraternities. The moral of the story is to just say no and assert yourdignity when confronted with hazing.
    STEVEN A. LUDSINNew York, Aug. 24,2011

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

September 11 7 Comments

Doctor: 9/11 Responders’ Illnesses Becoming Worse

A World Trade Center Health Program medical provider says chronic illnesses affecting first responders are lingering and becoming worse.

September 11 Comment

Dennis Lehane Takes ‘The Drop’ From Screen To Page

Author Dennis Lehane discusses adapting a screenplay into a novel.

September 10 2 Comments

‘We Expect You Back’: A Friend’s Poem For James Foley

Poet Daniel Johnson had named the slain journalist James Foley as his son's godfather. Johnson remembers his friend in a recently published poem.

September 10 3 Comments

9/11 First Responder: ‘Invisible Diseases’ Are Killing Us

9/11 first responder John Feal says many others like him suffer from chronic physical and emotional diseases. His organization, the FealGood Foundation, works to get them compensation.