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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

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Robin and Jeremy

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

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