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After Student’s Death, Cornell Moves to End Risky Greek Society Pledging Practices

ROCHESTER N.Y. — Cornell University is moving to eradicate risky pledging practices at campus fraternities and sororities to avert hazing mishaps like the one in February in which a New York City sophomore died after an induction ritual involving coerced drinking.

Another Ivy League school, Princeton, is banning Greek societies from recruiting first-year students starting in the fall of 2012 to help curtail student drinking.

Cornell’s president, David Skorton, said Wednesday he had directed Greek chapters to develop a recruitment and initiation system that did not involve students having to perform “dangerous or demeaning” acts as a condition of membership.

While hazing has been formally banned at Cornell since 1980, Skorton said it still occurs under the guise of pledging, often perpetuated through traditions carried across generations. He urged national fraternities and sororities to end pledging across all campuses and said Cornell can help lead the way.

Nearly 2,000 college students in the United States die annually from alcohol-related injuries, and about 600,000 are injured, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

In the elite Ivy League, fraternities and sororities already have some strict controls. They are not officially recognized at Harvard and Princeton. Students cannot join until the spring semester of their first year at Penn or until they are sophomores at Dartmouth.

At a meeting of Greek student leaders Tuesday, Skorton gave few specifics of how pledging should be replaced but emphasized that “degrading, humiliating and dangerous” actions could not continue.

He invited the chapters to draw up alternatives for inducting new members but said he would rule out proposals that directly or indirectly encourage hazing and other risky behavior.

Cornell expects to have its new system in place by the fall of 2012 and “we hope that this really does catch on” on campuses around the country, Travis Apgar, Cornell’s associate dean of students for fraternities and sororities, said in an interview. “We’re not talking about further restrictions (but) about really helping them abide by existing rules.”

Of Cornell’s almost 14,000 undergraduates, more than one quarter are members of fraternities and sororities at the school in Ithaca.

“Why not ban fraternities and sororities altogether, as some universities have done?” Skorton write in an op-ed in Wednesday’s New York Times. “The Greek system is part of our university’s history and culture, and we should maintain it because at its best, it can foster friendship, community service and leadership.”

A Cornell student, 19-year-old George Desdunes of Brooklyn, was found unconscious on a couch at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house on Feb. 25 and later was pronounced dead. Authorities said his blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.35 percent, more than four times the legal limit for driving.

In the early morning hours before his death, Desdunes had consented to a mock kidnapping a ritual in which pledges quiz brothers on fraternity lore, according to court documents.

Desdunes and another brother had their hands and feet bound with zip ties and duct tape. When they answered questions incorrectly, the two did exercises or were given drinks like flavored syrup or vodka. Pledges dropped him off at the fraternity house after 5 a.m.

In June, his mother filed a multimillion-dollar wrongful-death lawsuit against the national fraternity, which was founded at the University of Alabama in the 1850s. The lawsuit did not name Cornell but criticized the school for promoting fraternity membership “without identifying any of the documented risks of pledging and membership in fraternities.”

Three former fraternity pledges at Cornell pleaded not guilty to misdemeanor charges in connection with the death. Prosecutors say the fraternity, whose recognition was revoked by Cornell, will be summoned to face the same misdemeanor charges.

Cornell already has a deferred recruitment system in which fraternities and sororities are barred from bringing in new members until the spring semester of a student’s freshman year.

Princeton officials are hoping the new rule there will cut down on drinking and hazing.

School officials said they thought the race to join Greek organizations put too much social pressure on some freshmen to drink. Deferring recruitment also is designed to keep the New Jersey school from dividing along race and socioeconomic lines, spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said. Most students who pledge, she said, are white and from wealthy families.

Greek organizations are not officially recognized by Princeton and do not have houses on or off campus.

A committee at Princeton studied the issue for more than a year leading up to Wednesday’s policy change.

“The finding was that it makes incoming students narrow their focus on a social group before they have the chance to experience the broad range of social opportunities that Princeton has to offer,” Cliatt said.

A committee will decide how to enforce the ban, which could be a little prickly since the university does not officially recognize the four sororities and 12 fraternities there. About 15 percent of Princeton undergraduates are members.

By contrast, Cornell recognizes 67 fraternities and sororities; 53 have houses on and off campus.

Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton, N.J., contributed to this report.


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