Cornell University President David J. Skorton believes that you can’t stop hazing in fraternities and sororities without eliminating pledging.
So that’s what he’s doing. He hasn't said what will replace pledging, saying that a plan must still be worked out with the university's Greek system.
Skorton has asked the students to come up with a process of member recruitment and initiation to be put in place in 2012 that does not involve pledging, which he defines in a New York Times op-ed  Wednesday as “the performance of demeaning or dangerous acts as a condition of membership,” and which caused the death of a sophomore in February. Hazing is illegal, violates most colleges' policies and is widespread nonetheless. But Skorton's call -- to eliminate pledging -- would challenge the basic ways that fraternities and sororities initiate members and would eliminate practices that are beloved by many Greeks.
As there are still so many details to be hammered out, Skorton acknowledged in an interview Wednesday, he’s not sure how Cornell will enforce a rule so broad and – for those who have a long history with Greek life – jarring. But he knows it will take buy-in from everyone.
“I think it’s a decisive change. I wouldn’t call it radical,” Skorton said. “I don’t think we can just sort of try harder to just eliminate hazing from a system that causes a high risk…. We’ve been trying that for a long time. Hazing has been against Cornell rules for 31 years and against New York state law for 28 years.”
As students return to campus, Cornell hasn’t been the first to come down on Greek life – just the harshest. The University of South Carolina temporarily suspended rush week  for all fraternities, and ultimately sanctioned seven of them after four of six pledges involved in alcohol-related incidents at recruitment parties required medical attention. And Princeton University announced  that beginning in 2012 it will ban freshmen from rush in an attempt to focus the first-year experience on campus activities (Princeton does not officially recognize Greek organizations).
“National fraternities and sororities should end pledging across all campuses; Cornell students can help lead the way,” Skorton wrote in the op-ed. During the past 10 years, he said, about 60 percent of his campus chapters have violated the hazing ban in the university's code of conduct. "At Cornell, acceptable alternatives to the pledge process must be completely free of personal degradation, disrespect or harassment in any form. One example is Sigma Phi Epsilon’s 'Balanced Man Program ,' which replaces the traditional pledging period with a continuing emphasis on community service and personal development."
Julie Johnson, chairman of the national College Panhellenics Committee, sees Skorton’s move as aligned with a growing number of campus-level and national organizations, such as her own, that are moving back toward a “values-based new member education program.” Essentially that means that during the initiation period more emphasis is placed on the house’s guiding principles and values than on hazing or drinking – or both.
“Great for Cornell, for taking a stand and saying, ‘We’re going to really get back to the values and the basics,' ” Johnson said – adding that she doesn’t think it’ll result in many changes for the Panhellenic houses on campus, whose new-member initiation periods are conducted according to a curriculum passed down from international headquarters.
The pledging process because it is often linked to hazing, even though the process does not technically include it, said Elizabeth Allan, an associate professor of higher education and leadership at the University of Maine and co-author of the National Study of Student Hazing . “Yet,” Allan said via e-mail, “even groups without the tradition of a pledging process participate in hazing and so, the question remains, what methods are most effective for eliminating hazing across different kinds of student groups?”
Allan’s study found that 55 percent of college students involved in clubs, teams and organizations experience hazing – and nine out of 10 students who do don’t consider themselves to have been hazed.
“It’s the Boys and Girls Club run by boys and girls,” said Alan D. DeSantis, the University of Kentucky communication professor who wrote Inside Greek U.: Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power and Prestige . “They’re responsible for pledging and initiating 18-year-old freshmen…. Without senior guidance, I’m really not surprised that 20- or 21-year-old kids revert to hazing.”
But on one level, DeSantis said, “Cornell’s proclamation is a decade behind the curve.”
Most major universities have had zero-tolerance hazing policies and “dry houses” – that is, alcohol is banned from Greek residences – for several years now, DeSantis said (though smaller and private colleges that don’t own the residences have been slower to act). Because of converging pressures from both the universities and national organizations – and as fraternities and sororities have progressed toward dry houses – hazing activities on the whole have lightened up considerably, he said.
“In the end, changing and enforcing policy does matter,” DeSantis said. Kentucky’s hazing policy, for instance, may not have ended the activity, but it has driven it underground where students have to be extra careful about getting caught. But if Skorton really wants to end hazing no matter where it happens, it will require an investment on the university’s part, DeSantis said – something akin to the comprehensive support it provides for athletes: tutoring, personal trainers, life coaches, compliance directors. “If these Greek organizations are going to be affiliated with our universities, we really should then invest the resources and adult guidance and mentoring needed to have these things work.”
The whole thing is going to create a lot of work for Dan Freshman, president of Cornell’s Interfraternity Council and one of the more than 3,800 undergraduates – that’s more than a quarter of the university’s undergraduates – who participate in Greek life. He and others in the organization have known for about a week that this announcement was coming, and while they’re supportive, they’re still trying to wrap their heads around it.
“I think the overall reaction right now is that President Skorton’s [plan's] merits and his rationale are definitely in the best interest of the system,” Freshman said. “But it is hard to imagine, still a bit overwhelming, because we still don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like.”
Cornell’s fraternities do the right thing 90 percent of the time, Freshman said, but he acknowledged the difficulties of policing what goes on behind closed doors. “If you look at any university campus, college or school, hazing, even though it clearly is not allowed by our state laws and university laws, is still prevalent on campus in some form or another,” he said. “There’s a fundamental hierarchy within a fraternity, generally, where a pledge or a new member is considered somehow lesser than an initiated member…. I think more so [Skorton] wants a culture change.
“A culture change is much bigger.”
And some evidence of that cultural change may be found in the reaction at Cornell to the Skorton plan. Comments at The Cornell Daily Sun  were mixed. One critic strongly defended pledging, and suggested it could be done in non-dangerous ways that should be supported.
"This is unbelievable. I'm an alumnus from 2009 who was in a fraternity where the pledging process was probably the most enjoyable part of the entire fraternity experience," he wrote. "Pledging, if done correctly, does not involve any hazing. It's one of those experiences that forces you to bond with your pledge brothers and makes you become friends for life. It's about exploring yourself and pushing yourself outside your comfort zone to make yourself a better person. It's these idiot fraternities who kill people in the process who ruin pledging for everyone.... Eliminating pledging is not the answer. Making students use some common sense, and drop the whole 'it was done to me, so I need to do it to others' mentality."