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Fraternity House at Cornell

Students are now in the midst of the formal fraternity recruitment process, where prospective members decide which house they want to join, and the brothers decide how to perpetuate their unique house personality.

The 31 Cornell fraternities represent a full spectrum of institutional personalities. There are the “smooth houses” that project social sophistication, “jock houses” that celebrate their members’ athleticism and “social houses” that emphasize social connections and relationships.  Each house draws its vibe from the overall Cornell Greek system, its history and the values and policies of its national organization.

Like grocery stores, some houses stand alone while others are a part of national chains.  National fraternities (also colloquially known as “nationals”) offer training in their unique history, traditions and values.  They often provide insurance, a national scholarship program, officer training and oversight. “Local” fraternities do not have these resources and instead rely upon alumni as well as Cornell for support.

Fraternities also reflect the characteristics of the overall student body.  Some people claim that Cornell fraternities have more in common with those at CalTech or MIT than those at universities in the Big Ten or the SouthEastern Conference.  Cornell fraternities have long been known for pranks and also for their emphasis on studying and academic achievement. Cornell fraternities, unlike campuses located in large cities, must work to provide their own social environments.

Four Greek letters were mysteriously added to the camera calibration target on the Mars Curiosity rover.
The Jet Propulsion Lab of CalTech developed the Mars Curiosity rover, and four Greek letters were mysteriously added to its camera calibration target. (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Local Fraternities

Currently, all Cornell fraternities, except for Seal and Serpent, are affiliated with national organizations.  Seal and Serpent is the last remaining local fraternity.  Because Cornell decided to require all fraternities to belong to national organizations, Seal and Serpent is no longer a part of the Interfraternity Council (IFC).  However, for most of Cornell’s history there have been a number of local fraternities.  At least two locals, Alpha Phi Alpha and Delta Chi, grew to become the founding chapters of large national organizations.

Seal and Serpent fraternity house at Cornell
Seal and Serpent houses 23 students

If a student group wants to start a new fraternity, or if a suspended fraternity wants to return, it must comply with Cornell’s expansion policy that requires:

“IFC and PHC chapters interested in expansion at Cornell must commit to having inter/national staff present, in Ithaca, for a minimum of one year while the chapter is getting started.”

And the IFC must approve a written “plan for alumni and inter/national organization support before, during, and after reestablishment. (One-year, full-time in Ithaca).” So new or returning fraternities cannot be local and must have funding in place to pay a full time recruiter/advisor.

Some chapters of national fraternities separated from the national affiliation and became local due to philosophical disputes or disputes over membership requirements.  For example, if a house found the national organization’s limitation on admitting women, transgender people, or other groups too restrictive, they could either ignore the national policy or separate and continue their operations as a local.

For the past two decades, Cornell’s recognition policy has made life difficult for local fraternities.  Like Seal and Serpent, they could continue to operate as “student organizations” but not as IFC fraternities.  Cornell did this because it wanted to share the burden of managing fraternities with the national organizations, particularly in handling houses that had a long-standing culture of poor policy compliance or safety risks.

On the one hand, Cornell might gain help in dealing with difficult situations, but on the other hand, Cornell may lose a great deal of control over local organizations (unless they occupied a Cornell-owned house.)  However, now that Cornell requires both freshmen and sophomores to live on campus, it can favor “recognized houses” by allowing them to qualify for sophomore housing.

Unrecognized organizations can house only juniors and seniors.  Seal and Serpent and the Center for Jewish Living are the only two non-Greek houses authorized for sophomore residents.

Going Independent

The Cornell IFC is funded by dues paid by each fraternity, and the fraternities elect the IFC officers. The Cornell IFC, in turn, is advised by Cornell’s Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life.  

The IFC also operates under policies set by the North American Interfraternity Conference (NIC), which is the joint trade association of almost all of the national fraternities.  NIC sets nation-wide fraternity policies, such as a prohibition on hard alcohol in fraternity houses. NIC requires chapters to participate in a campus IFC if there is one for that college, but not that the IFC be recognized by the college.

On some campuses, entire campus IFCs separated from universities to operate independently after the universities proposed policy changes that angered fraternities.  If the college does not own the fraternity houses, independent operation is a viable strategy.  Sometimes, only some houses vote to form an independent IFC while others choose to remain with the university-affiliated IFC  At Duke, the independent IFC and the one remaining university-affiliated house hold separate rush events. At the University of Southern California, most fraternities formed a new University Park IFC with NIC’s blessing.

Change is now more difficult than in the past.  All national fraternities require that their chapters belong to the IFC at their university.  Most national fraternities also require that their chapters are “recognized” by their university, although this requirement is not universally enforced.  (For example, Ithaca College stopped recognizing fraternities in 1980, but national fraternities continue to operate for Ithaca College students.)

Change is also difficult because most fraternities have very active alumni groups that are reluctant to make sudden organizational changes.  Usually, a major crisis occurs before the alumni groups become open to such changes.  In the case of Duke, the university’s decision to ban freshman recruitment and shift the rush process to the middle of the sophomore year was extreme enough to spur fraternity alumni into action.

Sororities tend to be more regimented than fraternities.  At Cornell and many other campuses, there are a limited number of sororities who divvy up prospective members so that they can all remain comparable in size.  Their national organizations mandate live-in “house mothers” and bar any alcohol in their houses.  Hence, sororities depend upon fraternities to host their parties.

Both fraternities and sororities are very dependent upon the insurance companies that write policies to cover their risks.  Because very few firms specialize in this, risk management requirements tend to be uniform nationwide.

In order to save on insurance, a number of national fraternities have elected to “go dry” and ban all alcohol from their fraternities.  These include Phi Delta Theta, Sigma Phi Epsilon, Beta Theta Pi, and Delta Upsilon, who offer “substance-free housing” that addresses both drugs and alcohol.

In response to NIC’s favorable reaction to unaffiliated IFCs, Sigma Phi Epsilon abruptly left its membership in NIC. In addition, Alpha Epsilon Pi, Alpha Sigma Phi, Alpha Tau Omega, Kappa Alpha Order, and Theta Chi have formed a competing organization called the Fraternity Forward Coalition to “seek to partner with higher education but still maintain that members’ constitutional rights to freely associate are important.”  In other words, the coalition emphasizes the fight against deferred recruitment.

There is no requirement that a group of students who decide to live together must be “recognized” by Cornell.  For example, for decades, men on the track team have rented a group house in Collegetown.  Similarly, some editors from the Cornell Sun have rented housing together.  Many fraternities have upperclassmen rent group houses in Collegetown to operate as “unofficial annexes.”  The Student Agencies and Telluride operate residential properties without any Cornell regulation.

If Cornell closes a fraternity, its members have to find a new place to live, and in many cases those members continue their social activities as an “underground fraternity” off campus.  The only steps Cornell can take against an “underground fraternity” is to ban any return to “recognition” or to ban it from recruiting on campus or as a part of the IFC.  The Student Code of Conduct Section M(1) makes it a violation “To knowingly affiliate with groups, teams, or organizations that have had their University recognition or registration withdrawn, suspended or permanently revoked by the University for disciplinary reasons.”  However, since underground organizations claim to be different from the “recognized” former groups, this prohibition is impossible to apply.

All fraternities and sororities emphasize self-governance, allowing each chapter to make its own decisions and manage their own affairs.  Yet, there are a surprisingly large number of constraints placed upon the chapters. Accordingly, William Shaw, former Mayor of Ithaca and an attorney who represents a number of fraternities, has advised his clients to consider dropping their Cornell “recognition.”  In an interview with the Cornell Review, he said, “There are a number of fraternities at Cornell that are actively considering that very real possibility. It would be a bold stroke, [after] 150 years of affiliation with the university, but that’s how disrespected the university’s treatment of the Greek system is.”

In conclusion, it is not surprising that some chapters have explored options like leaving their national organization or having the IFC separate from the university.  By doing so, fraternities hope this will lead to more autonomy or induce Cornell to implement more reasonable policies. In light of recent events, it is not unthinkable that more fraternities will consider going independent. 

Correction: a previous version of this story linked to the wrong page on Sigma Phi Epsilon’s national website. The link has since been updated to the “substance-free facilities” page.

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