Cornell University frat house

For some, Greek life is an invaluable part of the college experience, providing a support system in school and opportunities post-graduation. For others, it’s a pox on universities and rife with examples of nearly every toxic problem on college campuses.

Adding ammunition to the latter’s arguments is the fact that seemingly every year, Greek systems at schools nationwide come under scrutiny for something either tragic or offensive. For Cornell, an apparent inflection point was reached in late October with the death of Antonio Tsialas, an 18 year-old freshman student from Miami, found after drowning in a local gorge. In the wake of Tsialas’ passing, Cornell President Martha Pollack has pledged reforms to the Greek life system on campus, measures aimed at cleaning up the “persistent culture of misconduct in the Greek-letter system.” Her proposals, released late last month, are certainly open to criticism but do represent the most significant reforms to Cornell's system in recent memory. 

Meanwhile, attorney David Bianchi, who’s representing the family, said he has assembled a team of four private investigators to help piece together the events of that night. He said his team has conducted interviews with many people who were at the party in question, but wouldn’t comment further. When asked if a lawsuit is coming, Bianchi said the family was not sure yet. 

“We have developed information about what took place inside the fraternity house that night,” Bianchi said. “I’m not in a position to share that information, but I will be shortly.”

The details of Tsialas’ death aren’t much clearer today than on the day it was first reported. Cornell Police haven’t publicly released very much information, and most updates have come incrementally and through the press. Tsialas’ body was found in the Fall Creek Gorge, hours after he was reported missing when he didn’t show up to meet his parents on Oct. 25. Since then, it has come out that Tsialas was attending a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity the night that he died, at which Cornelll University President Martha Pollack told the Cornell Daily Sun there was “significant misbehavior.” The timeline of events since then has only intensified scrutiny on the fraternity and the school: first, Pollack announced the suspension of all sanctioned fraternity events through the end of 2019. Following that, the Tsialas family announced that they’d be establishing a reward of $10,000 for information that could provide more clarity about what occurred that night to their son, and hired Bianchi’s law firm from Miami that specializes in hazing lawsuits. Pollack then suspended most Greek life activities for the rest of the semester and promised that more proposals and reforms were on the way. 

Pollack eventually announced the reforms on Dec. 18 in a letter to the Cornell community. They stick to two central themes: stronger enforcement and shifting Greek culture through changes to the recruitment process. She noted her previous set of initiatives related to cleaning up Greek life, which had been released in May 2018. 

“At that time, naysayers told me that the new policies would not have their intended impact of eliminating misconduct,” Pollack’s November statement said. “Unfortunately, those naysayers were correct. In the 19 months since those new policies went into effect, fully six Greek organizations have engaged in behavior so problematic as to merit suspension of their recognition by the university. This number does not include the current interim suspension of Phi Kappa Psi.”

The enforcement points of Pollack’s Cornell proposal state that Greek organizations “be required to retain independent event monitors for all events,” while the organizations must hire third-party vendors for alcohol service and security during large events. Beyond that, Pollack said that a “university-staffed, roving security team” will be sent out nightly to conduct “random spot-checks” at on- and off-campus properties for event management violations; if violations are found, the team will call the police (how this is different than the duties of Cornell University Police Department is unclear). If health and safety risks are found, the Greek organization chapter would face a temporary suspension, and if the violations are proven the chapter would face at least a three year suspension from campus, or up to a permanent dismissal from Cornell. 

As for changing the recruitment process, Pollack wrote that VP of Student Life Ryan Lombardi and that department would be working with Greek leadership to “design an entirely new recruitment process,” focusing on inclusion and reducing competition. The process will be in place by the 2020-2021 academic year, and among other things Pollack says it will “replace parties with philanthropy and service activities as core process components.” As for immediate action, Pollack ruled that all formal and informal recruitment (Tsialas died after the latter) and new member education activities will now be dry events with a curfew of 8 p.m. Punishment for violation of that will preclude a Greek organization from recruiting a class that semester. 

Pollack has been sure to mention that the school’s grappling with Greek life isn’t unique. In fact, while the Cornell community was reeling from Tsialas’ death, Syracuse University was suspending all fraternity activities after a string of racist incidents on the campus during the fall semester culminated with members of a fraternity hurling racist epithets at a black student. 

“Yet, while there are things to applaud in Greek life’s contributions, there is also much that is wrong in that system, both at Cornell and nationally,” she wrote. “We must find ways to permanently curtail behaviors that are putting the safety of our students at risk – from excessive and harmful drinking and substance abuse; to sexual harassment and assault; to demeaning and extremely troubling hazing activities.”

The school’s media relations department referred the Ithaca Times to Pollack’s previous statements on the matter. The school’s Inter-Fraternity Council did not respond to a request for an interview, and the school’s Panhellenic Council deferred to Cornell’s media relations department. 

While significant at face value, it’s obviously unknown yet if Pollack’s agenda will have any tangible impact. They certainly represent more severe action than Pollack’s May 2018 initiatives. After reviewing them, Bianchi said he feels like the additional reforms introduced by Pollack “are missing the mark,” at least in terms of what happened to Tsialas.

“There are already regulations and laws in place that should have prevented the events of that night, but they didn’t,” Bianchi said. “That’s because the laws and the regulations are not being properly enforced. It’s an enforcement issue, it’s not a lack of regulations or laws.”

Bianchi said neither he nor the family had not been consulted on Pollack’s reforms before they were published, and thus had not given any direct feedback to the school about them. He continued that he felt as if the real focus should be on punishing or expelling individuals involved in problematic pledging or rushing behaviors in Greek life, as opposed to Pollack’s approach of targeting entire chapters for suspension or removal, would be the more impactful strategy. 

“Right now, the disciplinary focus at Cornell is more focused on the chapter itself and whether or not to impose some discipline on the chapter,” Bianchi said. “The real focus needs to be on the individuals. I guarantee you, if you had a new policy at Cornell that said ‘Any fraternity or sorority officer who plans or participates in a hazing event will be immediately expelled from Cornell,’ you would stop it instantly. That’s what they need to do, but so far they aren’t doing it.”

Further, he made it clear that the family’s intent is not to do away with Greek life entirely. But that the right people, like chapter presidents or organization officers, need to be in the crosshairs when Greek organizations run afoul of school rules in order to correct behaviors long-term. 

“We don’t need to eliminate the Greek system,” Bianchi said. “We simply need to weed out the rotten apples.”

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