Like the situation at Penn State, what’s been going on at FAMU is another topic I’ve been trying to avoid writing about. One of the reasons is because of my own brief history as a faculty member there; I was on the tenure track there for a year but left to keep our family together when my husband got a better tenure-track job. Another reason is that hazing is a clearly sensitive topic, particularly in higher education but seemingly also in society at large. The extent that our society both implicitly tolerates and explicitly encourages hazing is maddening and unsurprising.
I was bullied as a child, not just at school, but also at swimming. I was locked in lockers, mentally tormented, and often physically assaulted in the pool, where it can easily be made to look like it was an “accident.” These weren’t initiation rituals, as enduring them in no way made me a part of the team, but they closely resembled the physical and mental anguish friends of mine suffered in “legitimate” initiations to sports teams.
As I got older and my tormentors either quit swimming or just gave up, I made sure that I welcomed new swimmers. We never, ever had any sort of initiation to be a part of our team. You were a part of our team if you endured the physical and mental challenges of the sport itself. You swam the miles and miles at 5 AM; you endured the long weekends at the swim meets; you sat on buses together to and from those meets. These were the tests, the sacrifices, that we looked for from our teammates, not any sort of artificial rituals we dreamed up to “test” their loyalty and build “brotherhood.”
As a result, our team often attracted swimmers who had burnt out or washed out of other, more demanding and competitive programs, programs that subjected swimmers to various “tests” as they moved up the levels. Often, knowing what was waiting for them the next year led them to give up on the sport they loved. We provided an alternative to that sort of environment. I was always proud of the team we created over the years.
Reading the comments on various pieces on hazing that have come up over the past few weeks, it would seem that some people think that hazing (or “initiations”) are an essential part of becoming a part of something, that it represents a willingness on the part of the participant to sacrifice and a willingness to suffer. Some even blame our current societal ills on how soft we’ve all become because we are disgusted by hazing. Being punched until you die, choking on your own vomit, is not an indication of a participant's willingness to sacrifice, but an illustration of just how out of control we can become, lost in a mob mentality.
As for all of the negative attention FAMU has received, particularly from the governor of the State of Florida, is unfortunate. The majority of the faculty and students are dedicated, smart, and driven to succeed in less than ideal circumstances (reduced funding, financial aid, etc). It is not unlike the situation at many, many public institutions around the country, but as they primarily serve African American students (who, for better or for worse, fall under the umbrella of nontraditional) and thus all of the extra challenges that come along with it. Those students’ and professors’ lives just became a whole lot more challenging, particularly because of the meddling of the governor; there is a risk of losing their accreditation as well as the potential of political fallout. Either option, I am sure, fills the hearts of those on campus (and their alumni) with a mix of negative emotions.
But I also think that the finger-pointing and blaming is highly hypocritical on the part of many, many faculty and general public at large. Often these infractions aren’t called hazing and are handled internally (say, as occurrences of under-aged drinking, covered in the student code of conduct). If we think that these kinds of hazing rituals aren’t going on at our own institutions, we are mistaken. And if we are to blame faculty in particular at FAMU for not speaking out, then we forget the precarious position most faculty find themselves in, fearing for their jobs. Students know better now than to talk too much about hazing, aka initiations, for fear of destroying the team or organization (also, they’ve learned not to post the pictures on Facebook). But just because no one has died at your school does not mean that it isn’t happening.
Glass houses, stones, you know.