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No More Wrist-Slapping Probations

May 10, 2012

A series of high-profile institutional and police responses to alleged hazing may be signaling a new mindset among college administrators and society in general in the way such incidents should -- and must -- be handled.

In recent months, two institutions have responded to alleged hazing incidents in fraternities and sororities by suspending or eliminating pledging altogether. One suspended its historic and famed marching band after a shocking death, for which a dozen students face third-degree hazing charges. And it’s becoming increasingly common to see chapters suspended when incidents occur.

All the while, the public has observed the developments with an intense interest not seen in previous years, experts say.

It’s a far cry from the days when the standard (and unquestioned) response to hazing incidents was to (maybe) put a group on probation, bring in a motivational speaker and call it good.

“Especially lately and more acutely, we’re seeing a shift in the seriousness with which hazing seems to be taken,” said Elizabeth Allan, a professor of higher education leadership at the University of Maine and co-author of the National Study of Student Hazing. “It’s a confluence of forces, I think, that are coming together here.”

Cornell University has taken what appear to be the most dramatic steps of any institution after a student died in February of last year, allegedly as a result of pledging activities involving alcohol at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house. In August, Cornell President David J. Skorton said the university would eliminate “pledging as we know it” in an attempt to eradicate hazing, and last week, the first ideas for how to do so emerged.

“I think that anytime a campus or a number of campuses start to implement the kinds of initiatives that we are, or other significant initiatives to change patterns of behavior, it could certainly pose a new standard for the industry,” said the associate dean of students, Travis Apgar. “I think that every campus, and probably every organization that would have hazing kinds of activities, probably find themselves in a position where they have to consider, what are the changes that they need to make? Because society expects it of them.”

With 30 percent of undergraduate students involved in 66 chapters, Cornell has a large Greek system, Apgar said. The 24-person committee recommending steps to re-work the system (13 of the members are students) has suggested wide-ranging steps – from striking the word “pledging” from the Greek vocabulary, to placing live-in advisers at at-risk fraternities. But the key component would be a pre-recruitment welcoming period in which students learn about the system generally, and form relationships with different houses before deciding whether to join any house at all.

In August, the university banned freshmen from open parties and from interacting with houses in the first half of the semester.

“What we’re really talking about is the fact that we know there needs to be this period of time where people are welcomed into fraternities and sororities,” Apgar said, “instead of people earning their way in through humiliating, abusive activities.”

Another suggestion is shortening the new member education period at Cornell. Rick Barnes, an author and speaker on Greek life and hazing who previously led the Association of Fraternity Advisors and the AFA Foundation, said it’s right to be thinking about what positive components should replace the negative ones institutions are trying to eliminate. (But one must also strike a balance – if a new-member education program drags on for too long, Barnes said, that’s when students might get bored and act out of line.)

“We can talk about hazing all we want,” Barnes said, “but until we replace it, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Allan, Barnes and Madden all linked the greater concern being paid to hazing to the surge of public interest in – and legislative response to – bullying. The emphasis on anti-bullying curricula at the elementary and secondary school levels have trickled upward, they said.

“People are really recognizing, I think, that hazing is just an extreme form of bullying,” Barnes said. “By the time they get to college, I think, the thought pattern is, ‘We’ve been having this discussion since seventh grade and we should be over this by now.’ ”

And as illustrated by the death of Robert Champion, the 26-year-old member of Florida A&M University’s ‘Marching 100’ who was badly beaten by fellow bandmates after a football game, the reach of hazing extends far beyond fraternity and sororities. (The Marching 100 in particular has long been plagued by hazing.)

“The [deaths] that are typically in the media are alcohol-related,” said Mary Madden, an associate research professor at Maine. In addition to co-authoring the National Study of Student Hazing, Madden and Allan direct the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention. “This was in an organization where people aren’t used to hearing about hazing…. That sort of made people sit up and take note.”

In addition to the 11 third-degree hazing charges,  misdemeanor charges against more students are expected. After Champion died, a number of allegations of hazing against other students surfaced.

While Champion’s case had some “distinguishing characteristics,” Allan said, it was still only one of several high-profile deaths or incidents – all of which appear to be influencing public and collegiate discourse on the topic.

“The difference that we’re seeing is the sustained focus,” Allan said. “One thing we know from working with colleges and universities is there needs to be a commitment to take this seriously, to acknowledge hazing as a problem – more than just a group gone bad, but embedded in culture and to an extent, normalized. There needs to be a concerted effort to create change that will be sustained over time.”

The State University of New York at Binghamton suspended all pledging activities in March, after receiving “a large number of complaints” about “demeaning and potentially risky” activities, Dean of Students Lloyd Howe said. The reports were coming out of social fraternities and sororities as well as professional ones.

“We were certainly aware that we’re not the only campus that’s experiencing this type of issue,” Howe said. But, he was unsure whether that awareness affected Binghamton’s decision to halt pledging across the board, as opposed to taking less drastic action.

“I can’t really speak for the other campuses, but it’s certainly something that we take very seriously on our campus,” Howe said. “I just feel that when faced with a situation that involves the safety of our students, any campus needs to respond – whether it’s this issue or any issue.”

The chapters not under investigation by the university were able to petition and move forward with new-member initiation, but some are still on hiatus, and may still be by fall semester. But regardless of whether an individual chapter is in good standing or not, Howe wants to work more closely with the students to revitalize the system. (How they will do that is not yet clear.)

“This is not something that should be an administration-on-down type of system,” Howe said. “I see a willingness of the groups to move forward and deal with those issues that are problematic to Greek Life. At the same time, I think that there needs to be an effort to better showcase the positive things that they do.”

Hank Nuwer, who has written numerous books and articles on the topic and maintains a hazing prevention blog, agrees that people are clearly paying more attention, and institutional responses are evolving. He cited the creation of task forces at Yale University and Dartmouth College (the latter was the subject of a scathing and widely read Rolling Stone article in March), as well as at FAMU – though its group has been off to a rough start after a majority of members quit because Florida’s open meetings laws wouldn’t allow them to meet in private.

These developments are positive, Nuwer believes – but they won’t be enough, largely because colleges waited too long to act. Now, eliminating hazing is something akin to curing cancer: people will continue to try, but there’s no solution on the horizon. Alcohol in particular is the “sticking point,” Nuwer said – you’re not going to get rid of that, so you’re not going to stop the deaths. And stopping the deaths is the biggest marker of improvement.

“Colleges usually didn’t address the hazing problem unless it happened to them and mired them in lawsuits or bad publicity,” Nuwer said, noting that Binghamton, which reacted to incidents at institutions other than its own, as an exception. “No collective conscious stepped up in the U.S. to say, 'Hey, this is not only bizarre, it’s wrong.' And we’re paying a price for that.”

But Binghamton may not be the only institution that takes proactive steps. Kim Novak, a consultant in campus safety and student risk management and namesake of the Novak Institute for Hazing Prevention, said she’s been contacted by “lots of colleagues” around the country whose presidents asked what hazing looks like on their own campus – and what they’re doing about it.

The attention being paid to hazing – “on a much higher level than I’ve ever seen,” Novak said – is “opening a door” for people interested in hazing prevention. “I think there are probably people on every one of those campuses who wanted to talk about hazing, but just didn’t have an audience, and I think that’s what this has created,” Novak said.

In addition to the movement at the campus level, Novak expects to see more anti-hazing legislation emerge. One congresswoman has already called for a federal bill. Others have said they’re considering statewide legislation.

“Unfortunately, organizations tend to only learn in a crisis,” Novak said, pointing to the explosion of risk management strategies like behavioral intervention teams that happened after the Virginia Tech massacre. “I think that Robert Champion’s high-profile death, and the brutality of it and how difficult it just is simply to wrap your mind around…. I think that has elevated this into a place where we’re going to accelerate the movement on hazing prevention.”

Changes at Cornell, Binghamton and elsewhere will be to some degree experimental, because as Allan said, nobody has systematically researched what strategies work to get rid of hazing. What is established is what doesn’t work: superficial responses like bringing speakers in, hanging posters up, drafting noncommittal policies. (Without commenting on the specifics of Cornell’s recommendations, which will now go through a public comment period, Allan and Madden said they are “of the same mind” as the university, in terms of its taking a different approach to the problem.)

“I’ve been following hazing for a couple of decades now,” Allan said, “and I have seen waves – when there’s a tragedy, there tends to be an outcry, and there’s a flurry of attention around it, and then it seems to wane. Then it might happen again a few years later.

“This year, though, seems a little bit different.”

 

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