And the Band Plays On

July 28, 2014

Are college marching bands hotbeds of hazing? No more so than any other student group that enjoys prestige on campus, demands copious amounts of time and draws on a set of “traditions” to define itself, anti-hazing advocates and student affairs experts say. Yet in recent years marching bands have been the focus of conversations about college hazing.

Ohio State University fired the director of its acclaimed marching band on Thursday after an internal investigation found that he had turned a blind eye to hazing and sexual harassment among band members. (Read the full report here.) With college sexual misconduct making headlines daily, and the hazing death of a Florida A&M University drum major in 2011 lingering in the minds of band directors, college marching bands have come under heightened scrutiny. And the Ohio State firing may reflect stricter standards for behavior.

Many people associate hazing with fraternities and sororities. Yet hazing occurs in all kinds of student groups. Student affairs professionals and anti-hazing advocates have become increasingly aware that hazing and sexual harassment occur across all areas of student life. In a 2008 survey of more than 11,000 undergraduate students from 53 colleges and universities, 56 percent of students in performing arts organizations reported that they’d experienced hazing.

Hazing in marching bands has long been quietly acknowledged. But when a drum major at Florida A&M died at the hands of his bandmates in a hazing incident, many college bands began to take the problem more seriously.

"I believe most college marching band directors took a serious look at their programs after the Florida A&M incident,” said Steve Peterson, president of the College Band Directors National Association and director of bands at Ithaca College. “Most directors have tried to eliminate the hazing culture, most with very good success, but to state that hazing no longer exists in any program would probably be naïve.”

Since the Florida A&M death, every campus with a band has gone through re-education programs helping students understand what hazing is and what to do if they experience hazing, said Kevin Kruger, president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators.

Elizabeth Allan, a researcher at the University of Maine who co-wrote the 2008 study, said organizations with long histories and high status are more likely to have longstanding hazing practices.

The Ohio State marching band appears to have been one such organization. The group is one of the most renowned college marching bands in the country. The band’s tribute to Michael Jackson received more than 10 million YouTube views. The organization’s clever choreography won effusive coverage in The New York Times in 2009. 

Yet joining the prestigious band appears to have been psychologically costly, particularly for rookie members. The details that Ohio State’s two-month investigation unearthed are sordid. Upperclassmen gave new members sexual nicknames, such as “Twat Thumper” and “Boob Job.” They also assigned sexual “tricks” for rookie members to do. These tricks were often connected with the assigned nicknames, the university’s report indicates. A female student named “Thumper” would thump her foot on the ground and pretend to orgasm. Another female student was made to sit on laps – including the lap of her younger brother -- and mimic orgasm. Her nickname was “Squirt.”

The band is only 21 percent female, Ohio State officials noted in the report.

One annual event involved band members marching into the football stadium at midnight in their underwear. Jonathan Waters, the recently ousted director, has been present at this event each year since 2010 – although he told Ohio State investigators that he’d ordered an end to the tradition last month.

Band members would also perform “flying 69s” on bus rides, which involved two students posing in the “69” position while hanging on luggage racks. On bus trips, rookie members were required to take “rookie midterms,” one student told Ohio State investigators. According to university documents, the midterms asked questions such as: “Who has the smallest wang/tits?” and “Who would you want to slap in the face?” And band members would sing songs with titles such as “He’s a Sweet Gay Fag” and “Cock of Ages.”

This sexualized atmosphere led Michael Drake, who began his tenure as Ohio State's president on June 30, to fire Waters.

Some Ohio State alumni have taken to social media to argue that Drake’s decision is an overreaction. Some call for Waters to be reinstated – and for the new president to be let go.

“I’m impressed that they maintained and still practiced some of the harmless pranks and songs this long,” wrote one commenter, who described himself as a band alumnus. “I would have thought that the ‘woosification’ of America by liberals with hyphenated last names would have watered down those traditions a long time ago.”

Another commenter wrote: "Our liberal OSU president caved! It's college, let the students in the band have fun and the babies that can't embrace the fun and pride of being a band member go home to mama."

An alumni driven petition asking for Waters's reinstatement has already garnered more than 3,000 signatures.

Anti-hazing advocates, however, say that the “tradition” argument is a dangerous one.

Students will call a dangerous practice a “tradition … and in their minds that equates to something positive,” Allan said.

“I believe that we’re shifting in our thinking, not only in fraternities, but in these other groups as well, about the kinds of behaviors that we’re willing to accept as a normal part of the culture,” she said. “There’s increased scrutiny about humiliating and degrading behaviors, and what purpose they are serving. We’re asking questions about tradition, and is this really a tradition? For undergraduates, if it’s been in effect three years, it’s a tradition, because they’re cycling out every four years.”

Kruger said he’s unsure how prevalent hazing in college marching bands is. Kim Novak, a campus safety consultant, said she’s heard “a lot of anecdotes” about hazing in college marching bands, but couldn’t speak precisely about how ubiquitous such hazing was.

“There’s been conversation about marching bands and hazing for a long time,” she said.

Jeffrey Fuchs, director of university bands at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he’d long looked on Ohio State’s marching band with admiration – and envy. The news out of Columbus, he said, was “disturbing on many levels.”

Hazing has been on the minds of college band directors to a greater extent since the Florida A&M incident, he said.

“Directors paid more attention, students reconsidered their so-called traditions, campus administrators became more aware and parents were more interested in rituals of passage their children were experiencing,” Fuchs said. “I do not think hazing is a major part of most college band environments, but nonetheless it is being talked about more as a preventative measure.”

The college band environment can include a number of risk factors for hazing – long hours together, long bus trips and institutional prestige among them.

“The marching band, for most students, provides not only a musical experience, but a fraternal one as well,” said Peterson, of the College Band Directors National Association. “Since the students spend so much time working very hard (and playing and living) together, it is easy for the lines between official band activities and ancillary activities to become blurred … Combine this with years of 'tradition' and sometimes, band alumni who urge the continuation of such practices (as in the 'good old days') and the task of changing course is difficult – not unlike doing a U-turn with a cruise ship.”

Fuchs, too, said alumni often stand in the way of a band director changing a band’s “culture.” Waters, in addition to directing the Ohio State band, was an alumnus himself, having played sousaphone in the band from 1995 to 1999.

“The active alumni are the ones who did not find the traditions of the group offensive,” Fuchs said. “Even changing a traditional tune, marching routine, or cheer can draw great criticism from former members and fans alike. It takes a courageous soul, with unconditional support from their superiors, to make significant changes to a culture.”

Waters told Ohio State officials that he tried to change the band’s sexualized culture – by telling members that “rookie midterms” had to stop, for instance. Yet the culture persisted.

The Florida A&M tragedy is not the only force driving Ohio State’s decisive action against the sexual hazing in the band. Campus sexual violence has received increased scrutiny in recent months. In a video statement, Drake, Ohio State's president, mentioned Title IX rules as one reason why the sexual harassment in the band could not be tolerated.

Allan said the “political will” behind combating sexual assault is helping hazing-prevention efforts, given that hazing often carries a sexual component.

Although some Ohio State band alumni may lament what they see as political correctness gone amok, it seems that practices that may have once been deemed acceptable in the band will be tolerated no longer.

“Times have certainly changed,” Fuchs said. “Often traditions must be adjusted or eliminated to comply with current expectations. I do not think this is limited to college bands, however.”

Kruger, however, said that the hazing at Ohio State was sufficiently “gruesome” that he couldn’t imagine when it would have been tolerated.

“I can’t imagine any time when a college president would have allowed the person to stay,” the student affairs expert said. “I think [Drake’s] actions – removing the band director from his position – are completely appropriate. This is such a clear-cut case. There’s no gray area here.”

 

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