Hazing incidents have been alleged on at least three campuses across the country during the past month -- the Universities of Arkansas  and Utah  and Yale University  -- lending credence to the assumption that hazing is endemic to college life. A new national effort based at the University of Maine seeks to purge the phenomenon from the collegiate bloodstream, while acknowledging a sticky truth: researchers don’t have an answer to the problem -- which some critics say may be overstated in the first place.
“We haven’t solved what to do about it yet,” said Mary Madden, associate research professor at the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Maine at Orono, who this week issued the “National Agenda  for Hazing Prevention in Education” with her colleague, Elizabeth Allan. “It’s not going away.”
The organizers of the agenda -- whose past research has been supported by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and fraternal associations, as well as the nonprofits hazingprevention.org and stophazing.org -- want to draw attention to their data and, more importantly, promote research-based efforts to prevent hazing. The agenda is aimed at colleges and universities, middle and high schools, sports teams and military units, and has been repeatedly characterized by its organizers as a “call to action” in the face of a recalcitrant problem. “We’re not seeing a reduction in the incidents of hazing,” said Madden. “This is about trying to identify the most productive strategies.”
Madden said that one strategy that is emerging as potentially promising is based in a social norms approach, which has met with some success  in recent years in curbing campus drinking. Such efforts attempt to change widely held assumptions about normal behavior and are typically multi-pronged: they include collecting data on actual practice in order to dispel myths that everyone else is engaging in it, followed by marketing campaigns to share those data, which are accompanied by strategic attempts to shift public opinion.
Florida State University has applied the idea of social norms to hazing, as can be seen in a dedicated website  that has an interactive quiz and an online mechanism to report hazing. While the number of incidents reported on campus has increased, this has been a good thing, said Adam Goldstein, associate dean of students at Florida State. “More people know hazing when they see it, report what they see, know where to report it, and believe something will happen when the report is made,” he said via e-mail. “We view the reports as a very positive thing -- because we respond to every one no matter how small.”
The site also tries to reframe ideas of expected behaviors. Students identified as representing different constituencies on the campus -- intercollegiate and club sports teams, fraternities and student organizations -- can be seen on the site speaking out against the practice. Such statements reflect the campus’s aspiration for itself.
“It is as important to explain the community we aspire to become as it is to explain our policies,” said Goldstein, adding that it’s not enough to simply tell students not to haze. “We can have a meaningful conversation when we begin with a statement about which we can all agree,” he said. “As a community, we believe students should not be harmed or demeaned in any way when getting involved in campus life.”
An important part of the effort entailed finding the right kinds of students to join the campus’s coalition, so that they could be dispersed into the student body and start redefining common expectations. Goldstein said that the administration consciously tried to mirror the process, described in another context by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Tipping Point. Goldstein and his team identified students whose social influence would allow them to spark a wider change among their peers. “We wanted students with social credibility, the ones that others in the community notice,” he said. “These were not necessarily those in formal leadership positions (though some were), but the students that others listened to when they spoke in their individual communities.”
Though Goldstein acknowledges not yet having formal assessment data that could document any impact, he said that indications point to the effort being worthwhile. Members of student groups, faculty, and staff have become more interested in the problem, and members of the coalition have created a common language to fix it, he said.
But research on more than 11,000 students at 53 campuses nationwide suggests that the problem remains widespread. Allan and Madden’s findings from 2008  indicated that 55 percent of college students in clubs, teams, and other extracurricular organizations had been hazed. Seventy-four percent of varsity athletes reported being hazed, which was the highest rate described in the study. Fraternities and sororities were next at 73 percent. A majority of students on club sports teams, in performing arts groups, and in service Greek-letter organizations also reported being hazed.
This prevalence is partly rooted in sociological factors, said Stephen Sweet, associate professor of sociology at Ithaca College. Students often crave a sense of belonging when they enter college, and they seek out organizations with strongly articulated traditions, identities, and clearly defined social structures. The problem starts when these organizations seal off their recruits from the outside world. They become the sole arbiters of what is right and wrong for these students, and they exert tremendous power. “It’s not just the drinking games,” said Sweet. “It’s the overarching definition that to belong to the group means you have to submit to very onerous requests.”
And, unfortunately, those onerous requests -- from being deprived of sleep to wearing a brick around one's neck -- can be effective, he said. “It gives them the sense they belong to something special, that they have the right stuff,” said Sweet. “By the end of a very short period of time, you’ve got people who’ve got very strong emotional connections with each other.”
But Peter Smithhisler, president and CEO of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, argues that the opposite is actually the case. “The intention of the hazer is to create unity, to create trust, to establish a person’s commitment to the organization," he said. "But in reality, what he is doing is creating a bond among the hazees while eliminating the trust between hazer and hazee, and ultimately breaking down the bond of brotherhood.”
Smithhisler added that many fraternities had found success by adopting a social norms approach. He said membership had grown in chapters that have made use of such resources as “Building Brotherhood,” which the conference provides. It has ideas on how to foster trust, relationships, and establish commitment, he said. Some of the 60 suggestions include doing service learning activities and team-building exercises.
At the same time, hazing remains as difficult to pin down as it is commonplace on campuses. Allan and Madden found that 90 percent of students who actually had been hazed, based on answers to specific questions, did not consider themselves to have fallen victim to the practice. That so few students recognize that it has happened -- even to them -- is evidence of a greater lack of recognition of the powerful group dynamics and coercion that take place on campus among people desperate for a sense of belonging, said Madden.
Critics propose another explanation: the apparent prevalence reflects an overbroad definition. Hazing might mean things on which most people agree: beatings, forcing a freshman to drink to the point of vomiting, “kidnapping” a pledge and driving him or her in the back of a car, and making an aspiring initiate stand outside in the cold wearing next to nothing. Or, as the NCAA cites in its handbook, "Positive Attitudes, Positive Results," it might be an older team member calling a first-year player “rookie.” Or, according to state law in California or Florida (two of the 44 states with anti-hazing laws on the books), hazing is “personal degradation or disgrace,” or forced exclusion from social contact, and any forced activity that "could adversely affect the mental health or dignity of the student” – which can carry a criminal penalty.
“You start treading on very thin ground when you use the law and define as crimes things that are very commonly done,” said Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “When it comes to drinking a gallon of liquor, common sense tells you that’s a bad idea. When it comes to cleaning a bathroom with a toothbrush or not being allowed to talk to other people for a week, that’s not something that’s immediately dangerous or illegal, but it exposes you to criminal liability.”
While there are no known examples of anyone arrested for, say, forcing someone else to clean the floor with a toothbrush, Shibley argued that identifying as hazing such acts and potentially criminalizing them are ultimately counterproductive to attempts to diminish hazing. “While hazing is a problem and it’s understandable that states and groups want to address it, making it too broad is likely to either create contempt for the efforts to reduce the problem, or potentially make it even worse by making it a joke,” he said.
It is a criticism that Hank Nuwer, an associate professor of journalism at Franklin College, acknowledged. “It’s an all-encompassing blanket,” he said of the definition. Identifying whether or not someone has been hazed is heavily shaded by one’s perception. “Joe’s degradation is Tom’s minor inconvenience and Jane’s fun,” he said, and each event must be considered in a nuanced way. “You can’t treat pledge pins the same as paddling, clearly.”
Nuwer, who has written four books and maintains a blog on the subject, also argues that the problem cries out to be addressed. Hazing has directly or indirectly claimed the life of an average of one college student per year, he said.
While he recalls how his own work against once was met with resistance because the practice was seen as healthy, or at least a necessary rite of passage, he sees signs of progress. For example, when he first started researching hazing 30 years ago, he had trouble finding research on the subject. Now he can’t afford to buy all the scholarly articles being produced.
Attitudes among those who once may have defended hazing have been reframed, said Nuwer. “If there’s a beacon of light, ethically and morally, it’s that people know that one death is one death too many,” he said.