Commentary: The End of Hazing

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of history at SUNY College at Oneonta Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of history at SUNY College at Oneonta

We are now faced with a deafening question: how does a community construct anew, how does it reconstruct such an ingrained culture of hazing? How do we stop the vicious cycle of midnight beatings, of hospital visits, of hidden bruises, of homicides, of verbal assaults, of scared exclusion, of traditional torture, of quiet shrieks, of patriarchal masculinity and femininity, of violent tests, of wicked beliefs, of lonely pain, of you and I looking the other way—that recycles with the next group, and recycles and recycles? How do we end hazing?

It will be difficult. The culture of hazing is as old as American higher education. At Harvard and Yale, sophomores used to blow smoke through keyholes of freshmen dorm rooms, strip the freshmen naked, bound and gag them, and then leave them in cemeteries. Freshmen hazing declined as the number of women in higher education rose in the late 19th century, and the practice moved into (and blossomed in) one of the havens of patriarchal masculinity—fraternities—by the early 20th century. “The goal was explicit … to defend a rough-hewn masculinity from the feminizing forces of modern American society,” writes historian Jonathan Zimmerman.

One hundred years later, we are defending and feeding this “rough-hewn masculinity” when we call males “sissies,” “punks,” and “girls” who do not want to or cannot fight, which in turn defends and feeds the violent culture of hazing. One hundred years later, the practice, the culture, the parasite has moved into sororities, bands, and a slew of other student organizations. It is literally and figuratively sucking the verve out of student life in American higher education. Since 1970, nearly 100 college students have died from hazing, most recently at SUNY Geneseo, Prairie View A&M, Cornell, and now FAMU, according to hazing expert Hank Nuwer.

Is a new federal law the solution to killing the parasite, constructing anew?

Motivated by the Nov. 19 death of Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson plans to introduce federal legislation to outlaw hazing. The first-term Democrat from Miami has been a passionate adversary of hazing, particularly as she is the south Atlantic regional director of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

“It’s time that we put an end to this horrible and humiliating ritual once and for all, so that no more students suffer the way that Robert and others have,” Wilson said in announcing her planned legislation

I commend Rep. Wilson, a longtime educator in the Miami public schools, for continuing her fight against hazing as a congresswoman (yet, this national law should include stiff penalties to national offices of organizations—namely, fraternities and sororities—for every single incident of campus hazing. This will provide national offices and officers (and members) with even more incentive to eliminate what practically all of them have already outlawed).

A federal law will surely supplement and endorse the 44 state prohibitions and anti-hazing regulations on the books of practically every college and university in America.  Florida has the Chad Meredith Act (HB 193), which went into effect on July 1, 2005.  Named after University of Miami student Chad Meredith who died during his pledging process into Kappa Sigma in 2001, the measure defined hazing as “the subjection of another to extreme physical or mental harassment.” The law established hazing that seriously injures or kills someone as a third degree felony, and every other hazing act a first degree misdemeanor. Florida A&M has a strict anti-hazing policy with a broad definition of hazing and penalties that include fines, and the imposition of counseling, probation, suspension, or expulsion.     

FAMU and Florida authorities have acted on these policies. FAMU suspended more than two dozen trombonists and clarinetists for hazing early in 2011. Two members of FAMU’s Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity served almost two years in prison for felonious hazing—convicted in 2007, the first under the Meredith Act—and the chapter is suspended until 2013. 

Nevertheless, hazing has not ceased, begging the question: can we continue to merely rely on laws? Is Wilson’s federal law the solution, the final answer to Champion’s death aside from playing the blame game and firing, suspending, or criminalizing people?

A federal law is another step in the right direction. But it will surely not take us to our intended destination—reconstructing a culture void of hazing. History tells us that merely outlawing social injustices does not stop the injustices from occurring. They merely privatize or renovate the social injustice, all the while forcing the creation of a new culture of secrecy, ignorance, and apathy that veils and provides a new life with a new name for the societal ill. That is what has happened with hazing—a practice that has grown underground as the laws have grown aboveground in the last century.

In the aftermath of Champion’s death, we are in a perfect human moment. Our souls, our hearts, and our minds have opened, have felt, have thought, have argued, have focused on ensuring that Champion will be the last hazing tragedy. In order for Champion to be the last, we must develop a multi-pronged anti-hazing strategy with laws as one of several prongs. 

Yet, the individualized laws need to be revamped with the understanding that hazing is and always has been a corporate tradition, a group activity, whether or not every member of the group is participating. In the law books, we need to treat fraternities and sororities and bands (for example) as what they are—fraternities, sororities, brotherhoods, sisterhoods. When one hazes in a chapter, they all haze. Laws punishing the individual hazer need to be replaced by laws punishing organizations.  Just like members of these student organizations usually sign or recite loyalty oaths committing themselves to community, to brotherhood, to sisterhood, to the band—colleges and national offices should mandate that each member must sign an oath of understanding that he/she will be subjected to campus and/or criminal prosecution if hazing is committed by any person in the organization. Members then will have greater incentive to ensure their organizations are void of hazing since they will be liable for its effects. Due to the code of secrecy, which must be respected, external monitory will not be successful. Only internal checking and balancing will work.

We should re-create these laws with the understanding that it will be up to the members of these organizations to change their traditions. They will not be forced into changing them by laws. Higher education must provide them with the support and ability and, most importantly, the incentives to eliminate the praxis of hazing.

From this day forward, we could continue our witch hunt for hazing, causing the secret practice to be buried deeper into the pit of secrecy with the offenders and organizations remaining on the perpetual defensive. Or colleges and universities could give total and complete amnesty for past hazing, start anew, begin fresh, and request that the hazing student organizations have a series of closed forums (respecting their secrecy) with college officials and hazing experts to air the politics, practices, and potential ways to eliminate the tradition. There can be no discussions about hazing if the offenders fear punishment. There can be no change to hazing without discussions.

Coming out of these large forums and also small conversations between members and officials could be an understanding of the incentives colleges could provide to change these rules (which vary from college to college and organization to organization).  Currently, the incentives to maintain the tradition are more enticing than the incentives (or hazards) to eliminate it. That needs to change. Usually, culture changes, people change, traditions change when the incentives for change are far greater than the incentives for tradition. The incentives need to be on the side of eradicating the culture, not the vicious cycle, as they are now.

Some believe that hazing is so ingrained, so historic, so rooted that we are incapable of extracting it, of breaking the vicious cycle. They ignore human evolution. They reject the potency of humanity. They discount the goodness of the members of the student organizations that haze. They have lost faith in what makes humans human—the capacity to change.

I believe in humanity, and I believe hazing can be history. But only through a multi-faceted comprehensive approach that spreads the blame, corporatizes the punishment, allows the hazers to create new traditions that put them on the cultural offensive, that forgives but never forgets—that constructs anew.   

 Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of history at SUNY College at Oneonta.  He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (2012).