About three years ago I was sued over a hazing incident. The specter of hazing has touched much of my career in academe, from working in Greek life to serving as a chief student affairs officer. In 2000, I received my first request to be an expert witness in a case involving a hazing death. Since that time, I have done so more than 25 times.
With hazing regularly in the headlines in recent years, perhaps it was inevitable that I, in my current role as a college president, would be taken to court for an alleged hazing incident on my own campus. The courts will ultimately decide whether the incident actually constituted hazing (I emphatically believe it did not), but in the meantime I’ve reached another kind of conclusion: If this could happen to me, it could happen to just about anyone.
What can be done to prevent such a crisis? As college and university presidents know all too well, it is virtually impossible for one individual or institution to truly and completely prevent hazing. That is what makes it one of the most frustrating (and enduring) challenges facing our institutions.
Hazing has existed in American higher education since the mid-1800s. It began as a “rite of passage” for college and university freshmen, and starting in the 1920s spread to fraternities, sororities, athletic teams, and even bands.
Despite repeated attempts, students have yet to embrace any activity designed to replace these often dangerous rituals, which are intended to help newcomers earn their place in a certain group (not to mention giving established members the satisfaction of lording power over newer ones). The complexity of the issue is illustrated by research, which has confirmed that rites of passage are an important step on the road to developing identity.
So the essence of the question remains: how should administrators handle hazing, or work to minimize it? Let’s start with prevention efforts. First, you must have talented student affairs professionals, especially the chief student affairs officer. Devastating budget cuts in recent years have reduced student affairs staffs and resources. Often these offices are moved under academic affairs. This structure can mean that the chief student affairs officer is not at the table for crucial discussions about student life. In some cases, the position is eliminated altogether. This is a mistake. The best way to stop hazing before it starts is to employ student affairs experts who stay engaged on the topic both on campus and nationally.
Each year, administrators should ask student affairs leaders about hazing prevention efforts. There should be annual training for students in high-risk groups like fraternities, sororities, clubs, athletic teams, and now bands, as well as special sessions for students who aspire to join or have recently joined one of these groups. If possible, the campus president should set the tone for these meetings by speaking to students about expectations and the institution’s position on hazing.
In addition, every college and university should periodically review its hazing-related protocols, including investigations and sanctions. Part of this review is a conversation among senior leaders about appropriate sanctions. The phrase “zero tolerance” is widely used, so much so that it no longer has a great deal of meaning on its own. Bear in mind that if “zero tolerance” does not mean suspension or expulsion, it is not truly a zero-tolerance policy.
Likewise, campuses should determine the appropriate venues and mechanisms for handling hazing cases in the event that they arise. Several years ago, author Hank Nuwer argued that colleges and universities should not even attempt to adjudicate hazing cases, and should instead turn them over to local authorities. I expect many would hesitate to heed this advice, given that police involvement often leads to negative media attention. There is no universally right answer to this question, so each institution must decide when to involve police and when to take the lead themselves.
Despite these steps, it is of course still possible to have a problem with hazing. So what do you do if you have one? The first priority should be the student or students affected; our first concern has to be for their health and well-being. Key administrators should reach out to all students and families impacted by hazing. If a student is hospitalized, contact from the president is essential.
Second, the institution should conduct a thorough and timely investigation. Even if you determine that police should take the lead, the administration should still try to find out what happened, if for no other reason than to be better informed for next time.
In cases involving national fraternities and sororities, the president or president’s designee should speak with the executive director and, if possible, address the issue together. If the incident is severe enough, the president must make the call. In the case of an institution-based entity, like a team or band, the institution completely sets the tone for how the campus addresses hazing.
Finally, the institution should have a strong communications plan. With heightened national sensitivity around hazing, everyone looks to see how campuses handle these cases. For the most severe incidents, the president should serve as the spokesperson, and should be prepared to detail the institution’s response, as well as those things the institution routinely does to prevent and handle hazing.
I wish I could simply provide a list of actions that would eliminate hazing on your campus. But the fact is that hazing in education culture dates back more than six centuries. It will probably always be with us, along with underage drinking and academic dishonesty. The key is to set a strong tone from the top, provide constant and comprehensive education, and levy strong discipline as appropriate. If these actions are taken, campuses can minimize the problems and tragedies that hazing can cause.
Walter Kimbrough is president of Dillard University in New Orleans, LA.