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November / December 2006 Cover

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Halting Hazing

Illustration by Michael Mardosa

Halting Hazing
Groundbreaking study by two UMaine educators sheds new light on student initiation rituals in an effort to transform campus culture


Is it hazing?
When the national media want to talk to an expert on hazing, they are likely to call Elizabeth Allan at the University of Maine.

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The initiation night seemingly started innocently enough.

It didn't end that way.

The inductees of the student organization were required to put on ridiculous costumes, a different one for each of them, picked out by veteran members. They then had to go to the campus dining hall to sing the university song. Next stop: an off-campus party, where they had to recite children's rhymes, suck their thumbs and perform sexual simulations. Forced to participate in drinking games, the new members quickly became falling-down drunk.

The humiliation and coercion ended only when the party was "busted" by authorities.

"As much as it was supposed to be (about) team building and camaraderie, they (the other members) weren't there for you at the end of the night," says one of the young women, who endured the hazing and had to call friends to get home.

The woman was one of 90 students and staff members at four northeastern post-secondary schools interviewed in spring 2005 as part of a pilot study for the multiyear initiative, "Examining and Transforming Campus Hazing Cultures," being conducted by two University of Maine education researchers. The study included an online survey completed by nearly 1,800 undergraduates at the four schools — a small, private college and three public universities.

Findings of the pilot study released earlier this year confirm that, despite policies against hazing at virtually every college and university in the country, the practice continues in student groups ranging from athletics teams and fraternities and sororities to theater groups and marching bands. One in 20 survey respondents said they had been hazed at their current college or university. However, four times as many reported that, in high school and college, they experienced hazing behaviors, defined as "any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers them, regardless of a person's willingness to participate."

The study is now a springboard for the first-ever nationwide research project being launched in January to study the prevalence and nature of hazing in colleges and universities. The national data will help colleges and secondary schools develop policies and programming to prevent hazing, according to the study's principal investigator, Elizabeth Allan, who has researched and written about the issue for the past decade.

"Hazing is a complex social problem that can have damaging effects on students and campus communities," says Allan, associate professor of higher education at UMaine and a nationally recognized authority on hazing. "(The hope is that) empirical data generated from all phases of this national study will inform best practices related to the intervention and prevention of hazing."

Despite documented hazing incidents nationwide, including some that have ended in death, there has been little scholarly attention paid to the issue, according to Allan and the study's coauthor Mary Madden, both from the UMaine College of Education and Human Development. The most extensive data on hazing practices was compiled by Alfred University and the NCAA in a report, "Initiation Rites and Athletics: A National Survey of NCAA Sports Teams." Since the groundbreaking research in 1999, concern about the little-understood yet pervasive hazing culture and its consequences is growing, fueled by video and photographs posted on the Internet of young people allegedly involved in hazing incidents.

With release of the preliminary findings of the pilot study by UMaine researchers this past March, the North American Interfraternal Foundation (NIF) and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators stepped up to sponsor the more comprehensive second phase, the national study. The two have since been joined by more than 20 other national organizations, including the NCAA.

The study is expected to provide "critical information regarding hazing on college campuses to help us understand the underlying cultural issues and to be proactive in dealing with the issue," according to NIF President David Coyne in a statement.

National media coverage of the findings by Allan and Madden coincided with a June 2 front-page story in The Chronicle of Higher Education about nearly a dozen colleges and universities that have launched investigations after photos posted online showed student athletes in alleged hazing rituals.

In a USA Today story about the compromising photos, Allan talked about the myths and realities of hazing. Allan said that alcohol is the intimidation instrument of choice in most hazing incidents. Once a male-dominated rite of passage, hazing today seems to involve more girls and women than ever before.

According to Allan, it appears that hazing is becoming more prevalent and its demeaning methods more severe.

"I think there are many factors that affect motivation to be a part of it, to go along with it," Allan told USA Today this past May. "Certainly we know that group peer pressure plays a major role. We know people want to be involved. It's a human need. Then you combine that with alcohol that is impairing judgment.

"The popular media and the normalization of these kinds of behaviors make it more likely that students will not question the appropriateness. There's a real culture of wanting to prove one's self — not just needing to belong, but to earn your status, that you are tough and can take it."

Many of the hazing incidents that students reported in Allan and Madden's pilot study took the form of drinking games or coerced consumption of alcohol.

Respondents in the pilot study said they were deprived of sleep, forced to simulate sex acts and kept outside in harsh weather without proper clothing. Some reported violence and outright brutality.

Often, hazing doesn't risk physical or psychological harm, merely momentary embarrassment, such as being forced to sing or chant in public. But sometimes hazing leaves indelible scars.

"I didn't tell anyone the full extent. There are a lot of things you'd just rather forget," said one student who was interviewed.

On her Web site,, Allan offers alternatives to hazing, including community service projects to foster unity; group activities like attending movies or plays to instill a sense of membership; participation in professionally supervised adventure and challenge activities, like ropes courses, to promote a sense of accomplishment.

"In many cases, those who are most vocal in promoting hazing are those who are bitter and angry about the hazing that they themselves endured (but don't admit this publicly) and expect that others should be abused in order to gain ‘true' membership in the group," says Allan on her Web site. "You will also find that some of these folks are likely to be bullies of the group — people who enjoy a ‘power trip' at the expense of someone else."  

Allan never thought much about hazing until 1990, when her job as a student life officer at the University of New Hampshire expanded to include oversight of fraternities and sororities.

"Students began reporting various incidents related to hazing," she says. "I had one young man who told me he had been paddled so violently the night before that he was urinating blood. It turned out he had kidney damage."

At about that time, Allan read the book Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing by Hank Nuwer. Between Nuwer's eye-opening account and students' stories about abuse and degradation, Allan says, "I realized that I could make a difference — and I needed to."

Allan led a successful lobbying campaign to get New Hampshire to enact an anti-hazing law. Today, it is one of 44 states with antihazing legislation on the books.

"Some legislators wanted to know why we needed a law," she recalls. "An actual quote from one of them was, ‘It's just some students swallowing goldfish.' I still get that from a lot of people."

In the pilot study, one in five respondents reported being involved in a specific behavior that met the definitions of hazing, but did not consider themselves to have been hazed because "nothing happened to me that I did not agree to" or "it was all in fun."

The discrepancy points to students' perception that as long as they felt in control, it wasn't hazing, says Madden, an assistant research professor. They tended to identify hazing and its levels of seriousness more with physical components, such as being tied up or paddled, rather than with coercion or peer pressure.

"We heard that from a number of students," Allan says. "It was a sort of reframing of the event so that they didn't have to admit they weren't in control of the situation. And they were emphatic about it.

"One predominant fear was that, if they said no, they wouldn't be accepted by the group," Allan says. "Another fear was there would be retribution, which has happened to students who reported hazing."

Previous studies have found that hazing is a factor — sometimes the main factor — in both declining academic performance and school dropouts. It also isn't confined to fraternities, sororities and athletic teams. It occurs in other collegiate and school organizations, as well as the military.

"This suggests that hazing is part of the culture of an entire institution, not just one or two groups," Madden says. "Changing that culture will require institutional resolve."

A goal of the national study is to arrive at a better understanding of the dynamics of hazing among college students and to suggest research-based strategies to prevent the harm many students report experiencing due to hazing.

The researchers are eager to see if the national study confirms several intriguing findings of the pilot project. For example, 40 percent of students who reported being involved in hazing said that a coach or organization adviser was aware of the hazing. Twenty-two percent said the coach or adviser actually participated in the hazing.

For the national hazing study, Allan and Madden hope to survey up to 100 colleges and universities, and conduct interviews at a number of these institutions. They want to include schools in every region of the country — large and small, public and private, urban and small town, and racially diverse.

Allan and Madden also hope the study will offer more insight into the fundamental question of why hazing exists and persists.

"If you look at it through an anthropological lens, you might see hazing as a rite of passage," Allan says. "A child, adolescent and adult development lens would give you another view. The same is true of a sociological lens. I think we need to apply all of these lenses to really understand hazing."

By Dick Broom
November-December, 2006

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