A recent, widely circulated feature in Rolling Stone has shed light on hazing and fraternity culture at Dartmouth College. Andrew Lohse, a Dartmouth student currently on leave and former member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, has made public some of the most egregious abuses that he has witnessed and engaged in as a fraternity brother, including coercing pledgers into entering vats of vomit and other bodily fluids, drinking at extremely dangerous levels, and eating omelets made of eggs and vomit, known as “vomlets.” Dartmouth’s hazing culture, as expounded by Rolling Stone and other sources, is unequivocally horrific. But particularly troubling about the controversy is that Dartmouth administrators have failed to adequately address hazing and, indeed, may even have been complicit in the abuses perpetrated at fraternities.
Regardless of the truthfulness of Andrew Lohse’s specific allegations, it is undeniable that his testimony has helped bring Dartmouth’s problematic culture of hazing into the spotlight. Some have alleged that Lohse, who has been ostracized by SAE and much of Dartmouth’s undergraduate population, may have intentionally exaggerated or fabricated incidents of hazing in order to legitimize his position and bolster his public image. While there is certainly reason to doubt the accuracy of Lohse’s story, the hazing culture that he has exposed has been well-documented and protested by other students at Dartmouth.
There are significant amounts of objective evidence that verify Lohse’s accusations. In one particularly harrowing example, Rolling Stone reports, Hanover police planned to intervene at SAE’s “Hell Night,” the final night of pledge season, after Lohse tipped of Dartmouth overseers. Before they could do so, however, Dartmouth administrators corresponded with the president of SAE to ensure that the fraternity’s public activities on Hell Night would not constitute hazing. The police operation was ultimately unsuccessful.
In this incident, it appears that the Dartmouth administration did not just remain willfully ignorant of hazing at SAE, but, in fact, went out of its way to avoid publicly penalizing the fraternity for violating anti-hazing policies. The reasons behind this compliance are not difficult to imagine: No university wants to become a subject of national scrutiny for its flagrant violation of anti-hazing laws. Some have suggested, significantly, that Dartmouth fraternities may be effectively immune from university oversight because wealthy alumni that hold leverage in university affairs are interested in preserving the hazing culture that they experienced and sustained in college. Such an arrangement, if truthful, is unacceptable. Dartmouth College should not be in the business of allowing abuses to go unpunished, regardless of the economic influence of a group that wishes to sustain them.
Unfortunately, hazing is not just endemic to Dartmouth. According to one estimate, over half of college students in the U.S. involved in extracurricular organizations have experienced hazing. While Harvard College is lucky to not have a strong culture of hazing and an administration that has taken a strong stance against the practice, hazing nonetheless occurs at social organizations on our campus. Hazing is particularly difficult to identify and address because there are powerful psychological phenomena that ensure its survival. According to one study, for example, members of organizations are more likely to identify strongly with their peers and place great value on their positions within groups if their initiations included violence or other psychologically taxing activities. Hazing can also create a culture of fear that discourages victims from speaking out about the abuses that they experienced. Indeed, an astonishing 95 percent of students who knowingly experienced hazing did not report the activities to university administrators.
For these reasons, it is important that we do not perceive students who haze or are complicit in hazing as monsters. Powerful psychological tactic that it is, hazing has persisted not because those who sustain it are violent sociopaths, but because of the misguided notion that it is an appropriate way to build camaraderie. If victims and enablers of hazing are empowered to speak out against a system in which they were once complicit without fear of harsh judgment, we may finally begin to combat the deeply entrenched but enormously damaging phenomenon of hazing.