Two-and-a-half years before allegations of vomit omelets and waste-filled kiddie pools at Dartmouth fraternities made national headlines, Chris was vomiting cat food into a trash can in a dark basement in one of Harvard’s all-male final clubs.
As a newly selected member—called a “neophyte,” or “neo” for short—Chris would not be fully inducted into the club until he endured several weeks of initiation activities.
On that particular night of heavy drinking, Chris and 20 to 30 other neos were each given a can of cat food and told to finish it—no matter how many times they had to throw up. As the neos chugged beers, the older members stood behind them, spitting on them and yelling, “Keep going; don’t stop.”
Chris, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, said he never felt demeaned by the process and he believes that initiation activities like these—which neos can theoretically opt out of—help to promote bonding among new members.
“I think people should know that hazing doesn’t happen at Harvard just for the sake of making kids do disgusting things,” Chris said. “The system we have in place does its job in creating strong groups of men and in creating strong friendships.”
All final clubs are different, with different initiation practices. And Chris’ experience is not representative of all clubs, or of the experience of all members.
But it is hard to know what activities clubs subject their members to. At Harvard, initiation processes at century-old final clubs are kept quiet, hidden behind locked doors, fifteen-foot fences, and the premise that secrecy reinforces exclusivity.
On the whole—among student organizations, athletic teams, Greek organizations, and even final clubs—hazing does not appear to be as central to campus culture as it reportedly is at other institutions such as Dartmouth, Cornell, Boston University, and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, all of which have seen major hazing scandals lead to damaging headlines and in some cases student deaths and arrests in the past 18 months.
Nevertheless, hazing quietly exists at Harvard, hushed up by students who have been told to keep mum. More than 75 students did not return calls or emails requesting interviews for this article, and an additional 30 student members of a wide range of organizations and clubs declined to comment.
The pervasive silence raises a number of troubling questions about the rites of passage taking place behind closed doors—and what power administrators have to preserve student safety if they cannot collect honest accounts of the rituals endured by new members of organizations every year.
Every student organization, athletic team, and social club has its own initiation practices.
When he became a writer for the Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, Michael was not allowed to leave the organization’s castle on Mount Auburn Street for a week during his initiation ceremony. Michael told his girlfriend his email password so she could send made-up excuses to his professors for missing class.
Michael, whose name has also been changed, said that he did not consume any alcohol during the entire week of initiation. Instead, he described the Lampoon’s initiation as “a mind game” and a form of “psychological hazing.”
“They’ll ask you your deepest, darkest secrets, then ridicule you based on what you told them,” Michael said. “It comes back to haunt you; the more they know about you, the more damaging it can be.” He said that during his week in the castle, he was prevented from sleeping for days.