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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.
Michael said that while other new members enjoyed it, he did not.
When asked about Michael’s experience, Lampoon President Owen T. L. Bates ’13 was vague about the nature of his organization’s initiation practices. Though he said the Lampoon tries to make the process “as positive an experience as possible,” he said the organization strives for “an equal blend of the Dartmouth initiation and the come-as-you-are initiation.”
According to Massachusetts law, hazing comes in many forms: everything from forced consumption of any food to isolation to lack of sleep. Massachusetts code defines hazing as “any conduct or method of initiation into any student organization, whether on public or private property, which willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person.”
According to Marc Edelman, a law professor at Barry University who specializes in sports law, Massachusetts hazing laws are particularly stringent in comparison to other states.
For example, in Massachusetts, consent cannot be used as a defense; an action may be considered hazing even if a student agrees to partake in it. Massachusetts is also unusual because state law holds individuals responsible for failing to report witnessed incidents of hazing.
Thanks to these state laws, Harvard “needs to take far greater efforts to make sure its student body is aware of the legal implications of engaging in hazing activities,” Edelman said.
THE GOOD AND THE BAD
In September 2010, Chris received an envelope under his door inviting him to participate in the several-month-long process known as punch, in which prospective final club members schmooze with current members in an attempt to curry enough favor to secure a spot in the club.
In November, after a series of punch events, club members arrived at Chris’s door after midnight, woke him up, and took him back to the clubhouse. Chris had been selected to join the club; he was no longer a punch, but now a neo. The members offered their congratulations and invited him to chug a few beers in celebration. It was a relatively tame start to a process that would intensify in the run-up to the final initiation dinner the following month.
Over the next few weeks, Chris was told to chug beer mixed with human dandruff and pubic hair, eat gin-soaked hamburger buns, and drink a soupy mixture that included hot sauce, raw eggs, butter, and milk. Some of the ingredients were gathered from House dining halls.
Chris’s initiation also included more benign but embarrassing activities, like wearing a dress for a day. But on a typical weeknight of initiation, Chris would drink about twenty beers in three or four hours. He frequently blacked out.
When a member of the Fox was asked if his club practiced any of the traditions that took place during Chris’s initiation, he said that the Fox does “nothing like that, ever.”
The presidents of the Owl, the Porcellian, and the Delphic declined to comment on their club’s policies regarding hazing. The presidents of the A.D., the Fly, the Fox, the Phoenix, and the Spee did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Chris said that he completed his initiation willingly and that the activities were safe.
“You just have to be careful and just look after your buddies and know when it’s a time to stop,” he said. He added that the older members did not play a harrowing role but a supportive one.
“These guys aren’t there to be an asshole to you,” Chris said. “They’re there to get you through the whole process.”
Many students emphasize that initiation activities serve to bring new members together.
“Little things, silly embarrassment is a great way to build community and get close to each other,” said Marissa C. Friedman ’14, a member of CityStep. According to Friedman, new CityStep members are asked to go on scavenger hunts, figure out riddles, and perform “a funny dance” in the Pit in Harvard Square at night.
CityStep co-directors Siva S. Sundaram ’13 and Todd G. Venook ’13 wrote in an email that community-building is “one of our highest priorities” in the process.
But even the “little things” are banned by some clubs.
All three of Harvard’s sororities are held to strict hazing standards by national sorority organizations that sometimes outdo the College’s regulations. While the Office of Student Life recommends scavenger hunts as an alternative to hazing on its website, Kappa Kappa Gamma forbids them explicitly.
But an official of one sorority said that she believes that some of the banned activities might help to build community.
“In some ways I wish my sorority did more hazing-type things,” as long as the activities would not endanger any of the participants, the official said.
Many other groups use their initiations as an opportunity to acquaint new members with the history of the organization.
Crimson Key, which coordinates campus tours and Freshman Week activities, requires new members to complete a scavenger hunt using clues drawn from Harvard’s history. At The Crimson’s Grand Elections ceremony, new staff members are quizzed on the newspaper’s history. Sigma Alpha Epsilon asks each new member to have meals with older members, attend weekly meetings about the chapter’s history, and bond through sports and other activities.
Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 said that he draws the line at activities that make students feel uneasy. “You might be asked to wear scanty clothes and a strange hat all day or be asked to go sing songs on the steps of Widener. I wouldn’t characterize that as dangerous, but I think it can be demeaning and make you feel uncomfortable in a community where we would hope that you would feel fully at home, safe, understood,” he said.
In recent years the administration has attempted, with moderate success, to bring hazing to light by cracking down on both recognized and unrecognized student organizations.
Other universities—including Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania—leverage formal university recognition and real estate on campus to discourage social organizations like fraternities and sororities from hazing.
But at Harvard, where many of the offenders are unrecognized organizations, the negotiation process is more complicated.
In 2007, the Faculty Council voted to hold student organization leaders accountable for hazing and alcohol-related incidents that occurred at events hosted by the organization.
Peter F. Lake ’81, a professor at Stetson University College of Law who specializes in higher education law, said that as long as alleged hazers are students, the University can hold them responsible for their actions.
This semester, the OSL relaunched a page on the hazing section of its website that allows students to confidentially report hazing. The reporting site, however, has received fewer responses than the traditional reporting mediums of email or in-person conversations, three administrators in the OSL wrote in an emailed statement.
Student group leaders of both recognized and unrecognized organizations are required to submit a non-hazing attestation form to the OSL by the end of September each year declaring that they have informed members about hazing law. The OSL also offers annual hazing prevention workshops to help student leaders design initiation events that do not violate hazing law.
In determining whether to discipline a student leader for a hazing incident at his or her organization, the OSL will consider the student’s participation in these workshops and other anti-hazing initiatives as “mitigating factors” that might reduce punishment, according to the statement by OSL administrators.
When Dean of Student Life Suzy M. Nelson receives a report that an organization has violated hazing laws, she calls student leaders into her office to discuss the incident. Sometimes the conversation ends there, but it can lead to sanctions against the organization. If the report of hazing appears to be a violation, the case is passed to the Administrative Board to investigate.
According to Secretary of the Ad Board John “Jay” L. Ellison, reports of hazing are “very rare.” If the Ad Board determines that hazing did occur, it reports the case to the Harvard University Police Department. HUPD in turn chooses whether or not to report the violation to the District Attorney’s Office, which may or may not prosecute the case. According to Lake, only serious instances of hazing—ordinarily only those that result in death or significant bodily harm—make their way to prosecutors.
Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris said he would like to see the conversation directed toward helping students develop a strong sense of self-respect that would empower them to walk away from hazing.
“I know in my own day, if somebody had said, ‘You have to do this, that, or the other thing to be a member of this group,’ forgive me, I would have said, ‘Go screw yourself,’” Harris said. “That’s what I would have done and that’s what I expect students to do—you can’t be hazed unless you’re willing to be hazed.”
Harris said that hazing is not an issue that can be resolved by “threatening and disciplining” unless students stand up for themselves.
“The University has been doing this for a hundred years, and hazing has stayed here,” he said.
Chris, now a senior, said he has actively participated in initiating subsequent generations of neos. He has asked them to do his laundry several times, in addition to continuing the traditions from when he was a neo.
“This is the way things have been going on for so many years. It’s a tradition that we have, and it’s probably not something that’s going to change in the near future either,” Chris said.
Though Dingman said he thinks the College has made “huge headway” in educating students during Nelson’s tenure, he said that students often “aren’t particularly forthcoming” about hazing.
“I don’t know that we get as much good information as we would like,” Dingman said, speculating that some students may be reluctant to report incidents because they do not want to be disloyal or jeopardize their chances of becoming a member.
Prompted by a question from The Crimson about how the College educates incoming freshmen about hazing during Opening Days, Dingman said that he would reexamine the program to make sure that it sufficiently addresses the issue.
As of press time, Dingman had added a discussion of hazing education to the agenda of a staff meeting for members of the Freshman Dean’s Office this week.
As fraternities at Dartmouth and other institutions have recently had the doors pried open, baring their initiation rituals for all to see, their universities have been forced to try to mitigate public relations damage and address the underlying issues.
At Harvard, student leaders and administrators say they hope that they will not find themselves in a similar position.
“You know, knock on wood,” Dingman said, pausing to rap his knuckles against the wooden arm of his chair. “It’s always risky to suggest that we’re immune from these problems. I mean, something could burst at any point.”
—Staff writer Caroline M. McKay can be reached at email@example.com,edu.
—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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