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
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
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
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
On her Web site, StopHazing.org, 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
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
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
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
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
for more stories from the current issue of UMaine Today Magazine.