November 7, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Hazing and Its Prevention: Shut It Down

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Hazing can be deadly. On Nov. 2, the Piazza, Gruver and Braham families shared the tragic stories of their sons’ deaths due to fraternity hazing with a full house of students in Bailey Hall. Their presentation “Love, Mom and Dad” was the keynote at the A.D. White Annual Summit for Sorority and Fraternity Life. The stories shared and their grief were an emotional gut punch, reminding me of the tragic death of George Desdunes in 2011 and Cornell’s slow progress rooting out hazing. George died of alcohol poisoning in a ritual requiring new fraternity members to kidnap an older brother and interrogate him about fraternity customs. They tied George to a chair, asked him questions and forced alcohol down his throat each time he gave an incorrect answer.

Former Cornell President David Skorton, reacting to George’s death, vowed to change pledging as we know it and created a committee composed of students, alumni, administrators and faculty to create new guidelines for fraternity and sorority recruitment, initiation and education. Those guidelines remain in force.

Hazing is a violation of New York State law and the Campus Code of Conduct and covers a range of behavior that can cause physical and psychological harm. It is not just alcohol poisoning. It is also the humiliating, intimidating and demeaning rituals such eating gross substances, depriving individuals of sleep and requiring recruits act as servants to older members.

Students often justify hazing as a ritual for creating loyalty and commitment. However, hazing is a degradation ritual designed to intimidate members from speaking up when they see something wrong and to promote group cover up for bad behavior. Hazing is about control and keeping a group’s dirty secrets. Hazing does not promote loyalty and commitment to the organization. Organizations promote loyalty and commitment through enhancement rituals, which emphasize that new members are valued and expected to embody the organization’s beliefs, values and norms (e.g. shared meals and other fun experiences). For example, in a study on hazing and group cohesion in athletic teams, researchers found that the more hazing teams reported, the less group cohesion they perceived. In contrast, the more team building experiences (e.g. road trips, completing a ropes course and doing volunteer community service) teams reported, the more group cohesion they perceived.

Cultural change requires persistence. There are no quick fixes and the Piazza, Gruver and Braham families remind us that we — students, alumni, administrators and faculty — must be persistent in combating hazing on campus. While fraternities and sororities are the focus of hazing stories, it is important to recognize that hazing can occur in any organization and the best prevention comes from members telling members, “Hazing is not part of our culture.”

So, what can student organizations do to deter hazing? Fortunately, Cornell is resource rich and students can use its resources to prevent future deaths.

  1.       Review your organization’s policy on hazing. All Cornell University student groups are required to have a policy. Educate members that your organization does not haze and will hold individual members who violate the policy accountable. It is against the law and violates the Campus Code of Conduct. Moreover, it violates your group’s beliefs, values and norms.
  1.       Make sure your organization is enacting enhancement rituals that communicate your group’s values, norms and beliefs and demonstrate that all members are valued.
  1.       Recognize that 90% of Cornell students say that hazing is never acceptable. That is important because the majority can hold the10% of Cornell students who believe hazing is okay accountable.
  1.       Learn constructive techniques for intervening when you see something wrong. View Cornell Health’s award winning video “Intervene” as a group, discuss it and role-play intervening when you see a hazing incident emerging. Shut it down before it gets started.
  1.       Do not cover up hazing. If it occurs, have a plan for dealing with the perpetrators and reporting it. The cover up is always worse.

Cornell students are among the brightest and best. As my colleague used to say, “They are the cream of the crop.” That is why we can change the practice of hazing and make Cornell University a caring community. Do it for all of our sakes.

Bill Sonnenstuhl is a professor of organizational behavior in the ILR School, member of the Fraternity, Sorority, Alumni Council and advisor to Cayuga’s Watchers and Sober@Cornell. Comments may be sent to [email protected].