Hazing News

Marina Kolbe and Hank Nuwer interview

Texas A&M Bonfire Tragedy Brings Up Safety Concerns About Other College Rites of Passage


November 21, 1999; Sunday 5:20 pm Eastern Time


Section: News; Domestic; INTERVIEW


Length: 655 words


Byline: Marina Kolbe

Highlight: The deaths of 12 current and former Texas A&M students in Thursday’s bonfire log collapse is spurring debate over the wisdom of continuing a 90- year-old tradition. It also raises safety questions about other college rites of passage.




MARINA KOLBE, CNN ANCHOR: The deaths of 12 current and former Texas A&M students in Thursday’s bonfire log collapse is spurring debate over the wisdom of continuing a 90-year-old tradition. It also raises safety questions about other college rites of passage.

Joining us now from Indianapolis is Hank Nuwer, whose book “Wrongs of Passage,” traces student initiation rites through history. He also teaches journalism at Anderson University in Indiana. Welcome, Mr. Nuwer.


KOLBE: We have found out how dangerous the A&M log pile turned out to be. What other dangerous traditions are there on campuses?

NUWER: Well, I think the bonfire itself is something to think about. For example, at another excellent school such as Duke University, the idea of finding benches and taking them after a big basketball victory, and lighting them up and other debris where students collect gas cans and so forth. I think those are the kind of risky traditions that we need to think about, and actually maybe have some external boards look into, and not having any hyperbole or hysteria, evaluate these traditions

KOLBE: Why are they such a big part of campus life?

NUWER: I think in a very positive sense at excellent institutions such as Texas A&M they link the students of today with the students of the past. It starts from a very positive motivation, which is to have a sense of community and a sense of connection to the past, and so we are not looking at something that is inherently bad; it’s just when things get out of hand that we have a problem. And you have to remember, when the bonfire started 90 years ago, it wasn’t so big, it wasn’t so — as expansive as today, where students try to top the one of before.

KOLBE: How far back do these type of tradition go? What is the history of these rites?

NUWER: Well, in even the fourth century, St. Augusta tells us in confessions that there was a group called the Overturners, which would use sort of traditions in a sort of hazing sense to the newcomers and then the newcomers themselves when they got in would do the same sort of thing. So hazing didn’t start with fraternities or other student groups. But you get into the Middle Ages and you see a lot of this types of traditions that were started, and these traditions then can spring up over night.

We have seen at the University of Richmond four, five years ago, a ceremony where after signing the honor code, students jumped into a lake on campus, one of whom drowned this year. And so they can be, as far as 90 years back or they can be four, five years back.

KOLBE: You say that universities should be analyzing more what is going on, but how realistic do you think it will be that these long time traditions will be looked at severely and will be stopped from getting out of control as was the situation at Texas A&M?

NUWER: Well, I think we need to look to the past. In 1913, when Issac Rand (ph) died at the University of North Carolina when he fell from a barrel and slashed his throat on a bottle, the governor of North Carolina stepped in and asked the president of the university to be accountable and that president was, and there was a public clamor for it.

I think, in terms of Texas A&M, even though it is a lot bigger, the president could call in a sort of service board of people outside the university and they could look and accumulate the actual facts and have an outside board evaluate them. It is not going to help to have people at Texas A&M evaluating these facts at this particular time.

KOLBE: Hank Nuwer, we thank you so very much for your insights.

NUWER: Thank you.


By Hank Nuwer

Journalist Hank Nuwer is the Alaska author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives; Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. In April of 2024, the Alaska Press Club awarded him first place in the Best Columnist division and Best Humorist, second place.

He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His current book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press. He is married to Malgorzata Wroblewska Nuwer of Warsaw, Poland and Fairbanks, Alaska. Nuwer is a former columnist for the Greenville (Ohio)Early Bird and former managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska.
Nuwer was named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists columnist of the year in 2021 for his “After Darke” column in the Early Bird. He also won third place for the column in 2022 from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He and his wife Gosia, recently of Union City, Ind., have owned 20 acres in Alaska for many years. “The move is a sort-of coming home for us,” said Nuwer. As a journalist, he’s written about the Alaskan Iditarod sled-dog race and other Alaska topics. Read his musings in his blog at Real Alaska Daily-- and in his weekly column "Far from Randolph" in the Winchester Star-Gazette of Randolph County, Indiana.

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