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NCAA Tackles Hazing: Chronicle of Higher Education Interview by Brad Wolverton

Thursday, January 10, 2008

2 Experts Preview the Issues for Today’s NCAA Hazing Summit

By BRAD WOLVERTON

Hazing experts take center stage today on the opening day of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s convention, in Nashville, with a panel of academic leaders scheduled to discuss growing fears that college administrators could be held liable for hazing incidents.

Several cases in the past few years have increased those fears. Last August two Rider University administrators were charged with aggravated hazing in the drinking death of a freshman at a fraternity initiation (The Chronicle, August 17, 2007). The charges were later dropped, but the case has led many college leaders to take hazing more seriously, said Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College, in Indiana, who has written three books on the topic.

“Schools are starting to get the notion that they may be held liable in criminal or civil cases,” said Mr. Nuwer, who will speak today at the NCAA’s first national summit on hazing.

Joining him will be Elizabeth J. Allan, an associate professor of higher-education leadership at the University of Maine at Orono. Ms. Allan, who is the principal investigator in a national study of student hazing, will discuss some of her findings.

Both experts spoke to The Chronicle about their recent work and what they hoped to get out of the conference.

Q. Dr. Allan, you just finished collecting data from the second phase of your big hazing study. What have you found so far?

Ms. Allan: We got 11,000 survey responses to a random sampling of students on 55 campuses last spring, and we’re just initiating an analysis of that. Last fall, four of us [researchers] went to 18 different institutions to conduct one-on-one interviews with more than 300 students. There hasn’t been a systematic analysis yet with those data. But in general, we explored ways in which students define hazing. When we asked students to describe what it looks like, many described it as being physically restrained against their will or physically forced to consume alcohol. They don’t account for the power that peer pressure creates or the power imbalance where someone convinces them to do something they don’t want to do.

Q. Why is it that so many people don’t think they’re being hazed when they really are?

Ms. Allan: There are a number of things operating. Students often perceive hazing as something that only happens in fraternities. When they experience it as a member of the marching band or honor society or on an athletic team, they don’t necessarily put that label to it. The power of coercion is also not evident to them, and that really requires an education and understanding and discussion. If students are just basing their understanding of hazing on images they’ve seen on TV or things that actually make the newspaper, they’re operating within a limited framework. So much of hazing involves the peer pressure and the groupthink that can occur—and that can create a situation where someone feels pressured to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do, when physical force isn’t necessarily involved.

Q. Has there been a rise in hazing?

Ms. Allan: That’s the question everyone asks, but because we don’t have the baseline data, as a researcher it’s not possible to answer it. Anecdotally you hear about it more, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a real increase. It could just be reported more because of the Internet.

Mr. Nuwer: I’m not hearing as much from the college level as we once did. For me that’s slowed down quite bit, maybe because there’s more awareness of what the penalties can be. There were so many college athletes busted in such a short time a couple years ago, and people started to look for it.

Q. What will be the focus of your presentation at the NCAA convention, Hank?

Mr. Nuwer: The media image of hazing, and how it’s often glamorized in pro sports. Young people take their cue from that, and it’s really troubling. On eBay right now, there are initiation photos from the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees. In instance after instance, these things are described as good-natured activities. We have a real disconnect between pro sports and what the NCAA is trying to do.

Q. Are colleges paying enough attention to hazing?

Mr. Nuwer: Sometimes. They’re most aware because of things like the $14-million lawsuit at the University of Miami (The Chronicle, February 9, 2004), or the Rider University charges. You want them to do what’s right for education. But the criminal and civil penalties are what’s making them change.

Q. Does the NCAA need to do more—perhaps have national legislation?

Ms. Allan: It’s something that should be explored, and I hope that’s part of the discussion on Thursday. I don’t feel I have a real clear position on that.

Mr. Nuwer: Some people would like to see players lose their scholarships if they’re involved in hazing. I’m more inclined to think this is an area for each individual school, not an NCAA decision. We need to educate coaches, let them know there’s a real problem, that bystander education is essential. And more and more, I’m looking not to coaches, but to team captains.

Q. What do you hope to get out of the summit?

Mr. Nuwer: What do I hope to get out of it? To get out of it. To not do the studies. But to actually see some societal influence, some real wide-ranging successes. In 30 years of studying this, the successes have been very small. The NCAA has been silent for so long. At least now they’re speaking up.

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. 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 new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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