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Why the Ryder Case Is of Consequence

Why the Ryder Case Is of Consequence

by Hank Nuwer

The Rider University criminal case involving the Dean of Students and Greek Adviser (with Housing responsibilities) will be watched by every administrator at every college in the country.

In the case of fraternal and class (freshman sophomore) and athletic deaths, I can find no administrator similarly (and actually) charged. (more in a moment on this).
First some history. It may interest readers to recall the 1912 death of Isaac Rand at the University of North Carolina (throat accidentally slit by a bottle during freshman hazing), the then-governor of North Carolina said he held the UNC president personally responsible but NO charges were brought. There were consequences for the perpetrators but the college’s president also bore a stigma for this death. See http://hazing.hanknuwer.com/laws.html

Thus, this is an historic future criminal case in the history of hazing–as important as the felony convictions in California and Florida in recent years, as important as the $14 million judgment in a University of Miami settlement, as important as the $6 million payoff by MIT to the parents of Scott Krueger.

I was surprised that any administrators ever were indicted from a historical perspective that I have long studied as an author.
There was an attempt once by a hazing victim in another case to ensnare a dean who the victim said was present during his hazing, but that went nowhere and no charges were placed.

Administrators are very busy people, but hazing prevention isn’t as high or so pressing on many of their “Most Pressing Needs” lists until a death or serious injury occurs. This certainly will change that. I advise an honor society (Alpha Lambda Delta) at a small college, but each year I get assurances from the president or officers that hazing will never enter the picture. At the actual initiation, not only am I present but we extend invitations to some distinguished faculty to join students as honorary members. Last May we also had some 25 parents at the initiation, and I answered any questions they had one on one.

When Isaac Rand died of injuries during freshman hazing at the University of North Carolina in 1912, the governor of NC said to the newspapers that he considered the president of UNC to be personally responsible. That’s one side of the coin. On the other, Greek advisers from the AFA have worked tirelessly for four years to set up hazing workshops and (with Campuspeak) a national anti-hazing meeting. Yet, at some schools, influential alumni often try to pressure Greek advisers to allow “some” traditions, and it is true that many schools are not as vigilant with overseeing their Greeks as they needed to be. These charges in New Jersey will send shockwaves to lower-level administrators and advisers at Ivy League schools such as Cornell and Dartmouth, small liberal arts colleges such as my own or Muhlenberg, big state schools such as the University of Michigan, and historically African American schools such as Florida A & M.

Conclusion?

This absolutely will send a deep chill at those colleges which know they have a hazing problem with Greeks or athletes, but it hasn’t been perceived as a major “drop-everything-and-change-the-culture” matter. What I do predict is that there will be much debate in board of trustee meetings at many colleges about the need only to have non-hazing Greeks and non-hazing athletic teams and clubs operating on campus. Those talks are long overdue. It’s a complicated issue. On one hand, the Gary DeVercelly family’s agony over the death of their son at Phi Kappa Tau is certainly not to be ignored. (Interesting that the president of Rider cut ties with that chapter almost simultaneously with news that charges had been placed.) On the other, the kind of people who become Greek advisers or Deans of students are hardly the sort to EVER get a criminal charge in their lives. It isn’t much of a reach to imagine how devastating charges must be to such people.

Let’s go back to the University of North Carolina case. It raises a hard question. Should the prosecutor have also included Rider President Mordechai Rozanski in his sweep or did the prosecutor conclude that President Rozanski did all he could do to prevent Gary DeVercelly’s death? The question needs to be asked by prosecutor and reporters alike. Here is the President’s statement, taking NO personal responsibility for what occurred on his own flagship (see below). Compare President Rozanski’s woefully inadequate words with the woefully inadequate statement of then-Alfred University President Richard Rose in my book Broken Pledges (available on interlibrary loan), and remember how that statement regarding the death of Klan Alpine pledge Chuck Stenzel caused his mother Eileen Stevens to start her own investigation of the death and an anti-hazing crusade that remains powerful to this day.

A word on a couple of my sources over the years: They won’t go on the record, but I personally have talked to campus police chiefs, Greek advisers, and one vice president who privately express their anger and frustration over alumni influence and presidential interference in not giving them–campus police and lower level administrators–the AUTHORITY to clean up hazing and binge drinking on their campuses. Maybe they were just griping, and I sure wish just ONE would go on the record, but I do know college presidents at MANY schools (not all) have not given their staffers and administrators the power they need to enforce alcohol, drug and hazing rules (including those violations that break a state law).

There are three points to consider.

1) If this were a military hazing scandal, heads at the top would roll all the way up the chain of command. I’m not defending the two Rider administrators (Ada Badgley, 31, of Lawrenceville, director of Greek life; Anthony Campbell, 51, of Lawrence, dean of students) because I lack sufficient facts, but I am asking questions to make sure the two are not being used as scapegoats for alumni or higher-up administrators at Rider who themselves did far too little and too late.
2) I also would urge Phi Kappa Tau to abolish its “Big Brother Little Brother” tradition. It is too similar to those ceremonies that cause local chapters to invent bottle exchanges of their own that have also led to other deaths nationwide such as the bottle-exchange death of Chad Saucier at Auburn in a ceremony not endorsed by the international fraternity he was pledging. I would urge every national fraternity and sorority to openly inspect each and every one of its revered traditions to see if there are any that undergraduates too easily can pervert into a boozy hazing ritual.
3) The role of the undergraduate chapter at Rider College must come under scrutiny. When did this “big-little” ceremony begin to get out of hand, and how many alumni were a part of it who now in their hearts of hearts know they could have stepped up to the plate when they were undergrads and stopped this death-just-waiting-to-happen.

To conclude, there is much we all will learn when the Grand Jury report is scrutinized. But one thing is very very apparent.
The house employee made about $4,000 a year. The Greek adviser at Rider was hardly at the top of the school’s salary scale.

The job of the Greek adviser before all this was one that was underpaid, largely unappreciated, and often a stepping stone to either a Dean of Students position or an Ed.D. in Higher Education. Now that advisers from Florida to Oregon know
they could themselves face criminal liability for the actions of even one irresponsible chapter, you can bet they’ll do two things: a) get tougher on those houses they know get out of hand, and b) keep a close eye on educational job opportunities in the Chronicle of Higher Education that don’t put them in such legal risk.
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President Rozanski’s statement follows:

August 3, 2007 – Rider Response to the Mercer County Prosecutor’s InvestigationTo the Rider University Community,I want to inform you that the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office announced today, August 3, 2007, that a grand jury charged three Rider students, who were Phi Kappa Tau members, and two Rider staff with aggravated hazing, a fourth degree offense. The five individuals are Adriano DiDonato; Dominic Olsen and Michael Tourney; Anthony Campbell, Dean of Students; and Ada Badgley, Director of Greek Life. The investigation was conducted following Gary DeVercelly’s tragic alcohol poisoning death on March 30. University officials and students cooperated fully with the Prosecutor’s Office and the Lawrence Township Police in their investigation. We take this matter very seriously and will carefully evaluate these charges and determine appropriate steps to be taken.With respect to the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity, the facts uncovered during the investigation indicate that dangerous underage drinking occurred at an unregistered party in the fraternity house, resulting in the death of a student. Consequently, we have dissolved the Phi Kappa Tau chapter on our campus.

This has been a most painful time for the DeVercelly family and the University; we continue to extend our sympathy to Gary’s family. Alcohol abuse by college students is a national challenge. We are doing everything in our power to prevent it, as evidenced by my acceptance of all the recommendations detailed in the June 19, 2007 report of the Presidential Task Force on Alcohol, Personal Responsibility, and Student Life. I’m confident that these recommendations, many of which will be implemented by the fall semester, will help us become an even stronger, safer, and healthier learning community.

We must continue to work together as a community to try to ensure that nothing like this tragedy happens again on either of our campuses. This means continuing our open communications in dealing with this situation and in educating our community on both campuses about the dangers of alcohol misuse and abuse.

Mordechai Rozanski
President
Rider University

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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