The Politics of Campus Hazing

SAE house.jpgThe war on fraternities is one of the longest-running conflicts on campus, and the most active front in that war is the current media campaign against hazing, triggered by the lurid charges of former Dartmouth student Andrew Lohse. In an op-ed in his college newspaper, The Dartmouth, and later in a long Rolling Stone article, “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy,” Lohse described SAE pledges as swimming in a kiddie pool full of fecal matter, vomiting blood after chugging cups of vinegar, and dining on “vomlets” that combined eggs and upchuck–all supposedly part of the SAE hazing ritual.

The Rolling Stone article was a media sensation, but there are
problems with Lohse’s scatological/vomitological catalogue of horrors.
Lack of corroboration, for one. So far, no one else reports seeing the
indignities as he described them. However, 27 SAE members–Lohse
included–were brought up on charges by Dartmouth’s Undergraduate
Judicial Affairs Office.

These proceedings were confidential, and remain
so, but one witness to the hazing said Lohse’s claims contained
inaccuracies, and Lohse subsequently refused either to correct his
previous allegations or to appear at a hearing concerning them.

Charges against the 27 were rescinded, the last three removed as the Rolling Stone article appeared. The fraternity itself remains on the hook, however, apparently on the theory that SAE might be collectively responsible for violations of university rules that don’t depend on Lohse’s testimony. (Purported copies of written and e-mail correspondence between Dartmouth and Lohse appear on Dartmouth alumnus Joe Asch’s Dartblog.)

“Frat Parties”

The author of the article, Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman, was clearly no fan of Dartmouth or fraternities in general and the kinds of young men who join them. In 2006 Reitman wrote an article for Rolling Stone about the Duke lacrosse case, in which three male lacrosse players were accused–utterly falsely, as it turned out–of having gang-raped hired stripper Crystal Mangum at “a frat party,” as Reitman described it. The North Carolina Attorney General’s office ultimately dismissed all the charges, and Mike Nifong, the district attorney who had filed them, was disbarred for unethical conduct in pursuing the criminal case aggressively in the face of a lack of evidence (including DNA evidence) that any such rape had occurred.

Reitman’s characterization of the party in question as a “frat party” was inaccurate–but even more telling was her implicit assumption that the allegations against the three lacrosse players were true. Reitman characterized Mangum as a “victim,” not an “alleged victim.” Reitman’s story indicted Duke’s female students, many of whom belonged to sororities, for having a “retro view of rape” that led them to display “Innocent Until Proven Guilty” banners and T-shirts. “Indeed, with the exception of self-described ‘feminists,’ and African-American women, who see the case through its racial as well as sexual dynamics, there has been barely a peep out of the mainstream girls at Duke, unless it’s to support the players,” Reitman wrote.

The fact that Reitman, like many a mainstream journalist who cheer-led Nifong’s unfounded prosecution, was shown to have been ludicrously off-base, seemed to faze her not a whit when she returned for another dart-throw at fraternities in her article about Lohse and his charges against SAE. Perhaps because she could find little evidence to corroborate Lohse’s allegations, she simply concluded that the university had “closed ranks” in order to enforce “Dartmouth’s code of omerta” and a “culture of silence.” The fact that Lohse himself was charged with hazing violations Reitman attributed to naked retaliation by Dartmouth: “charging a whistle-blower with the crimes (sic) he exposed.”

Elsewhere in the story she painted a lurid, Lohse-derived picture of Dartmouth as an institution where undergrads pledge the Greek system as sophomores, spend the next three years puking from the bathtub-quantities of beer they chug at stopwatch speed, supplement the booze binges with some “sexual assault” on the side, as Lohse informed Reitman, and then move effortlessly on graduation to high-salary jobs arranged by their brothers at Wall Street investment firms. “[A]n idealized portrait of white-male privilege,” was the way Reitman described Dartmouth’s Greek culture. Even the pipes in the SAE-house basement and his frat brothers’ brew tastes had offended the aesthetically fastidious Lohse: “I was standing under this dripping pipe, looking at people drinking this watery Keystone Light beer, and I felt cheated,” he told Reitman.

Reitman did have a credibility problem, however: Lohse. For one thing, he had a serious drinking problem that even he, as he admitted, couldn’t quite blame on Dartmouth’s fraternity culture, coupled with (as his SAE brothers described it) a relentless quest for drugs. During his sophomore year he was arrested for snorting cocaine inside the SAE house and suspended from Dartmouth for a year (“The hypocrisy in that bothered me,” Lohse told Reitman. “I wasn’t harming other people.”)

Raids, Rebellion, and Rehab

Back at Dartmouth in November 2010, Lohse arranged for a police raid on “Hell Night” at SAE in which, he promised, they would discover the brothers forcing their underage pledges to drink hundreds of cups of beer in a hazing atrocity. Instead, all the police found were some drunk undergrads standing next to a campus statue of Robert Frost. Lohse told Reitman that he believed the brothers had been tipped off by Dartmouth administrators. Then, last fall on homecoming night, Lohse got arrested again, for throwing a plastic folding chair at a campus security guard while registering a blood-alcohol level of .24, as a subsequent Breathalyzer test revealed. Lohse described that incident to Reitman as “an existential act of rebellion.”

Andrew Lohse.jpgWhen Lohse finally returned again to Dartmouth for this spring semester after medical leave and a rehab program, he became a columnist for the Dartmouth, fulminating against corporate recruitment and other capitalist practices and, finally, SAE itself in the Jan. 25 column that triggered the administration’s formal charges.

This raises a second question even more important than those pertaining to Lohse’s credibility: Even if what he said was true, how exactly were SAE’s hazing practices dangerous enough to deserve disciplinary action against the fraternity or its members? “Vomlets” sound revolting, and they could present a health hazard–but so did some of the things that contestants on “Survivor” were obliged to consume during the reality show’s early years if they didn’t want to be voted off the island: worms, bugs, live maggots, and rotten fish. Similarly disgusting comestibles are regular fare on today’s “Fear Factor.”

Unpleasant boot camp-style experiences that everyone in a group must endure together are time-honored bonding rituals for all sorts of organizations besides college fraternities. And so are the large quantities of alcohol often consumed in conjunction with hazing. Yet the definition of “hazing” on many campuses is so broad that it can include not only pledging practices that endanger the lives and health of those who participate–as seemed to have happened in the Cornell and possibly other cases–but also speech and conduct that happen to offend third parties who aren’t even part of the fraternity initiation rituals.

The U.S. Education Department is currently investigating a complaint prompted in part by a fall 2010 incident in which pledges of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at Yale were obliged to march past a dormitory housing freshmen women chanting, “No means yes! Yes means anal!” As I wrote here at the time, “A Yale feminist webzine branded the 18-year-old pledges ‘a moving gang of men, chanting in deep, throaty voices for sexual assault,’ apparently not noticing that the whole thing was a gross joke.” However, the incident was so adroitly exploited by campus feminists that Yale’s president and the U.S. Department of Education felt they had to step in.

Two recent articles in the New York Times are pushing the anti-hazing bandwagon along: a reprised account of the tragic death by hazing of a Cornell student 14 months ago, involving heavy forced drinking, and a much less serious current story out of SUNY Binghamton. The SUNY school is conducting an upstate version of the Spanish Inquisition over such non-life-threatening hazing practices as forcing pledges to perform multiple push-ups. A Binghamton sorority was reportedly cited for “sleep deprivation” because pledges had been assigned multiple tasks.

Hazing Defined?

The anti-hazing group defines “hazing” as “any activity expected of someone joining a group (or to maintain full status in a group) that humiliates, degrades or risks emotional and/or physical harm, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.” The “emotional harm” contemplated in StopHazing’s definition clearly extends to “harm” claimed by anyone who doesn’t care for hazing or fraternities and sororities in general. “The term ‘hazing’ is notoriously vague,” says Harvey Silverglate, a civil-rights lawyer representing SAE in the Dartmouth judicial proceeding and chairman of the board of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Silverglate says that confidentiality rules at Dartmouth forbid his discussing the specifics of Dartmouth’s proceedings against his client. But he does say that there is definitely an “anti-fraternity animus” among professors, administrators, and some students at Dartmouth and elsewhere. For example, Silverglate points out, within a week of Lohse’s Jan. 25 column “105 faculty members [out of Dartmouth’s total of 452] signed a letter to the administration urging adjudication even before the first investigation began,” said Silverglate.

The letter’s extravagant language asserted that hazing “breaks down [students’] understanding of right and wrong, of decency and indecency, and the lines between healthy sexuality and sexual assault.” And within a few days of the appearance of Reitman’s article in Rolling Stone, a 2009 graduate of Dartmouth, Ravital Segal, announced in the Huffington Post that she had she had decided that a binge-drinking incident during her sophomore year that had left her with broken teeth and a .399 blood-alcohol reading, had actually been a hazing ritual by her sorority, even though it had taken Segal six years to discover that. Like Lohse, like Reitman, and like the Dartmouth faculty members who signed the letter, Segal wrote, “The mental and physical health of Dartmouth students is at stake and the Greek system’s hold on Dartmouth’s social life needs to be loosened.”

Some university hazing codes define “hazing” so hazily, as it were, that fraternities and sororities can run afoul of the codes merely by forcing their pledges to engage in public stunts, having them wear stilly clothes or go on scavenger hunts, or subjecting them to “mental or physical discomfort, harm, stress, embarrassment or ridicule,” as the anti-hazing code at SUNY-Binghamton reads. (The Binghamton code also expressly forbids “buffoonery” in hazing rituals.)

Yale University’s anti-hazing policy goes well beyond the state of Connecticut’s anti-hazing law to forbid actions that “…intimidate, denigrate, or humiliate third parties…” who witness hazing activities. In other words, at Yale and elsewhere–especially in the media, which have been recently regaling their readers with a barrage of hazing-atrocity stories, “hazing” now means speech or conduct that merely offends other people–typically professors, university administrators, news reporters and of course, feminists— who are often already predisposed not to approve of Greek-letter organizations in the first place.

Dangerous pledging rituals and excessive alcohol consumption are clearly legitimate concerns. But the ongoing campaign on many campuses is not to reform fraternities, but to banish them. Their continued resistance to the dominant PC campus culture and its truculent feminism enrages the powers that be. “I was not a huge fan of fraternities when I was in college myself,” says Silverglate, who attended Princeton during the early 1960s but never tried to join an eating club, Princeton’s rough equivalent of a Greek house.

“But I respect the right of individual students who want to exercise their freedom of association by joining fraternities,” Silverglate continues. “Fraternities are organizations that are not under the heel of the administration, and they’re independent of the colleges themselves. That’s why the student-life bureaucracies are opposed to them. My role as a lawyer is to prevent a rush to judgment, to avoid the university’s being pressured by a politicized faculty and student-life bureaucracy. It’s to get out the facts and assure a fair hearing.”


2 thoughts on “The Politics of Campus Hazing

  1. Financial aspects aside (since that is the obvious meaning to the phrase), the phrase Pledges must pay their dues to become a member really raises the question of what dues are we asking them to pay? As a sorority member, I’ve heard this phrase from other organizations (athletics to Greek Life) and am amazed by the things organizations ask of their new members or recruits. Recruitment is a mutual selection process and why should you ask your new members to do things that you, yourself wouldn’t want to do? Going through new member education is like taking an additional class because of all you have to learn about the organization both nationally and locally, historically and in the present. That alone is stressful, but making them give more than their required financial contribution and time to learn about the organization is an unequal distribution. We all pay dues in the organization equally. The new members are paying additional dues in essence by learning about the organization that we as members don’t have to pay because we have paid our time that way already. This leads to other excuses such as We’ve always done it that way, and Everyone before us had to do it, or It’s tradition, but that will come up later.

  2. I’m pleased to see that blogger Charlotte Allen has managed to cut through all of the ideologically-driven hype to get to the core of the issue: What do the hard, provable FACTS say about hazing on campus? And what protections need to be honored for the right of freedom of association to survive the assault of the totalitarians?

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