Monday, September 22, 2014

Changing the Shape of Hazing – Five Things We Need to Be Doing

I write this blog at 30,000 feet, somewhere between Pensacola, FL and Fort Worth, TX, where I will be spending the next few days working with the students and staff at Texas Christian University.  Our flight path is following a winding river flowing its way through Mississippi or Louisiana or some other such place. A few miles back, there was an oxbow lake – for whatever reason, I have always remembered oxbow lakes from my fifth grade science class. An oxbow lake is created when a bend in a river is cut off by erosion and the river forges a new, more direct path.  That old bend in the river, now separated from the flow, gave me the inspiration for this blog – specifically, the need for us to forge new, more direct ways to confront, address and prevent hazing on college campuses. We need to leave some oxbow lakes in our wake – vestiges of days gone by – as we step up our efforts in the prevention of hazing on campus.

Here are five things we need to be doing to change the flow of this river:

1.     Address What We CAN See –This time last year, I was having lunch in the UWF cafeteria, minding my own business and enjoying whatever delicious fare Chartwell’s had offered up that day. As I was finishing my meal, I heard a commotion behind me. I turned to see a group of what were obviously fraternity pledges standing at their table and reciting a creed of some sort.  I knew they were fraternity pledges by their telltale khaki pants and navy blazers, and based on the color of their matching ties, I had a pretty good idea what chapter they were in.

As I watched and listened, I noticed that there were several other guys at the table, dressed in street clothes, not standing or reciting anything. Now, in the grand scheme of things, this was not a big deal. Hazing? Technically. Going to keep me up at night? Nope.  But as I pondered the situation, I decided to walk over and confront the situation.

None of the guys in this chapter knew me at the time, so I was able to play dumb. I walked over and said “hey…that was pretty cool. What was that you were just reciting?” A pledge was pleased to tell me that they had just recited the fraternity’s creed before their meal. I turned to one of the active members and asked “are you in the same fraternity? I didn’t see you guys standing and saying the creed.” He informed me that he was, in fact, a member of the same fraternity. So I asked him why only the guys wearing blazers stood to say the creed. His response was perfect – “Well….because they’re pledges.”

“Hi, I’m Dr. McCreary, the Associate Dean of Students….”

My research into hazing rationale has illuminated for me that the most dangerous, and the most common, form of hazing is what has been termed “social dominance” hazing – that hazing that serves no purpose other than to reinforce a social hierarchy in the chapter – we make the new members do things because we have the power to make them do anything we want. This type of hazing is strongly correlated with increased severity of hazing, alcohol use, conformity, and unethical behavior. Here’s the problem with social dominance hazing – it does not always take the form of “Big H” hazing. It is often done publicly, out in the open, and can be easily dismissed as no big deal. But once a chapter culture of social dominance sets in, it is not a long stretch from having pledges recite the creed in the cafeteria to having them recite the creed in a bucket of ice water or forcing them to chug a fifth of bourbon if they mess up their recitation of the creed. Once a chapter convinces itself that it is OK to do things to pledges just because you can, then a sick culture of social dominance sits in which involves hazing much more dangerous and deadly than the situation depicted above.

So – don’t accept any hazing. Don’t let anything slide. Address everything you see. This does not mean you have to be draconian in your approach – zero tolerance where reciting the creed in the cafeteria leads to automatic suspension. But it does mean that there should be a swift and appropriate response. Allowing a culture of social dominance to go unchecked and unaddressed can have deadly consequences.

2.     Conduct thorough investigations – My dissertation research confirmed for me the importance of campus culture – the campus environment has a unique and distinct interaction with the moral disengagement that allows hazing to take place.  Students need to know – to see – that an institution takes hazing seriously. One of the best ways to do this is to conduct thorough, reliable investigations for any allegations.  It is hard to do that if the person investigating alleged hazing is the Greek advisor. The Greek advisor has multiple responsibilities, and in a previous blog post, I have argued that they are often ill-prepared to take the lead on hazing investigations.  Instead, campuses should adopt and independent investigator model, similar to what many campuses are adopting for Title IX cases. By having a team of independent trained investigators, campuses can quickly and more thoroughly investigate cases of hazing, sending a strong and clear message to the campus community.

3.     Talk about it – When I worked at Alabama, I had a philosophy when it came to our education, prevention and risk management initiatives – if you haven’t said it in the last three months, you have never said it.  Memories are short, but traditions are long. We must be constant, persistent and pervasive in our hazing prevention programming. If you are only talking about hazing during National Hazing Prevention Week, then your students are not getting the message.  The speaker you bring in will have an impact for a few weeks, maybe even a few months, but their message eventually wears off as old habits creep back in. We must expose students to a constant barrage of prevention-minded education at every level, from new members to chapter officers to alumni, and we need to be doing it nearly constantly. Only then can our prevention efforts begin to have a lasting impact.

4.     Help fraternity chapters redefine brotherhood – My research into fraternal brotherhood with Josh Schutts has revealed four schema of brotherhood – four unique and distinct ways that fraternity men define and conceptualize brotherhood. Many men think about brotherhood as merely being about solidarity (i.e. I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine) or about shared social experiences (all the fun we have together is what bonds us as brothers). Chapters who think about brotherhood in these ways are more likely to have severe hazing. The hazing is designed to produce faux solidarity through a difficult new member process, or prevent new members from immediately exploiting the benefits of membership (i.e. earning your letters). But chapters who balance out the solidarity and social elements of brotherhood with equal parts of belonging (i.e. my fraternity is my home away from home and a place where I feel accepted and appreciated) and accountability (i.e. my brothers make me a better person by holding me to high standards) are less likely to haze and are more likely to have healthy, productive chapter experiences. We know from our research and work on campuses that fraternity men enjoy and are willing to engage in conversations about brotherhood, and that programming aimed at realigning their conceptualization of brotherhood is effective. In other words, if we can get men to change the way they think about brotherhood, we can get them to think differently about the need for hazing to be part of that brotherhood. Conversations about brotherhood offer us an alternative point of entry into conversations about a variety of difficult topics – hazing, sexual assault, values congruence, alcohol, etc. – and show incredible promise in the worlds of education and prevention.

5.     Find the right alumni and get them engaged – If there are Greek advisors who feel that recruiting alumni advisors is not part of their job description, then I would encourage them to seriously reexamine their priorities. Plugging the right alumni into the chapter experience is among the most important work we can do. As I have suggested in a previous post, we need to be moving away from the failed “self-governance” experiment and begin instituting models of shared alumni governance. The number one risk factor leading to severe hazing in fraternities is the lack of responsible adults involved in the new member process. Greek advisors are well-advised to spend time networking and building relationships with alumni and other responsible adults who may be able to get plugged into chapter governance models. The introduction of responsible adults may be one of the most important things we can do to change chapter cultures as it relates to hazing.

I am incredibly humbled to be able to do the work that I do. This week, I will visit five campuses spread across the United States and have a chance to talk to students and university administrators about this important issue. It is my hope that this work, and the work of others, will change the conversation on campuses about hazing prevention in a way that will change the trajectory – the direction – of hazing on college campuses. I think these five things represent our best hope of making oxbow lakes out of hazing – changing hazing from an expected cultural norm to a vestige of the way things used to be.