An expert explains the history of hazing

Hank Nuwer has kept a record of every hazing death since 1838

Hank Nuwer is a professor of journalism at Franklin College. He has spent over 30 years researching the topic of hazing on college campuses and has compiled a database of hazing-related deaths dating back to 1838. He is passionate about the prevention of hazing and has written extensively on the topic, both online and in print, in attempt to shed light on a serious issue on college campuses.

We asked Professor Nuwer about his research on hazing, current hazing law, and the future of hazing prevention on campus.

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A still from Goat, a film about frat hazing with James Franco

How did you get started with your hazing research?

It goes way back to 1975 when I was a graduate student at Nevada Reno. There was a death on campus involving a group that was no longer active but were still recruiting, called The Sundowners. They had a couple of initiations that were very public. One on campus, one just across from school property, and another at a bar pretty much caddy corner from where I lived.

I saw all three of those, and at the bar, there was a man frothing under the pool table. I got them to walk him through the night and he lived, but the next time they did an initiation, to get away from bad publicity, they did it on a Native American reservation at Pyramid Lake. It was so far removed and there was so much alcohol that one died and one had brain damage.

I contacted Human Behavior magazine and got the assignment. I had a really tough editor who had me calling all of these behavior experts, and the thing that was most significant was all the research at that time was found in abnormal psychology journals and education journals. And to me, [hazing] was bizarre and strange, but it certainly wasn’t uncommon or abnormal. It’s a common practice, and as we’ve seen with the survey, about half of all students today are participating. So I started the research in 1975 and the article was published in 1978. I’ve been writing about it ever since.

Why do organizations practice hazing? What kinds of psychological effects does hazing have on loyalty to an organization?

This is kind of interesting because I’m working on a book called The Revised Hazing Reader. I have an author, a young dissertation writer, who is looking at African American fraternities. It varies within the groups themselves. Some of it may be the idea of tradition, in others it might be status and power. Those two are pretty consistent – status and power.

Another possibility could be inertia. Starting with an organization, being a joiner, having a tradition yourself of never quitting and always finishing projects – all of those things go into it. I don’t think you could come up with a single answer for it all. But with the African American fraternities – if I can generalize – it’s the idea of belonging to something greater than yourself. That was extremely important as a bonding mechanism in the days before civil rights.

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What are the most interesting patterns you’ve come across in your research?

I’ve emphasized the history in my writing. The DKE Club started at Yale and morphed into Delta Kappa Epsilon. It’s just so interesting – they had a death at Yale. They had members like Theodore Roosevelt. They were the single fraternity that had all that expansion at the time.

And so, for me, as fraternities have changed and evolved over time, it’s incredible that fraternities are still around and prospering. They don’t always accommodate themselves to the times and the values of society. Fraternities have traditionally, particularly in the last 50 years, run against a lot of criticism, a lot of attempts to shut them down. Some [shutdowns] have ended up being successful, yet fraternities go on and on with member and alumni support. It’s easier to understand why people haze than it is to understand why fraternities continue when you start looking at the overall picture.

Why do you think we hear so much about hazing in fraternities and less about hazing in sororities and other female organizations?

I try to keep a database on deaths, and there’s definitely a drop off in violent hazing in sororities. The issue with sororities now would be, at the University of Alabama, for example, a refusal to admit African American women and an insistence by some members there that it would lower the status of the sororities. I find that more problematic. And then there are issues such as bulimia, weight issues, and conformist types of things.

Many states have anti-hazing laws. How, if at all, have these affected college hazing practices?

Only a couple of states – primarily Florida and Texas – have seen real effects of hazing laws. We’ve seen people go to jail in Florida, for example, for six years, with the threat of an additional 15 for manslaughter in that state.

But in most states, the laws are mainly symbolic and need to be restructured and rewritten. A lot of legislators are former members of fraternities, sororities, or sports teams. There’s a lot of compromise, and there have been so many attempts to get laws changed.

The laws at the federal level – there have been at least four or five – have been disastrously written and there’s a slim chance of them getting passed because they violate the Constitution. You can point to the weakness of law as one of the reasons why hazing continues.
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Given the weakness of law, do you think there’s anything that colleges can do to prevent hazing once and for all?

Well, they should have done it a long time ago. Fraternities and sororities were hazing a lot, and schools published customs books trying to support some of these things. Going back 125 years, there was an attempt to stop some of the boisterousness of undergraduates who had been targeting the faculty. You know, locking cows in the chapel and in essence bullying the faculty.

And then, when schools were being founded, there was the belief that school spirit was really important. Because of this, faculty saw hazing – especially of freshmen and sophomores – as a way to get alumni support once these people graduated. It really got engrained, and it’s one of the bad habits that will probably never be completely eradicated.

When will your next book be available?

The Revised Hazing Reader will be out in April from Indiana University Press. It’s 140,000 words, and I’m excited about this book because it’s really going into a lot of disciplines: sociology, criminal justice, folklore, journalism, investigative reporting, psychology, African American studies, and feminist studies. So I don’t think anyone has ever looked at anything in the way this book is going to: with all the experts involved.

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