Few Hazing Victims See It That Way, Researcher Explains

U. of Maine

Students can describe what constitutes hazing, says Elizabeth J. Allan, a professor of higher-educational leadership at the U. of Maine at Orono, but there’s often a disconnect between defining hazing and recognizing it when it happens to them.
July 29, 2014

Since Ohio State University fired the director of its marching band last week for tolerating routine sexual harassment and hazing among students, current and former band members have rallied around him in support.

The firing followed an internal investigation that found that the director, Jonathan Waters, did not do enough to stop the sexualized culture of the marching band, including students’ annual practice in their underwear; the expectation that first-year members would perform "tricks" on command, such as pretending to have an orgasm; and the performance of sexual poses on bus trips.

On Monday a group of mostly female band alumni held a march on the campus to press for Mr. Waters to be reinstated. "We don’t believe it’s a sexualized culture, we believe it’s a college culture," Lori Cohen, one of the march organizers, told The Columbus Dispatch. As of Monday morning, the newspaper reported, more than 5,000 people had signed an online petition urging the university’s president, Michael V. Drake, to rehire Mr. Waters. Supporters have also created a Twitter account, We Stand With Jon Waters, and website to defend the former band director.

To better understand the Ohio State case and band members’ response, we spoke with Elizabeth J. Allan, a professor of higher-educational leadership at the University of Maine at Orono, who directs the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention. She described why few hazing victims identify themselves that way and what might help prevent hazing. Following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Q. The stereotype is that hazing only happens on sports teams and in Greek life, and so the case of the Ohio State University band seems to have surprised a lot of people. What has your research shown?
Since our national study, in 2008, we continue to find that hazing is more pervasive than what stereotypes suggest. We know that students who participate in a range of organizations have experienced hazing, even though they don’t necessarily identify it as hazing. High percentages of students who are involved in performing-arts groups, including marching bands and a cappella groups, have been hazed. We also see hazing among intramural teams, outing clubs, and even prestigious honors societies at various campuses.

Q. Why do students haze?
When we do our research and interview students, we always ask that question. For some people, they’re doing it because they really feel it’s worth it. It’s worth the cost or the potential risks to become a member of that group—or students don’t perceive the potential risks ahead of time. Everyone has a desire to belong, to be part of something bigger than themselves. It’s a human need.

Impaired judgments from drugs and alcohol are sometimes but not always the case. Some students fear retribution for not going along with it—or they feel coerced because they admire the members of the group, or the group is considered to be prestigious on campus. The other thing students say is that they feel like they are proving something, proving their worthiness. They often think, "This isn’t hazing, it’s just a tradition. I’m helping to maintain a tradition."

Q. In the 2008 report you said nine in 10 students who had experienced hazing behavior in college did not consider themselves to have been hazed. Why do you think that was?
When we ask students to define hazing, they can often articulate the key components: That it’s doing something that could be potentially harmful emotionally and/or physically in order to become a member of the group. But then there’s this disconnect between defining it and recognizing it when it happens to them.

They have an image in their heads that hazing is something bad, and so if they perceive what they were doing to have had good intentions or potential outcomes, then it doesn’t equate with hazing. So you’ll often hear, "No, that wasn’t hazing, that was just a tradition." Or "No, that wasn’t hazing, that was just trying to get everyone to bond as a group." It’s going to require a lot of further awareness and understanding for students to be able to effectively recognize it when it happens.

Q. In the Ohio State case, both students and alumni have come forward saying that they stand by the band and its leader. Is that a common reaction?
Absolutely. I’m not surprised at all by that. It happens time and time again in hazing situations when people are very invested in the group, its leadership, and the group’s future.

Q. You have also found that 25 percent of coaches and organizational leaders are aware of their groups’ hazing behavior. Tell me more about that.
A lot of what I have already mentioned applies not just to students but to parents, the general public, and those who work with students as coaches or advisers. We still have a long way to go in promoting awareness and understanding of what hazing is, why it’s problematic, and how we can still accomplish the same positive goals of hazing without hazing.

We have to move beyond "Just say no to hazing." We have to find alternatives to effectively replace it because the perception is there that hazing is working in some positive ways. Not everyone shares that perception, but it’s hard for some people to understand that you can still achieve the positive goals and not have to do so through humiliating and degrading tactics.

Q. Did anything stand out for you in the Ohio State case?
We should certainly recognize the leadership that the university is taking in saying, This kind of behavior is not in alignment with our values as an institution. That’s important.

Q. Is it rare for a university to respond as they did?
That kind of response seems to be becoming more frequent, which is a good thing. But certainly we could see more of it.

Q. What tactics can you recommend to prevent hazing?
We are working on that right now. I’m in the midst of a three-year study with eight universities from coast to coast called the Hazing Prevention Consortium. The reason we are doing it is that we don’t yet have an evidence base to draw from. There’s no empirical data to say, This works for prevention.

So we’re borrowing from other fields—sexual-violence prevention and high-risk-drinking prevention—and saying, OK, how do we translate this for hazing? We are working with experts to help us design bystander-intervention programming and training specific to hazing. And we are gathering and evaluating data, so by the end of the project we will be able to begin to build the evidence base.

Correction (7/30/2014, 1:30 p.m.): Elizabeth Allen was mistakenly called an associate professor of higher-educational leadership. She is a full professor. The article has been updated to reflect that.