- Hazing has been around since at least 387 BCE, when Plato saw boys playing “practical jokes.”
- The practice has always included punitive acts, experts told Insider.
- Despite the fact that hazing is nothing new, institutions still struggle to prevent it.
Cornell University found itself in the news this week for all the wrong reasons. It had joined a long list of schools to dole out discipline for hazing, announcing Monday it would suspend all social events hosted by fraternities following reports of sexual assault and druggings at off-campus residences associated with Greek life.
Cornell University Police said at least four students were reportedly drugged and another sexually assaulted last weekend, according to a university statement saying police and school investigations into the incidents are ongoing.
Hazing is nothing new.
The earliest account of hazing is believed to date back to the 4th century — when Plato observed young boys playing “practical jokes” on other students in school, according to a book written by hazing historian Hank Nuwer. Centuries later, it continues to be scourge on higher education.
Four fraternity members from Baruch College of the City University of New York were sentenced to jail in 2018, five years after an 18-year-old student died during a pledging event. The student, Chun Hsien “Michael” Deng, had been instructed to walk blindfolded through a line of fraternity brothers while they tackled and shoved him, according to court records. Baruch has a moratorium in place for all social fraternity and sorority activities until 2024.
Earlier this year, the University of Utah was in the spotlight when it suspended all fraternity and sorority social activity for two weeks following a report of a sexual assault at a frat house.
So why can’t colleges and universities do more to prevent hazing?
“People want to be a part of things,” Nirh said. “They want to belong in such deep ways.”
“Some people view it positively, that it creates stronger people, but the research shows that it doesn’t, that it doesn’t have a positive impact on creating bonds between people or strengthening organizations or helping individuals,” she added.
In addition to the fact that most people on the receiving end of hazing are eager participants in what’s viewed as a sacred ritual, colleges and universities also have to contend with the fact that hazing methods can vary widely, complicating efforts to create appropriate rules to address it, Nirh said.
Hazing activities have evolved over the centuries, too, making it a moving target.
Easier access to alcohol, for example, paved the way for drinking-based hazing rituals, Nirh told Insider. Research done by education expert Ruth Sterner suggests hazing started including calisthenics like push-ups after millions of veterans who fought in World War II returned to school with the help of the GI Bill, a law passed in 1944 that helped cover education costs for people who served.
Those veterans joined fraternities with the goal of recreating the camaraderie they experienced while serving, according to a 2008 paper by Ruth Sterner, a student-affairs professional at Oregon State University. They brought over a “boot camp mentality” and incorporated exercises into their pledging ceremonies, explains an article in the Touro Law Review.
But there’s a difference between the perception of hazing among participants and third-party observers, Nirh said. A 2014 poll conducted by the Huffington Post and YouGov found that a majority of voters said they’d want to see frats busted for hazing either suspended or banned entirely.
A majority of states — 44 — now have anti-hazing laws in place, according to StopHazing, an organization that works to create safe school conditions.
While that may seem like progress, hazing rituals have become more secretive in response, according to education researcher Cristobal Salinas of Florida Atlantic University.
There have been some recent efforts to come up with hazing prevention strategies.
A team of researchers from Cornell and the University of Maine earlier this year published a guide to preventing hazing on university campuses. It proposes strategies for school administrators to educate students about hazing.
Cornell, which did not respond to a request for comment, follows a hazing prevention model that includes tools for teaching students about healthy bonding and forming communities, according to the school’s website. Students can also report hazing online.
Still, Nirh said hazing occurs in about 75% of student organizations on campuses.
“I don’t know that anyone knows exactly how to stop hazing,” Nirh said. “But I think education is key.”