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Lehigh joins national initiative on hazing prevention

It’s a statistic that most parents would find alarming: According to a comprehensive national study, more than half of college students in clubs, teams or organizations will experience hazing at some point during their college experience. Further, nearly half of the students were victims of a hazing experience before even going to college.

“There’s a complex psychology behind it and there are many societal factors that are precursors to it,” says Tim Wilkinson, senior assistant dean of students and director of fraternity and sorority affairs (OFSA), who is part of a Lehigh committee to address the issue.

“The tradition of hazing permeates many hierarchical cultures. But beyond those issues, there is an expectation of behavior here at Lehigh that we want to uphold, as well as the health and safety of our students. That’s our focus, and it’s something the entire campus has to be involved in.”

To that end, Lehigh recently joined with a group of other colleges and universities to participate in a three-year research initiative to develop evidence-based and effective hazing prevention strategies. This ground-breaking effort will draw on an extensive national investigative project led by University of Maine researchers Elizabeth Allan and Mary Madden, who closely examined hazing cultures on campuses across the country.

The most comprehensive study of hazing to date, the researchers’ 2008 “Hazing in View: College Students at Risk” report, was conducted in collaboration between the University of Maine’s College of Education and Human Development and the U.S. Health Department and included survey responses from more than 11,000 undergraduate students at 53 colleges and universities in different regions of the U.S.. The researchers also conducted interviews with hundreds of students and staff.

Primary findings include:

  • Hazing occurs in, but extends beyond, varsity athletics and Greek-letter organizations and includes behaviors that are abusive, dangerous and potentially illegal.
  • Alcohol consumption, humiliation, isolation, sleep- deprivation and sex acts are hazing practices common across types of student groups.
  • There are public aspects to student hazing including: 25 percent of coaches or organization advisors were aware of the group’s hazing behaviors; 25 percent of the behaviors occurred on-campus in a public space.
  • In 25 percent of hazing experiences, alumni were present.
  • Over half of hazing victims talk with peers, and more than a quarter of victims talk with family about their hazing experiences.
  • In more than half of the hazing incidents, a member of the offending group posts pictures on a public web space.

Despite those findings, the study also found that more students perceive positive rather than negative outcomes of hazing, and that students generally recognize hazing as just part of campus culture. Ninety five percent of them did not report hazing experiences to campus officials and nearly 70 percent of them were aware of hazing occurring in student organizations other than their own.

The full report can be viewed here.

Now Allan and Madden are leading the national effort to search for effective prevention strategies and ways of changing college culture. Along with Lehigh and the University of Maine, other schools participating in the consortium include Cornell, Texas A&M, the University of Virginia, the University of Southern California and the University of Kentucky.

At Lehigh, the committee will include administrators and faculty who will serve as a “clearinghouse for programming and assessment,” says Wilkinson. “We expect to share our challenges and information with other schools and see what works,” he said.

Associate Dean & Director of Strategic Initiatives Allison Gulati, who is chairing the committee, said that the multidisciplinary perspective will be critical to campus-wide success.

We look forward to having voices included in this conversation representing many facets of academic and student life,” she said. “We know that the primary and secondary effects of hazing impact students of all backgrounds, from all academic majors, and across all types of student involvement. Having faculty, staff and students on the committee who can represent the challenges to changing a culture of hazing among students is essential.”

In addition to Gulati and Wilkinson, the committee consists of Rebecca Davison, assistant director of OFSA; Matt Kitchie, senior assistant dean and director of student activities; Pete Costa, director of prevention strategies; Julie Sterrett, assistant director of athletics leadership; Jess Manno, director of planning and assessment; James Peterson, associate professor of English and director of Africana Studies; Jeff Millet, professor of theatre; Ozzie Breiner, director of residential services; and Chris Mulvihill, assistant dean of student conduct.

Vice Provost for Student Affairs John Smeaton says Lehigh’s involvement in the nation-wide coalition offers an ideal opportunity for Lehigh to “assume a leadership role in addressing an issue that is all too common on college campuses across the country.

“Respect for self and others is fundamental to a healthy living and learning environment,” he adds. “Hazing practices undermine that environment. I am proud that Lehigh is a partner in this effort.”

The campus-wide commitment will build on earlier efforts to address hazing through programs that included Hazing Prevention Week, a bystander intervention educational campaign, and the hosting of a national conference on hazing prevention through the Novak Institute in 2011. These foundational efforts, Gulati said, “positioned Lehigh to be invited to join this National Collaborative effort and we look forward to continuing to be a national leader in this arena.”

The committee is also launching a month-long campus-wide assessment of student behavioral norms in relation to hazing. The hope of the committee is that this assessment further provides a Lehigh specific context that augments the National Hazing Study, and provides additional insight to the Campus Hazing Assessment that OFSA conducted during the spring 2012 semester.

Linda Harbrecht
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