When I was in college, I was in a fraternity. Hard to believe for those that know me, but it was an engineering school, where the male:female ratio was 8:1 (“…where the Men are Men and so are the Women…”), and 90% of the undergrads found their social life in the Greek system. So my friends and I joined.
It was mostly enjoyable, except for some rampant anti-semitism in my house (e.g., people throwing pennies at us; two and one-half wandering Jews) mostly as a way for the upperclassmen to pick on the lower. It could have been anything, I guess. I didn’t let it affect me.
However, that mild abuse was a mask for something deeper going on. A few months after I joined, my formal initiation consisted of about a week of sleep deprivation, truly disgusting and unhealthy living conditions, coupled with some physical activities that literally left scars on me for a decade.
I almost bolted towards the end of it. But the upperclassmen threatened my fellow initiates with even more pain if I did, and so I stayed and made it through.
Then it was all beer and fun for a while. We forgot the pain and remembered that we’d made it through together, kind of like war vets, but with much less danger or purpose.
Fast forward to the next fall. I was a full brother and in charge of recruitment (“rush”) for a house that had declining membership and income. I had the bright idea that if every brother simply picked two freshmen they liked, spent a lot of quality time with them, and at least one of those two joined the house (on average), we’d do pretty well.
My plan worked a bit too well. We practically doubled the size of the house that year. And yes, we were one of the few houses to have a truly dry rush and still do well.
But I hadn’t ever thought about what it would be like to be on the other side of the hazing pattern, doing the deed to the new friends I’d indirectly brought in.
I left half-way through the initiation that year, distraught and unable to proceed. It was far worse to give than to receive.
I decided to end hazing in my fraternity for good. And fortunately for me, a few of my close friends (from my class and the one I’d help recruit) agreed to help.
We spent the next year on this task, sometimes to the detriment of our classes. We tried to get ourselves elected to lead the house. We lobbied to change the rules. We even drove cross-country to the national headquarters to research other local chapters that might have solved this already.
The pro-hazing forces were more or less on to us (the failed elections were kind of a tip-off) and came along just to watch us, thinking we were going to rat them out to the national leadership. It was quite a caravan.
We didn’t rat them out. Had we wanted to blow up the chapter, we could have simply gone to the dean, the media, the cops. Anyone in a position of responsibility would have to take legal action for liability reasons and shut it all down.
Instead, we followed a precedent for a house that had ended rampant drug abuse. We got our own alumni association (who was mostly pro-hazing for nostalga reasons, but also pro-not-getting sued for responsible-adult reasons) to take over the house and fix the problems quietly.
It worked. We even had the brothers believing it was the alumni association’s idea in the first place, just to make it easier to swallow.
However, with all of my machinations and arm-twisting to end hazing, I’d certainly made a few enemies along the way. And in the end, partly because of the neglect of classwork and partly to protect my co-conspirators, I took the blame upon myself and soon transferred schools to Ohio State, where I got my actual degree, safe from the death threats and angry stares. [I’m not sure they would have done more than basic violence, but a drunken group rage was not unlikely either].
In the end, the house did pretty well from what I hear. No more hazing to this day. There was none of the doom and gloom, social and moral collapse, as promised by the pro-hazing forces either. Life goes on, just a little less harshly.
Hazing is such an ugly and unnecessary thing. Brotherhood is built from common experience, trust and respect. It’s not built from one class persecuting the next, or from those in power abusing that power to get their way.
But the key lesson was: don’t rat out the rats if you can avoid it, but fix the problem just the same — and don’t give up until you do. In the worst case, you may just fix it but make it hard for you to stay. And that’s okay. Life is full of twists and turns along the way.
I hope that’s helpful to someone else out there. It was a lesson hard won.