Bloomberg News

Ivy League Cracks Down as Students Spiral Out of Control

December 07, 2012

You Know Students Are Out of Control When Harvard Creates Rules

Harvard University pennants at the Harvard Cooperative Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photographer: Michael Fein/Bloomberg

Harvard and Cornell universities have joined Yale University and Dartmouth College in cracking down on out-of-control behavior as drinking, hazing and sexual harassment endanger students and tarnish Ivy League reputations.

Harvard faculty voted last month to require registration of parties and ban drinking games, and Cornell ordered fraternities to have live-in advisers. This fall, Dartmouth began security checks at Greek houses and Princeton University banned freshmen from joining them.

The moves are the latest effort to regulate campus behavior since rules controlling students -- known as in loco parentis -- were abolished in the 1960s. Disobedience crested last year for Ivy League schools, which cost more than $50,000 a year to attend. A Dartmouth hazing article detailed rituals involving bodily fluids. A Cornell student died of alcohol poisoning, and Yale was hit with a discrimination complaint after fraternity members chanted “No means yes! Yes means anal!”

“Colleges have been in an arms race to prove to students that they’re cool and give more freedom than the others,” said Lisa Wade, head of the sociology department at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “Now, maybe the pendulum is starting to swing the other way.”

College students have come to equate the absence of boundaries with fun, said Wade, who studies the casual sex culture on campuses. That, combined with large amounts of alcohol easily available on campus, can skew students’ sense of what is acceptable or even normal.

Homeless Pranks

An undergraduate house at Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Harvard is under fire for an annual hook-up party its residents call Incest Fest. The event is so named because only house members are allowed to attend. Two university clubs have also staged pranks ridiculing homeless people in Harvard Square, according to the Crimson, the student newspaper.

At Yale, one of eight private schools in the U.S. Northeast that make up the Ivy League, eight students drank so much at September’s Safety Dance -- an annual 1980s-themed party -- they had to be hospitalized. That prompted the school in New Haven, Connecticut, to ban the event in the future. Senior Elizabeth Snow, 21, who helped organize a session on alcohol policy, said that without comparison data she doesn’t know if eight is a lot.

“I have no idea what a standard Saturday night looks like,” Snow said. Yale should be creating a safer environment for parties rather than “forcing students to find parties off campus,” she said.

Thomas Conroy, a spokesman for Yale, declined to comment.

Enabling Students

College administrators bear some responsibility for student drunkenness after years of ignoring it, said Toben Nelson, assistant professor of community health at the University of Minnesota, who has studied college drinking for more than 15 years. The most effective way to lower drinking rates is to cut the supply of alcohol, and few schools are willing to show that kind of leadership, he said.

“There’s a lot of enabling by college administrators,” Nelson said in a telephone interview. “Colleges are competing with each other to get these students, so they’re willing to tolerate a lot of things.”

Many alumni hamper attempts to curb alcohol abuse because they want access to a heavy-drinking ambiance when they return for homecoming and sporting events, Nelson said.

Alumni also contribute to a culture of hazing. In a 2008 study by University of Maine researchers, a quarter of students who reported being hazed in a college fraternity, group or sports team said alumni were present at the time. The practice is also found in theater groups, marching bands and other social organizations.

Taking Action

With campus excesses becoming more unruly and, in some cases, deadly, schools are no longer standing by.

In rules issued last month, Cornell, based in Ithaca, New York, said new-member activities at Greek clubs must focus on the history and mission of the group and be approved by the university.

“If activities cause serious harm, physically or mentally, or are likely to, the University will not allow the group to continue to operate on our campus,” Cornell said in a slide presentation.

Cornell Tragedy

Tragedy struck at Cornell in February 2011, when George Desdunes, a 19-year-old sophomore, died of alcohol poisoning. Desdunes was bound with zip ties and duct tape and left alone on a fraternity house sofa after pledges staged a mock kidnapping of upperclassmen and compelled them to drink, according to documents in a criminal case. The pledges were acquitted of hazing and other charges. The fraternity didn’t defend itself and was fined.

Travis Apgar, an anti-hazing activist and Cornell’s associate dean of student affairs, declined to comment on Desdunes’s death, citing further, pending litigation except to say that there’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t think about it.

Cornell, which had started tightening its hazing and alcohol policies before Desdunes died, publishes a list of recent hazing incidents on its website. In one account, students were blindfolded and told they would be branded. Their skin was then touched with metal tongs that had been immersed in ice water. “Unable to distinguish cold from hot, new members thought they were being branded.”

Still, students are reluctant to report hazing, and those who do come forward are usually those who opted not to join a group, rather than current members.

‘Something Ridiculous’

“Nobody wants people to know they did something ridiculous in order to join a group,” Apgar said. He said colleges need to do more to stop the practice and should allow students to anonymously report it so administrators can step in earlier.

At Yale, the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights said it resolved a sex-discrimination complaint against the university in June without a fine after Yale agreed to overhaul its process for sexual-assault reporting and increase penalties for alcohol misuse. A group of students brought the complaint after the fraternity-chanting incident was posted on YouTube.

Besides ordering registration of off-campus parties, the school banned beer kegs at sporting events after a spectator was struck and killed by a delivery truck at last year’s Harvard- Yale football game.

Dartmouth Hazing

Dartmouth, based in Hanover, New Hampshire, was rocked by a hazing scandal in January when then-senior Andrew Lohse wrote in the school newspaper about eating omelets made from vomit and other degrading rituals at Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Two other hazing victims came forward after Lohse was criticized by students and alumni.

In April, Ravital Segal wrote in the Huffington Post of being forced to chug bottles of hard liquor in a 2006 Dartmouth sorority initiation. She wrote that she woke up in an intensive care unit with a lethal level of alcohol in her system and two broken teeth. Three other women from two sororities were at the same hospital that night with alcohol poisoning and pressured each other into denying the incident was hazing, Segal said in the article. She declined to comment for this story.

In October, sophomore Yesuto Shaw, 18, described being beaten at a Dartmouth fraternity house, called demeaning names and barred from speaking with friends who weren’t members of the group.

“People are going to be held accountable more and more for hazing,” Shaw, who plans on becoming a pastoral counselor, said in a telephone interview. “They’ll know that something done in the dark might possibly come to light.”

Random Walkthroughs

Dartmouth security now holds random walkthroughs of Greek houses and residence halls, and the school has banned open kegs and alcohol deliveries. Groups willing to disclose recent hazing violations can take part in an amnesty program and develop alternative activities for new members.

The measures “demonstrate the seriousness with which Dartmouth has approached this issue and the commitment we have to tackling it from multiple directions,” Justin Anderson, a spokesman, said in an e-mail.

More than 100 members of Dartmouth’s faculty signed a letter in February denouncing the drinking and hazing culture as one of “moral thuggery” that impedes their ability to teach.

“These problems have been here, underground, for a very long time,” said Lee Witters, a professor of medicine and biochemistry at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine. “The more public discussion about the binge drinking, the hazing, the homophobia, the more students themselves are willing to take the responsibility for it.”

Harvard, Princeton

Harvard and Princeton University don’t formally recognize fraternities and sororities. Harvard began revising its alcohol policy almost three years ago to take a proactive approach to alcohol consumption, spokesman Jeff Neal said in an e-mail.

“The new policy is designed more explicitly to support the health, safety and general wellbeing of our students, while also ensuring that we and they abide by the legal drinking age,” Neal said.

Princeton barred freshmen from pledging this year to give new students the opportunity to become more involved in a wider campus social life, said Martin Mbugua, a university spokesman.

Many students behave in ways that reflect the community at large, said Wade, the Occidental sociologist.

“Colleges are a microcosm of American society,” Wade said. “It’s a story of hormone-driven kids packed into dorms like sardines. And what we see when we look there -- the glamorization of casual sex; the binge-drinking; the crude, insensitive humor; the homophobia; the racism -- is a story about us.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Staiti in Boston at cstaiti@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at lwolfson@bloomberg.net


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