Have universities begun to over-react to hazing rituals? An episode at a Toronto university involving students, some of them in their underwear, crawling through an icy puddle has prompted the school’s president to denounce what he called “a departure from dignity” and vow to meet with those responsible. But while some hazing rituals can be ugly and dangerous, not every one of them is inherently bad, and not every student or team bonding activity is automatically a hazing. The university in question, Ryerson, should listen carefully to all sides before disciplining the students who organized it.
The Ryerson incident involved engineering students who had been named freshmen leaders and who were, according to Rose Ghamari, president of the Ryerson Engineering Student Society (RESS), taking part in voluntary fun and games. Ms. Ghamari says only half the newly chosen student leaders chose to join in. No one was forced, and stripping down to one’s underwear was also optional. A video of the episode shows that most of the students – majority male, with few females – were in their underwear or in tight-fitting sports attire that resembles underwear, a few had on long pants and T-shirts, and everyone was wearing shoes.
The students don’t look particularly happy crawling through icy water at the shouted urging of more senior students but, assuming they are all adults, if they chose to take part, then that is their business.
The concern for people who reflexively oppose any sort of hazing or group-bonding activity that involves an inherent power structure is that someone might have been pressured into taking part against his or her will. They also worry that if even the most mild versions of such rituals are permitted, they will escalate to dangerous levels.
There is little question that, when teenagers or children are involved, or the forced over-consumption of alcohol is part of the ritual, the automatic and unconditional condemnation can be warranted. But we need to give university students due credit. Ryerson officials are right to investigate what happened. If any students report they were coerced into taking part, or were bullied or ostracized when they refused, then that is definitely the university’s business. But if the school determines that all the participants were there voluntarily, then the matter should be dropped.
Hazing may be a sensitive issue for university officials, but as much as possible they should respect students’ ability to judge for themselves.