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Professor Lovaye Kajiura talks with incoming students at an orientation workshop at McMaster University in Hamilton, August 29, 2013. University officials are vowing firmer oversight of orientation activities in the wake of two reports. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)
Professor Lovaye Kajiura talks with incoming students at an orientation workshop at McMaster University in Hamilton, August 29, 2013. University officials are vowing firmer oversight of orientation activities in the wake of two reports. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)

McMaster to crack down on drinking, orientation activities Add to ...

Frosh-week partying among engineering students at McMaster University will face more scrutiny and oversight after the release of a report that details underage drinking and sexually suggestive activities sanctioned by orientation leaders.

McMaster began probing the activities of student leaders in its engineering faculty in January after learning of a songbook containing sexually explicit and offensive chants compiled by past and current students, and hearing rumours of “unsanctioned events.”

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In a report released Wednesday, lawyer James D. Heeney, who was hired by McMaster as an external investigator, concluded that while the songbook exists and is sexist and degrading, it was not used or distributed by student society executives or orientation leaders. But he found students organized “a series of inappropriate activities in violation of University policy,” often involving substantial drinking. Dean of students Sean Van Koughnett stressed the need to “change a subculture that is out of step with the values of our institution.”

Provost David Wilkinson believes these activities have been passed down as traditions among “a relatively small group.” But he said in an interview that the university’s leadership was disturbed to learn of events that “put students at risk” by encouraging, among other things, “having underage young people drinking, sometimes to excess, when they're not used to that, in locations that are not close to medical help.”

In January, McMaster suspended the activities of the Redsuits, a student group dedicated to student spirit and charity work that also has a reputation for hard partying, with about 100 members and an affiliation to the student-run McMaster Engineering Society. Senior orientation leaders will still be barred from participating in frosh-related events at least for this year, but the suspension has been lifted for the others.

In response, McMaster will implement 15 recommendations from Mr. Van Koughnett, including instituting faculty oversight of Welcome Week hiring, boosting training for student leaders, reviewing its orientation week policies and tightening financial reporting rules for the McMaster Engineering Society.

Mr. Heeney’s conclusions are gathered from interviews with members of McMaster’s community who were granted anonymity, and no one is named. Among the inappropriate activities alleged in the report are:

– An annual camping trip for existing and incoming orientation leaders, known as Representatives, that involved excessive drinking. When new Representatives were given their Redsuits, some followed a “tradition” of taking off all their clothes as their peers cheered them on, though others did not disrobe. The McMaster Engineering Society also spent $851.46 on the trip, in violation of spending rules.

– The hiring process for orientation week leaders included questions relating to alcohol and sex, ostensibly designed to demonstrate creativity, such as, “If your genitalia suddenly became sentient what would be your conversation with them?”

– A backyard barbeque organized by student leaders during frosh week that provided alcohol to first-year students, most of whom weren’t of legal drinking age.

– Student representatives under investigation allegedly removed information from a Facebook page and the engineering society website, apparently to hinder Mr. Heeney’s investigation.

Mr. Heeney’s report says students have already made some changes in recent years to discard some of the most unsavoury traditions. And as a result of the suspensions that are still in place, most leaders of the engineering orientation week at McMaster this fall will be new to the role.

“Changing culture is a challenging thing, and not something that one can dictate from above in any real way,” Dr. Wilkinson said. “So I think it's really a question, for us, of breaking the cycle.”

Follow on Twitter: @jembradshaw

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