Wheaton College hazing traditions are in question

 

To some, hazing invokes images of cuts, bruises, bags over heads and humiliation. To most Wheaton students, initiation is simply a means of inclusion; it is good, old-fashioned fun to bring members closer together. With a new emphasis being placed on its hazing policy, however, Wheaton is choosing to crack down on all forms of hazing, regardless of intention.

Associate Dean of Resident Life Justin Heth, said in an email that Student Development wanted to be more “intentional” about educating the campus on Wheaton’s hazing policy this year in order to “prevent any possible situations from occurring.” Heth added, “Ultimately (the hazing policy) is enforced by the College, i.e. Student Development, but coaches, directors and Residence Life also participates in the prevention and enforcement of our college policies.”

“Hazing is defined as any act on or off Wheaton College property by one student acting alone or with others, directed against any other student(s), whether voluntary or involuntary, to subject that student or students to abusive or humiliating pranks or other activities (e.g., initiations, responses to engagements, “kidnappings,” etc.),” according to the Student Handbook. Initiations are the most vague part of the definition.

Both Heth and former resident assistant of Fischer 3West Elizabeth O’Reagan agreed that initiations have the potential to bond students.

O’Reagan said, “Depending on the initiation, absolutely I think it can bond people. When you have to do something challenging or embarrassing as a group, it can be quite bonding. Shared experience, especially when there is a level of challenge or sacrifice, can be quite bonding. Does this bonding have limits? Absolutely! When someone feels isolated, unsafe, singled out and unable to voice these feelings because they feel a cost of public scorn or shaming, then that initiation works against community in that its members cease to be honest with the group and cease to be themselves.”

A Wheaton cross country runner and a football player, who both chose to remain anonymous, strongly agree that team bonding is the number one product of initiations.

“I enjoyed the traditions when I went through them as a freshman,” the runner said. “I enjoyed watching freshmen go through them as well. But at the same time I realize that there are and have been freshmen who feel or did feel very uncomfortable participating.

“But that’s why our (activities) were optional. We wish they could at least still be an option.”

“Just by avoiding ‘hazing’ or what one may think is ‘hazing’ and initiations,” the football player said, “one won’t be able to ever get out of their comfort zone and throw their self-pride away and feel what it is like to humble oneself to the team. Alumni ask if Wheaton Football has changed, and while I believe Wheaton football’s mission has not changed, the experience has, unfortunately.”

In past years, on the Friday before the first game, freshman football players were asked by upperclass teammates to dress in shirt and tie and wear their helmets to all of the their classes. New policy dictates that the tradition will no longer take place.

“It takes from the fun and excitement and things that we may remember for a lifetime,” the football player lamented.

“Society is becoming too soft and sensitive.”

The music ensembles took a different view of initiation. Junior Austin Alianiello of the Symphonic Band and the Jazz Ensemble, both of which have no initiation rituals, said students shouldn’t have to “earn their way” into the band or ensemble but rather, as Daniel Sommerville, director of those two music groups, said, students should and do feel appreciated to begin with.

Sophomore Melissa Wilkinson of the Symphonic Band had not experienced any initiation rituals at Wheaton, yet she generally did not believe that they build community well. She noted that personality comes into play, but she referenced the Band’s weekly dinners and other social events such as trampoline excursions and community service as better ways to build “long-lasting” community.

With the exception of Men’s Glee Club, which is known for its initiation, rituals and especially its camaraderie, no music ensembles, orchestras or bands have initiations. John Harris ’70 cited Men’s Glee Club as being almost like a fraternity during the late 1960s, and he noted MGC as one of the highlights of his life. His definition of fraternity centered on the camaraderie and differed from the hazed, drunken scene of the millennial age.

In 1967, MGC sent his parents a letter asking for “embarrassing” and “amusing stories” from Harris’ childhood for “hazing” before Harris’ first tour. The letter defined “hazing” as “good natured teasing (that) not only tends to make the new members feel more a part of the group but also is a lot of fun.” MGC, famous for its camaraderie, has not and does not stand for harmful behavior.

The college condones healthy bonding rituals but will not permit anything harmful to the students. In this sense, hazing is always and completely unacceptable. However, initiations and rituals that are deemed healthy have been acceptable over the years, even in the late 1960s. This year, the college has asked its floor leaders and sports teams to examine and improve their traditions, though it is not asking them to cease completely.

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