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The Impact of "Light Hazing" and the Snowball Effect

Updates from Lexington

Dr. Jamison Keller (California State, San Bernardino)

Assistant Dean of Students and Director for Fraternity & Sorority Life at Georgia Tech University

“But we aren’t doing anything close to what has been reported on the news or like what they are doing in that other group!”

I have heard this statement so often in my 20 years professionally advising fraternities and sororities. In fact, one of the first times I heard this comment was from a president of one of the best chapters I had the privilege of working with, thus it took me by total surprise. You see, just a few years prior, this chapter was one I pointed to whenever I was asked what an ideal chapter was. As a staff person responsible for empowering an entire fraternal community, there was no doubt in my mind this chapter was the one I wanted the others to emulate. However, in a short decade, it was this same chapter that I was telling everyone never to become.

In 1999 I was a brand-new Greek Advisor and this chapter had 80% of its membership serving as current campus leaders including the student government president, many student government senators, at least a dozen orientation leaders, and two Interfraternity Council officers. Their membership was the highest of the other chapters on campus and they had just won numerous national and local awards, including best chapter.

I was a bit surprised in 2001 when I had a parent of a pledge contact me to question why her son was only allowed to walk through the back door of the chapter house. Of course, I had no idea and asked the pledge educator. He indicated this was to establish the clear distinction that pledges were not yet active and had to “earn the right” to use the front entrance. This requirement clearly didn’t put anyone in danger emotionally or physically, but it did begin a dangerous path that would escalate significantly over time.

In 2003, most of the oldest leaders from 1999 had since graduated. The chapter still had many members serving as orientation leaders and as student government senators. Chapter membership fell to 68. They still won some awards but not overall best chapter. That fall I had a very concerned sorority woman inform me that this chapter’s pledges were required to entertain sororities at their meetings.  This was something that her sisters always looked forward to as the pledges serenaded them and brought flowers. This year was much different. They performed a skit that bordered on sexual harassment.

Fast-forward to 2005 and the chapter only had members serving as orientation leaders, just so they could break the deferred recruitment rules and recruit new freshmen. Chapter membership fell to 55 members and for the first time ever, the chapter did not meet their minimum GPA requirement. I also received a call from a concerned neighbor wondering way students were in the chapter’s backyard digging holes in the rain. The chapter claimed they were building a deck, but no deck ever appeared.

In 2007 the chapter had now seen two full rotations of membership since their award-winning peak of 1999 and was down to 35 members. No brothers held outside leadership positions and the chapter experienced several alcohol violations and a non-chapter related death of a pledge from drug use. The national organization came in and conducted a full membership review which resulted in five members resigning.

In 2010 the chapter was closed. When the alumni from 1999 had heard of this they began to reach out to try to understand what happened. I replied, “The Snowball Effect.” You see, at each time point above, members in the chapter had assumed, incorrectly, that what they were requiring of their pledges had always been. That it was tradition. They didn’t ever intend to harm anyone or get the chapter closed. This is something we always hear from fraternity members involved in a serious hazing injury or death, and they are right. For the situations we see on the news, the seed was planted years before. For the chapter I reference above, it was a decade. Just ten years to go from excellence to closed.

What began as an attempt at creating something that pledges “earn” (walking through the front door) soon evolved over time to dangerous hazing and a culture of not caring. Each new class decided to add just a little bit more to the “tradition.” Older members graduated, and the newest initiates eventually became the ones in charge. Hence, organizational memory fades and false assumptions lead. We forget that receiving a bid really means they already earned their way in. Our task, as Fraternity men, is to help them realize the best version of themselves.

My charge to you is to prevent The Snowball Effect from happening at your chapter. Stop the first idea, or get rid of the inappropriate activity now, and avoid the snowball from forming.

If this article resonates with you and is a message you believe would benefit your chapter and/or local Greek community, consider bringing the "Crossing the Line" workshop by CAMPUSPEAK to your campus. Crossing the Line is designed to open up dialogue about how a hazing culture begins and festers over time from "light hazing" to a dangerous concern. Go to http://campuspeak.com/workshops/crossingtheline/ to learn more.

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9 North Lewis Street, P.O. Box 1869, Lexington, Virginia 24450
Phone: (540) 463-1869 | Fax: (540) 463-1669 | Email: headquarters@sigmanu.org

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