Opinion guest column

New hazing policy has concerning implications

A new, excessively broad definition of hazing is well-intentioned but could stifle open discourse

Under MIT’s recently overhauled hazing policy in the Mind and Hand Book, I am guilty of hazing students.

I’ve probably hazed those around me almost every week of my time at MIT and will likely continue to do so into the future. Have I intentionally abused, harassed, intimidated, or otherwise endangered the physical or mental health of a colleague? Emphatically, no. Have I occasionally acted, intentionally or not, in a way as to induce “physical or mental discomfort or distress” in those around me? Absolutely. I am many times guilty and I wager most others, faculty included, are too.

It is not the case that we’re bad people. In fact, over my last five years at MIT as a TA, researcher, student leader, and mentor I’ve increasingly enjoyed working and learning from each year’s new admits. So what am I talking about — how can we all be perpetrators of a Mind and Hand Book violation that carries with it punishments as severe as suspension and expulsion?

It is because the inquisitive and intellectual environment that MIT demands in order to carry forward its mission is fundamentally predicated on our ability to question, debate, interrogate, and hold sacred no idea, no matter how common it may be. This courage to ask hard questions, endure challenge, and grow is what makes MIT so special and what is under fire with the Mind and Hand Book changes.

Specifically, MIT has augmented the definition carefully delineated by the State of Massachusetts that defines hazing as “any conduct or method of initiation… which willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person” into the far more encompassing “Any action or activity that causes or intends to cause physical or mental discomfort or distress, that may demean, degrade, or disgrace any person, regardless of location, intent, or consent of participants, for the purpose of initiation, admission into, affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in a group, organization, or living community.” This definition is agnostic to intent, consent, and severity, as well as time and place. Let that soak in for a second. Try to imagine your last conversation that didn’t take place in a group, organization, or living community or with another student who shared membership in a group with you.

What does this mean for us practically? Under this zealous extension many of the creative and demanding processes that I and others require for growth in our fields and as individuals are now under scrutiny. To name a few, passionate debates during research meetings, student leaders challenging rising talent with harder individual assignments before giving them more responsibility, faculty expectations that students work during nights or weekends as standard lab practice, or the ability to run intense practices for intramural or club sports teams. These are all circumstances in which I have witnessed friends upset or distressed and all now fall in the prosecutable domain of hazing.

Is it wrong that students should be offended or distressed at MIT? In situations where the cause is willful or reckless in nature, without a doubt. However, the logic that students need constant protection and insulation from each other and from every subtle offense in order to enjoy an environment that is conducive to learning is wrong. Academic and personal growth can and sometimes should be painful. The First Amendment lawyer and author Greg Lukianoff put it best when he noted “Being offended is what happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged. And if you make it through four years of college without having your deepest beliefs challenged, you should demand your money back.”

Perhaps the most dangerous outcome of ambiguous speech codes like MIT’s revamped hazing policies has nothing to do with whether or not they will actually be enforced. Unclear language creates unclear expectations, is prone to variable interpretation, and most importantly, can result in a chilling effect on campus.

Charges need not be brought to make students think twice before debating portions from Nabokov’s Lolita out of fear child abuse may be a trigger for somebody. Some may view this as a stretch, however we need look no further than the slow decay of the MIT’s Good Samaritan policy to see how lack of speech protections chill and suppress student action. Though broad language is great for covering all the bases, it casts an unknowably large shadow and creates a quiet back-door for the slow and steady decline of speech freedoms on campus.

Simply put, when we try to craft protective and risk-averse bubbles around ourselves and MIT we do so at the peril of burdening our community with a degree of paranoia which tempers and censures our everyday ability to think and act with courage.

And so it is that bad outcomes can come from good intentions. Certainly, nobody in the administration is out to hurt students or undermine the Institute’s mission. Rather, our administrative leaders sometimes grapple with a different set of challenges than those in the academic side of the house.

There are external threats and litigation that drive risk-mitigative behavior, there are desires to appear progressive in comparison to our peers or the state, and there are occasions where support staff who deal with the real effects of serious hazing on a regular basis are inspired to create expansive language to impede hazing at all costs.

It is in these zealous charges to address a single component of the university experience that we lose sight of the larger optimization at play and we begin to destabilize the delicate ecosystem of growth that we cherish and society needs. It is important for us to have a public and frank discussion about where the balance should be and whether this new language achieves those ends.

And though I’ve shared my opposition to this loose language as a graduate student leader during the 2013 drafting stages and again in this opinion piece, I want and need the community to challenge me. If I am wrong, make me feel and know the wrongness of my assumptions. Make me lose sleep over them. Cause me a little bit of “mental discomfort”. This is how I learn.

Brian L. Spatocco is a PhD Candidate in the department of Materials Science and Engineering as well as a former GSC President, Chair of Housing and Community Affairs and Chairman of the Sidney Pacific Board of Trustees.

17 Comments
1
Matt Putnam '09 over 3 years ago

This is absolutely ridiculous fluff. None of the examples listed in the 6th paragraph would "demean, degrade, or disgrace" anyone.

2
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Re: 1, The policy doesn't require that it demean, degrade or disgrace anyone. The inclusion of 'that may' doesn't make it a necessary condition for the hazing definition to apply. The policy also does not require any intent.

3
Brian Spatocco over 3 years ago

Hi Matt,

Thanks for your comment. I would like to first respond by saying that the "demean, degrade, or disgrace" condition is not a joint requirement for hazing. In other words, a student doesn't need to make somebody uncomfortable AND disgrace them. From careful reading, the language is given in a serial listing indicating that any of the three statements being proven true would create the conditions for hazing. Maybe it would be more clear if provided as follows:

Any action or activity that fulfills one or more of the following...

1. causes or intends to cause physical or mental discomfort or distress,

2. may demean, degrade, or disgrace any person, regardless of location, intent, or consent of participants, for the purpose of initiation, admission into, affiliation with,

3. or as a condition for continued membership in a group, organization, or living community.

A final comment I would respond with is that even if it were the case that demeaning, degrading, or disgracing were required, an objection that the examples above to not meet the criteria does not address my most salient critique which is the chilling affect I would propose can take place.

If you are still at unease with the argument I make and view it as unlikely that generous hazing language can have any negative outcomes, I would invite you to review just one of the instances in where it has been misapplied:

Jun Xiao (former MIT postdoc) hazing probation: http://www.thefire.org/st-louis-community-college-finds-student-guilty-of-hazing-for-e-mailing-classmates/

4
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Why am I not surprised that this is coming from someone in the DMSE, the department most notorious for an "old boys club" attitude? Contrary to apparently popular belief, humiliation and harassment do not lead to intellectual growth.

5
Matt Putnam '09 over 3 years ago

Your interpretation of the wording seems off. The way you've broken it into bullet points doesn't even fit grammatically.

I do think that "generous hazing language" can have negative outcomes, but I also think the language presented by MIT is pretty clear and doesn't include simple things like assigning difficult or time-consuming work.

As for your example, first of all it's at a different school with presumably different policies. Second of all, it seems highly likely that there's far more to the story than what the article includes, and certainly isn't an unbiased source. Give me an example of someone being charged with hazing for assigning a p-set.

6
Brian Spatocco over 3 years ago

Anonymous: If the best thing you can do is attack my arguments in proxy by attacking the department I belong to then you're doing a disservice to the others on this list, like Matt, that are offering substantive critique.

Also, if you have a critique of DMSE and its culture, you should know you have very viable pathways to lodge a complaint. For one, you can contact Christine Ortiz, one of the youngest and only female Deans of Graduate Education (and DMSE prof) OR Professor Lorna Gibson, a former MIT Associate Provost and author of the ground-breaking status of women faculty report at MIT. I'm sure she can help you calibrate your critique a bit better than using it as an indirect ad hominem attack on me or my argument.

As for your contention that harassment doesn't help learn - you're absolutely right. It does not and that is why it is completely and undeniably illegal at MIT, in the state of MA, and according to federal law. As for humiliation, well that really depends. Has somebody tried intentionally to humiliate me? If so, then you're absolutely correct. Am I humiliated because my opinion or judgement has been proven to be wrong... in this case I would argue it's well deserved and a good learning experience for me.

In your case and given your lackluster assault on the core of the argument, I might even propose a little humiliation would do you good in the future to think more before you speak.

7
Brian Spatocco over 3 years ago

Hi Matt,

Those are fair points. I would disagree with you on the wording point. Though I'm not an english major, the language being formatted as "Any action that (1), (2), or (3)", which is the exact format, reads to me as an inclusive or, not an exclusive one.

On your second point, the one about it likely not being applied to homework or other course assignments. My guess is that you're right. Practically speaking, this type of thing will never be at risk. That said, let me propose a real scenario for you and you tell me if you think this is hazing:

Student Org President Jane Doe is nearing the end of her tenure. She has begun thinking about who will replace her and her exec team next year. The job is really quite stressful and the demands on time can, at times, be significant. As a result, it is common practice that potential future (interested) student leaders are generally expected to volunteer at the major student event A in order to demonstrate their ability to work with the team and execute. Their performance is commonly used as a deciding point during elections. This event often requires many late or sleepless nights (especially the night before) and frequent heated debates about how certain logistics play out. Needless to say, the experience is a baptism by fire.

The question now is, a student comes to Jane and says, "Hey Jane, I'm thinking I'd like to continue in the organization next year in an executive role. What can I do to improve my chances of being selected/elected? Would it be hazing for Jane to tell this student "The best way for you to demonstrate your abilities is to take this task..." a task which everyone knows involves lots of late nights, frequent debates about logistics, and likely a good deal of anxiety and stress"

Is this hazing. I'm not so sure... I know smart people could argue one way or the other.

The point is less about whether it will actually be brought up as a hazing case and more about whether these new rules make Jane rethink encouraging prospective leaders to take on really stressful or hard tasks.

As for your final remark about the applicability of the article - that's a good point you make and the context is important. The only thing I can say to this is that there are cases where hazing is used inappropriately to suppress what should be free student speech. Whether MIT is moving towards or away from this is what I am most interested in.

8
Anonymous over 3 years ago

I have a question for the author: What sort of "excellence" do the brothers of a fraternity need to demand of their pledges? MIT students have enough demands on them; they don't need upperclassmen harassing them for stupid reasons. What is the point of having an unequal power relationship (pledge:broth) in the fraternities at all?

9
Brian Spatocco over 3 years ago

Anonymous:

That's a really good question and one I need to think more on. However, my first reaction is the following:

The fault in this particular frat lies mostly in the frat in not being specific about their criteria and how those criteria can be demonstrated. The word "excellence" suffers from the same vagueness and ambiguity that the recent hazing language does... it's so open to interpretation that it's also open to abuse. For example, if a frat had as a tenant of its membership "Academic Excellence and Professionalism" then I think the issue would be obviated. In this case, a frat could be expected to encourage its future pledges to study harder and pursue professional development courses through the GECD or through its alumni network. I would not consider this undue burden, personally. When frats use words like "excellence" we're basically opening ourselves up to a whole boat load of misuse. Really, it's an empty and old-school term that invites old-school and unacceptable behavior.

To make the point clear, an academically oriented frat could require certain academic activities like tutoring students or holding certain GPAs. Both of those requirements burden pledges with additional work but its clear what it is from the beginning. This seems reasonable.

One final point, and this is an important one. Both you and another poster used the word harassment to make a point. We all need to be clear that harassment, in the context of university and state/federal law, is clearly and strictly defined. I understand that in a conversational sense it is useful to deploy to make a point but when you say upperclassmen are harassing younger pledges, that legally implies that they are committing a crime. In the case of harassment, I'm completely on board that illegal and punishable behavior has occurred.

That said, we need to stop confusing offended or challenged with harassment. These are two very different things and the muddling of the two is sort of at the heart of what's wrong.

Brian

10
Natalie over 3 years ago

I have never seen an author attack the commenters on their article in comments. That is horrible journalism and professionalism. You had the opportunity to say your piece in your article. Now allow others to express their concerns/opinions without you needing to argue everything they say.

As anyone who knows anything about hazing prevention and general policies, I feel the MIT policy is no different than any other hazing policy at any other University and most state laws so I am not sure why you are all up in arms. And in the end, if people just treated each other better, there would be no need for it. Is it likely a random person like you would get charged with hazing for being the general jerk that you are? Probably not. You might get charged with abuse or other policy violations depending ont he severity. Is it likely someone will get charged with hazing by challenging someone intellectually in a kind and safe way to support positive development? Not likely. But if a student organization or sports team is treating people poorly or putting them in danger as part of joining? Yes, they probably will.

11
Dr. Nevan Hanumara over 3 years ago

A well written piece sir! From grade school up to (now) graduate school there is an increasing tendency to bubble wrap students upon arrival to protect them from the rigors of real life.

Indeed, if initiation rituals, with a serious power imbalance, that causes mental discomfort or distress and may demean, degrade, or disgrace are now deemed as hazing well have to cancel all qualifying exams.

Im disappointed to see that some readers of the Tech see this as an occasion to baselessly and personally attack (perhaps even harass?) Brian and DSME for discussing the risks associated with a broad definition, heavily reliant on interpretation, rather than clearer professional misconduct.

12
Brian Spatocco over 3 years ago

Hi Natalie,

I'm afraid you're not understanding the general rules and protocol on this Tech board. First of all, the piece I posted was an opinion piece of a non-Tech affiliated student. As a result, your notions of journalistic integrity (which, if you read other actual editorial pieces elsewhere is not actually correct) does not apply. Secondly, I am a student with an opinion who has explicitly in their article requested a conversation start on this and invited others to critique and debate with me. So I'm afraid I don't agree with you that I should not be replying - in fact I'd like to think that my effort and attention to this topic should be the standard for an oped author. They should be willing to stand behind or debate their work rather than just put it out there and take a hike. Finally, if you're even mildly suggesting that comment #4 by anonymous doesn't deserve a sharp rebuke I can't help but strongly disagree. That kind of mindless, numb, and speculative dribble is really the kind of tangle wire that prevents us from discussing the key concepts behind important topics. So I will have no reservation when it comes to calling out poor sportsmanship and low blows(as commenter #4 has shown) when needed.

To your main point - you are factually wrong - many universities have much different and much less restrictive hazing policies. In fact, the vast majority of universities will defer to the state's legal judgment call on what the legal definition of hazing is. Public universities, for instance, are now increasingly legally embattled when they try to extend the public legal language with more expansive speech codes as MIT has done here. The fact that MIT is a private institution, however, gives us additional latitude to amend or adjust our policies so long as they at least cover the state levels. This extension is exactly what my piece is about and in objection to.

Regarding your hypothetical scenario in which you propose that, if everyone were just nicer, we wouldn't need these rules. That's true. However, the fact is (as it is for any sort of human transgressions) we need rules for in a modern society, we're not perfect beings and we do need guidance and regulation. I want to emphasize again that I'm not about creating these boundaries and punishments for bad behavior - I'm against creating unclear and ambiguous ones that can be multiply interpreted and actually create more confusion in the minds of students rather than clarity.

13
Brian Spatocco over 3 years ago

Natalie:

As for whether I would be indicted for hazing for speaking an opinion in an intellectual way (save my response to the brutish remarks from commenter number 4), I certainly hope not - that said, with the incredibly risk-obsessed and anti-intellectual direction some universities have been moving in recently I am sad to say that I would not be surprised.

Finally - a piece of advice I received from a very kind and noble person... when you resort to calling somebody a name you've already lost the battle. It's okay to disagree with or even despise an idea (which is how I direct my commentary), but to call the idea's author a jerk really betrays something about you more than it does me.

14
Anonymous over 3 years ago

Brian,

The way that I read the policy (granted I am also not an english major) conditions all of the above actions on being "for the purpose of initiation, admission into, affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in a group, organization, or living community.

The election example you cite wouldn't fall under that criteria.

I think the important advantage that this language brings is that it eliminates the "I didn't know it would upset him" or "we were just playing around" defense. If you have to demonstrate behavior was either reckless or willful AND that it endangers either "physical or mental health" that excludes a lot of things that are clearly hazing (e.g. we made all the freshman role around in the mud doesn't endanger anyone)

15
Pete over 3 years ago

The crux of the matter will also rely on the subjective nature of being offended or stressed out by things. The "victim" gets to define the condition. Then the accused is often in the position of trying to prove a negative, which is often impossible to achieve. Much like sexual harassment rules and statutes, that rely on the victim to define when they are harassed. Clearly some cases cross the lines in the minds of almost any viewer, but I am sure that many will fall into the vast grey zone in the middle.

This speaks to the chilling effects on interactions and speech that can and does occur. Instead of asking out a colleague for dinner and a drink, one refrains, unsure if it might be perceived as a violation. The "victim" in this case is able to define the intentions of the accused, with nothing more than their opinion.

These standards present many of the same issues faced by harassment statues.

16
Isaac Sheff over 3 years ago

This seems oddly similar to Caltech's recent (even broader) hazing policy fiasco: see page 3 of http://caltechcampuspubs.library.caltech.edu/2585/1/Issue_14.pdf

17
Steve C over 3 years ago

Brian,

I appreciate your call for comments and correction, and I take it in the spirit with which I believe it was intended.

You rephrased the policy as:

Any action or activity that fulfills one or more of the following...

1. causes or intends to cause physical or mental discomfort or distress,

2. may demean, degrade, or disgrace any person, regardless of location, intent, or consent of participants, for the purpose of initiation, admission into, affiliation with,

3. or as a condition for continued membership in a group, organization, or living community.

I don't think that is correct. Item 3 alone is not a violation. It should be more like

Any action or activity that fulfills one or more of the following...

1. causes or intends to cause physical or mental discomfort or distress,

2. may demean, degrade, or disgrace any person, regardless of location, intent, or consent of participants

for the purpose of initiation, admission into, affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in a group, organization, or living community.

So the election example would not qualify. It would be for the purpose of advancement, or office holding in a group, not simply continued membership.

As an earlier poster alluded to, none of the examples you gave in the 6th paragraph would qualify as hazing under this policy either.

Nor would any actions that a reasonable person would find acceptable.

If I understand correctly, you see a problem where people may be afraid to do what is right because of an overly broad policy. I see a policy which encourages clear communication to make sure that behavior is not offensive before it is committed. As per Pete's harassment example, ask the colleague if they are made uncomfortable before inviting them to dinner.

As with most situations, if intelligent people use the policy as intended, all is well. I think in order for this policy to be detrimental, the level of ignorance or willful abuse on the part of those responsible for implementing or adjudicating it would be pretty high. At that point, any policy would cause problems.