The Cambridge hazing trials

Rival fraternities took advantage of a process with no oversight

Between Febuary 1692 and May 1693 in Salem Village, Massachusetts, twenty nine men and women were tried and convicted of witchcraft. Salem Village had a “zero tolerance” policy for witchcraft, which was at the time a capital felony. Nineteen of the convicted witches went to the gallows. A twentieth man was crushed to death during attempts to draw out a confession. Luckily, the right lessons were learned, and the state of Massachusetts was never again the host of such a gross miscarriage of justice. That is until, September 2010. I welcome you, ladies and gentlemen, to the first case of the Cambridge Hazing Trials. And sadly, it might not be the last.

Hazing, like witchcraft, is generally considered a bad thing. To the outside observer, it is at best a bunch of silly, meaningless rituals, and at worst can lead to grave injury or death. I sympathize with the Puritan establishment in Salem. Momentarily suspending disbelief, if, hypothetically, there were actual witches hexing and cursing people, it would be in the public’s best interests that they be brought to justice. Responsible governments take action to prevent unnecessary harm, because people should have the right to live without being subject to malicious torment.

But the Salem Witch Trials didn’t just happen because there were laws against witchcraft. They happened because of prejudice against people who had different norms and traditions. People wanted to believe they were “witches.” They happened because of a climate of economic competition where accusing someone of witchcraft was a quick and easy way to get their land and assets. They happened because of a standard for witchcraft whereby nearly anyone could be “proven” guilty. They happened because no one stood up and said, “This is ridiculous. This isn’t the way the our government should be run.”

I’m sure everyone is tired of hearing about the PBE suspension by now, especially given how little has actually been said. The IFC claims that PBE hazed, based on a description of initiation procedures and testimony of an “anonymous witness.” PBE claims they didn’t haze, because no one was in physical or mental danger, no participants felt they were hazed, and the initiation rituals are essentially a harmless team building experience. Some PBE alums thought the decision was hasty, and asked for the MIT to independently review the case. MIT’s position was to support the IFC’s right to self government. PBE representatives pointed to the suspicious timing of the accusations during the early stages of rush, violations of the statute of limitations, and questioned the general lack of due process in the case. The IFC pointed to rights being waived and the fact that everyone had agreed to be governed in this way. There have been claims, counterclaims, and conspiracy theories, but very few answers.

Unforutanely, at this time, I don’t have any answers to add. But I do have a few more questions. First of all, what is hazing? According to the state law, hazing is something that willfully or recklessly endangers someone’s physical or mental health. Despite claims to the contrary, the IFC has yet to provide even a single example of danger to anyone’s physical or mental health. If no one was harmed, and no one was in danger of being harmed, when did hazing take place?

According to Fraternal Information and Programing Group (FIPG) policy, hazing is something that intentionally produces mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule. But how do you establish intent? PBE claims that it’s intent was to promote bonding through a shared experience in the traditions of a fraternity with 120 years of history. The strength of the connection between the active brothers and the alumni would seem to lend credibility to this motive. How do you determine whether someone was uncomfortable, embarassed, harrassed, or ridiculed? The easiest way would be to ask the initiates, the supposed “victims” of the crime. Not only did the IFC never ask the former pledges, it continues to ignore their protests to the accusations, and threatens to kick them out of their home. If PBE can be judged guilty of hazing based on circumstantial evidence and with no victims, it could happen to any member of the IFC or MIT community.

I am not specifically accusing the IFC JudComm of any bias in their process, but I do think the competitive nature of Rush presents plenty of opportunity for conflicts of interest. Greater oversight should be exercised during any judicial procedure that happens during Rush. Fraternity rush is extremely competitive, as proven by the tens of thousands of dollars spent annually by houses to attract freshmen. I suspect that the MIT policies requiring freshman to live on campus and balancing the campus gender ratio have only added to this pressure in recent years. Without freshman in the house, fraternities need larger pledge classes to keep their houses full. Also, the trend towards gender parity means that there is a smaller pool of men for the fraternitites to draw from.

This increasingly competitive climate gives fraternities ample incentive to elimate competing houses. With respect to hazing, where the determination of the offense is subjective, and the punishment is so severe, it is unnacceptable that this judgement can be passed down overnight by a handful of rival fraternity members with zero oversight. It is unnacceptable that the supposed “witness” of these events remains anonymous, and PBE was never given a chance to cross examine this person. It is unnacceptable that a 120 year old fraternity in good standing with the Institute and with a history of excellence was kicked out overnight for an alleged crime where there are no victims and no evidence that hazing took place.

But the Cambridge Hazing Trials aren’t just happening because there are laws against hazing. They are happening because of prejudice against a local fraternity that has different norms and traditions. People want to believe they are “hazing.” They are happening because of a climate of fratricidal competition where accusing someone of hazing can be a quick and easy way to eliminate competitors for pledges. They are happening because of a standard for hazing whereby nearly anyone could be “proven” guilty. And they will keep happening until we all stand up and say, “This is ridiculous. This isn’t the way the our government should be run.”

Jonathan Frazier is a member of the Phi Beta Epsilon Class of 2009.