Wheeler: Touch the Fire… If You Want To
By Katie Wheeler, Contributing Columnist
Published on Tuesday, September 18, 2012
On Oct. 27, roughly 1,100 freshmen — decked out in Dartmouth ’16 shirts and green face paint — will march toward the Green. There they will encounter throngs of alumni, parents and upperclassmen, as well as — of course — an intimidating 65-tier bonfire, soon to be set ablaze. As the wooden structure is enveloped in flames, freshmen will begin to run around it. Many will stop after 16 laps, but some brave souls will push on toward the “mandated” 116. With the heat of the fire on their faces and the shouts of the upperclassmen encouraging them, they will run around and around. After this night, they will be initiated as true Dartmouth students; they will be inducted into this great, tight-knit community with rich traditions.
Yet there exist several very negative aspects of this hallowed ritual. The “encouraging” hollers of the upperclassmen, while often tasteful taunting, also take the form of heckling. The fire is incredibly hot and sometimes leaves students with mild burns. The physical nature of the tradition assumes a certain level of fitness and might exclude and isolate certain students. It seems reasonable enough to argue that the Homecoming bonfire, rather than being just a good time, can also at times resemble what the College would deem a hazing ritual, as was pointed out by a student at yesterday’s pre-recruitment education session for students wishing to join a Greek organization.
Dartmouth has recently attempted to take great strides to combat its well-publicized hazing problem. The College defines hazing as “any action taken or situation created involving prospective or new members of a group or as a condition of continued membership in groups (fraternity, sorority, team, club or other organization), which would be perceived by a reasonable person as likely to produce mental or physical discomfort, harm, stress, embarrassment, harassment or ridicule.” As new members of the Dartmouth community, freshmen partake in an activity — namely, Dartmouth Night — that has the potential to expose them to harassment and mental as well as physical discomfort. If the Homecoming bonfire so clearly fits the College’s definition of hazing, why has the administration yet to oppose it?
Many Dartmouth students would agree that Homecoming is an awesome tradition. Countless numbers of alumni return year after year to this event in order to show their continuous support for the school and its new members. Freshmen have the opportunity to come together as a class and feel not only connected to each other, but to the Dartmouth community as a whole, as well. Homecoming allows these new members of the College to convene outside of classes, residence halls and fraternity basements to relive the excitement and silliness they first experienced during DOC Trips. Homecoming is about having fun with friends, making new ones and feeling truly welcomed into and embraced by Dartmouth.
The College appears to have recognized that the benefits of the Homecoming bonfire tradition in inspiring community on campus outweigh the need to prevent mild hazing under the strictest definition of the term. Yet the strict application of this policy with regard to the Greek system seems to inconsistent with this interpretation of the policy. When it came time to clean up the mess caused by Andrew Lohse, the College tried to be very proactive, or at least appear so. While administrators have good reason to take a tougher stance on hazing in the Greek system, they are going too far. Efforts to abolish harmless new member activities like wearing flair, scavenger hunts, funny displays of pledges singing or dancing — activities as harmless as the Homecoming bonfire — take away the truly fun aspects of pledge term that comprise an overall positive experience for new members. As it seems to have done with its application of the hazing policies to Homecoming, the administration should take into account whether a new member activity is actually detrimental to participants. The overwhelmingly positive aspects of some new member activities merit a reconsideration of their abolishment.
Many new member activities of the Greek system, just like the Homecoming bonfire, are undoubtedly bonding experiences in which students have a chance to be silly and connect with one another. Students feel united with their peers in what is, to be honest, a pretty innocent situation. The College needs to stop being so preoccupied with what the outside world thinks about its hazing problem and needs to start being realistic. Hazing is, of course, a serious problem here, but taking away fun and harmless parts of pledge term makes students less respecting of an otherwise reasonable initiative.