Zero Place in a Liberal Education

On the final Saturday of my orientation last February, we gathered at the Snow Bowl. Fresh with the energy that comes with making new friends and eager to solidify our places in the group, we tore off our shirts to the strains of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” and ran out into the snow and sunshine — the perfect metaphor for the start of our college experience often marked simultaneously by exuberance and vulnerability, by friendship and freezing cold. But this year’s Feb leaders were warned against a repeat. According to the College Handbook, we have a strict zero-tolerance policy against any activity — no matter how ridiculous or inconsequential — that can be considered “hazing.”

I’ve always found zero-tolerance policies ineffective and distasteful. They may seem like the easy option when faced with a large and unruly group, but their unyielding responses inevitably seem to produce the worst kind of injustice.

Take the Middlebury swimming and diving team, whose spirit, cohesion and season were irreparably damaged by a rather silly accusation of hazing.
What the team did was stupid and ill-considered, but so were both the punishment and the false moral high ground assumed by those who rushed to judge them, canceling a meet for the men and women even before all the details could come to light.

Under Middlebury’s impossibly broad definition of hazing, the so-called “guilty” parties include many groups on campus — and not only the sports teams. Just living in Battell seems like it could qualify. Quoting the College’s own anti-hazing policy, the Middlebury application process can easily be defined as “an act . . . against a student in connection with” joining “an educational institution” which “should reasonably be expected to have the effect of humiliating, intimidating, or demeaning the student or endangering the mental or physical health of a student.” I am reasonably certain that I was not the only one intimidated by the application process.  And being waitlisted was pretty damn humiliating.

My point here is that the swim teams fell victim to an overly broad policy coupled with an overly zealous prosecution. The most remarkable fact about the alleged hazing was the lack of alcohol. No one’s health was in any danger. At most, a couple of people were embarrassed. An appropriate punishment for the perpetrators would have been a day of community service or something similar. Instead, the administration treated the entire team like a group of criminals. Besides the first-years, the women’s team had to miss the rest of their season, the entire team was put on probation and last week, the coach and assistant coach stepped down. While they claim this was not connected to the “incident,” team members have since been asked not to speak to the press, as though we live in the kind of society where no one will notice this purge.

Zero tolerance policies have no place in a liberal arts education. They are unreasoned, unquestioning and often unjust. They teach the opposite of the lessons that our Middlebury College education aims to bestow, pushing things into the dark instead of allowing open dialogue. Next time a student is a victim of hazing, it seems likely he or she will take a good look at the possible consequences of speaking out and decide to remain silent.

Imagine if the College applied a zero tolerance policy to alcohol. Students would go even further to hide their consumption. The Middlebury social scene — for what it’s worth — would retreat behind locked doors. Most importantly, students would lose access to medical care, creating a serious health risk. And how many would actually stop drinking?

Zero tolerance policies have no place at Middlebury. They leave no room for common sense. Nothing else here has made me more disenchanted with the administration.

Rushed judgments, accusations against the athletes’ characters and unfair assumptions seemed to rule the process. We need to stop pretending that making an example of a team every now and then will make hazing go away. For better or for worse, initiations are an integral part of the college experience; instead of pushing them undercover or off campus, the best we can do is bring them into the open and make them safe.