Most of the women’s swim team was recently suspended from finishing out the season, after members of both the men’s and women’s teams were found to have violated the College’s hazing policy.
At the expense of joining the conversation on this topic a bit late, MiddBlog hopes to examine the case and the reactions to it thus far. The goal is to build a basis for constructive discussion about the broader concerns the situation raises.
This post is longer than average, so hit “Read more” for the rest:
Below is the full text of the College’s official response to the hazing incident. As a point of clarification, the Administration did not “release” or “publish” this statement in the sense of actively sending it out; rather, Old Chapel provided the text to anyone who called or emailed in to ask about the situation.
Middlebury College has investigated1 violations of the college’s hazing policy by the men’s and women’s swim teams and determined that violations did occur. The college has also investigated charges of hazing by individual members of the men’s and women’s swim teams and is in the process of determining whether action will be taken regarding individual team members under its anti-harassment policy.2 The violations took place during activities involving both teams on Feb. 2. After the investigation began Feb. 3, the teams were prohibited from competing at an invitational swim meet on the Middlebury campus Feb. 5. As of Feb. 7, the college’s Department of Public Safety had interviewed more than 30 students. On Feb. 8, based on these reports, college administrators determined that the women’s swim team, with the exception of the first-year students, will not compete for the remainder of the season. Both the men’s and women’s teams will be on probation3 next year. The college is communicating with individual students about forthcoming charges and adjudication processes regarding possible violations of Middlebury’s hazing policy. Middlebury College has a zero tolerance policy for hazing and harassment, and takes all possible conduct violations very seriously.
Dean of the College and Chief Diversity Officer
Now for our footnotes. The statement uses a few terms that need to be unpacked to understand exactly what’s going on:
- The protocol for “investigation” of suspected hazing violations is as follows: After reviewing information gathered in interviews, and after conferring with coaches, senior administrators and the director of athletics, the Dean of the College has final say on violations committed by groups (see note #3 for individual offenses).
- For athletic teams, “probation” means that, “if the team engages in any conduct violations while on probation, it will face serious disciplinary consequences or sanctions, which would be determined depending on the nature of the violations,” says Sarah Ray, Director of Public Affairs for the College. Scrutiny isn’t necessarily increased while on probation, but punishments are harsher.
- There is a distinction between the team and its members: sanctions for the team as a unit have been finalized, but consequences for each team member are being handled separately. Per College policy, the Dean’s office decides the former while the Community Judicial Board (CDB) holds individual hearings on the latter.
Finally, to understand the charges, we need complete information about the policy being violated. The full text of Midd’s hazing policy (including adjudication procedures) can be found in Section 2 of the College Handbook’s Community Standards and General Policies. Below is the definition of hazing:
[A]ny act committed by a person, whether individually or in concert with others, against a student in connection with pledging, being initiated into, affiliating with, holding office in, or maintaining membership in any organization which is affiliated with an educational institution; and which is intended to have the effect of, or 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. Hazing also includes soliciting, directing, aiding, or otherwise participating actively or passively in the above acts.
The implied or expressed consent to hazing is not a defense under applicable State law or this policy.
Those are the definitions, rules, and violations at play here.
If you count Middlebury Confessional as “coverage,” the flow of information about the incident was lively from the beginning–if 100% rumor. The College wrote its statement early on, but since the document was only available by request, many students assumed no response had been made at all.
Bowdoin’s newspaper, The Orient, published an article based on the Middlebury Administration’s statement on February 11th–beating all local news outlets by a week.
The next two pieces of coverage came from The Campus on the 17th. First, the Sports section included a short, straightforward sidebar similar to Bowdoin’s, summarizing the official statement.
The same day, The Campus featured an editorial by a writer who had intended to cover the incident more extensively but had been received “a big, fat ‘No'” from her editor. The author, Maddie Kahn ’11, accuses The Campus (herself included) of tending to bow to political correctness. “[T]he role of journalists,” Kahn says, “is to write the truth — clean and simple.”
The incident, the decision and the representation of both lead to urgent conversations that have only been vaguely hinted at so far. Here are some questions we feel are most important:
- How well is the College following its own rules?
- What about when rules are more vague, as with the process by which a troubling incident becomes a hazing case?
- Does the policy’s broad language leave the Administration too much discretion over which cases to address and how? (This last question ties into other issues like protected speech.)
- Why has awareness of the case spread in such a lopsided way?
“Transparency” is the easy word to use in relation to all of the above, but it doesn’t quite fit. Perhaps it makes more sense to talk about “attentiveness,” a combination of transparency and grasp of context. By Wednesday, rumors were so widespread that professors felt comfortable mentioning the incident in class, yet some students still had no idea the College had dealt with the situation publicly at all. A hazing accusation always means more than the sum of its details, if not in theory than certainly in practice. What has been missing so far from all responses to this case has been attentiveness to the subjective reactions, questions and rumors that inevitably ripple through communities after negative events.
So where were we?
MiddBlog editors had been following the story from its earliest rumor-embryo, but we didn’t report on it because, frankly, we were divided and confused. Instead of the dichotomy Kahn points out between “the truth” and editorial decisions that merely “try to please,” our debates in the editors’ Facebook thread show the gray area around options for covering “bad press” issues.
One of our editors, who wanted no more than a cursory treatment of the incident, argued from a practical perspective. “What happened doesn’t leave much room for discussion — there’s no controversy.” The same editor worried that extra attention might only make things more painful for those innocent team members caught up in the investigation.
Common-sense arguments also held up the other side: “if Bowdoin wrote about i think it would be pretty embarrassing if there were no midd publications that acknowledged it. Plus is middblog not allowed to post things that are negative and controversial? I feel like those are the posts that people most want to read and that most need a space for discussion.” Another editor agreed for more idealistic reasons that echo those in Kahn’s op-ed: “good journalism shouldn’t avoid negative or emotional issues.”
In a way, The Campus got the best of both worlds: a tidy briefing on the judicial decision and a bold editorial condemning its own tendency toward political correctness. Of course, the same could be said for MiddBlog: we used our flexible publication schedule to say exactly what we wanted, when we wanted to.
Within our subjective frame, we hope we’ve laid the issue’s groundwork clearly and created some points of entry for further discussion, from all perspectives.
Thanks are due to Sarah Ray, Middlebury College Director of Public Affairs, for being helpful, open and responsive to MiddBlog’s questions.