By Kieran McQuilkin
A new model hazing policy, intended to curb abuses by college fraternities, has officials at Virginia Military Institute scratching their heads.
The policy identifies 23 acts as hazing, including verbal and physical abuse and compromising an individual’s dignity. It was published in December by the state Department of Education, the Council on Higher Education and the Department of Criminal Justice Services. An amendment adopted by the General Assembly in April directed the agencies to come up with the policy.
VMI does not have fraternities or sororities, but its program requires first-years, or “rats,” to undergo physical and emotional stress at the hands of a group of upperclassmen, or Cadre. The “rat line” has been an institutional fixture at VMI for at least a century.
VMI’s training of rats is part of the institutional system, said Col. Stewart MacInnis, a university spokesman. He said there are provisions in the school’s hazing policy allowing that sort of training.
“Being yelled at or doing strenuous exercise seems to be in contrast with [the law], but they’re very much part of the curriculum,” said MacInnis. “We’re very comfortable that the military structure here is in compliance with the model hazing policy.”
Any college or university that receives state funding must have policies consistent with the state’s. It must also report to the local Commonwealth’s attorney any hazing violation resulting in bodily harm.
A concern for schools like VMI and Washington and Lee University, where three-fourths of all male students join a fraternity, is the number of acts now considered hazing.
“The fact that members of the Virginia [General] Assembly took time to reform the policy means we need to take steps to address our own policies,” said Moody Heard, president of Washington and Lee’s Interfraternity Council.
At Washington and Lee, fraternities just began six-week “new member education” programs, more commonly known as pledgeship.
The Interfraternity Council is a group of male students and faculty advisers that can levy sanctions against fraternities found guilty of hazing during pledgeship. Heard said the council is working to spread awareness about the changes.
“It’s hard to determine what the implications are going to be at this point, but we’re hoping it’s going to be a deterrent against any underground hazing activity,” he said. “There are precedents that have been set that now have to be changed.”
Officials at Southern Virginia University in Buena Vista did not respond to two phone messages seeking comment.
MacInnis said he is aware of fewer than five instances of what the school considered hazing violations at VMI in the past 12 years. In each case, he said, they involved individual students “going rogue” outside of the rat system.
MacInnis said he was confident that VMI will not have to change its hazing policy, and that the administration will work to prevent any potential hazing by students.
At Washington and Lee, Heard said, the emphasis is on prevention.
“It’s a concern for everybody when a student is facing legal convictions,” he said. “The name of the game right now is playing the prevention game instead of the cleanup game.”