I've written several times about the role of ritual and tradition in higher education. I'm a big believer in the miseducative if they marginalize certain members of the community, silence diverse perspectives, or send mixed or conflicting messages about institutional values.
power of traditions to connect members of a community, communicate key community values, and facilitate learning. However, traditions and rituals also have the potential to be
Over the last week, +The Ohio State University Marching Band has received a great deal of attention surrounding some of the rituals and traditions that are, allegedly, part of the culture of the band in Columbus. On one side of the debate OSU administrators claim the band has developed a hyper-sexualized culture, while others argue that the practices in question were both harmless and unifying.
While I'm not sure how much recently-fired band director Jonathan Waters had to do with the culture and whether his firing was justified (he claims he was working on changing the culture of the band, but wasn't given sufficient time to do so), I will say very emphatically that I do not endorse the types of hazing practices that were well documented at OSU. There is a very vocal contingent of band alumni that will disagree with me who disagree with me. A group of 15 former band members (mostly women) marched on OSU's campus earlier this week to protest Waters's firing and sing the praises of the OSU Marching Band. In her statement to the press she claims to represent the "women's side" of the issue and goes on to say that the actions of band members were appropriate because they "acted like college students."
Cohen's statements represent one of the fundamental dangers with any tradition or ritual. In asserting that she and her 14 companions represent the "women's side," Cohen fails to acknowledge that her views do not necessarily represent those of the hundreds of other current and former band members. It's a bit laughable for her to claim that a group of 15 people represent anything other than a very narrow perspective on a very complex issue. Additionally, she makes a gross overgeneralization in equating "acting like a college student" with the behaviors outlined in OSU's report of the problematic practices taking place among band members.
While traditions and rituals are ideally meant to have a unifying effect within an organization, claims that hazing practices achieve this outcome are naive. Furthermore, claims that hazing is an acceptable practice that unites a community are always made by a particular segment of that community: those with privilege and power. It's safe to say that Cohen was part of the inner circle during her time as a band member. She didn't have a problem with the practices because they didn't marginalize her, silence her voice, or make her feel unsafe. But, there is another segment of the OSU Marching Band who feel very differently about these practices and I'll bet the farm that there are more than 15 of them.
In a comment on a post I wrote nearly four years ago, a good friend and colleague +gary daynes pointed out that one of the characteristics of a ritual is that it contains multiple meanings. And, this is what is often looked over when those in power institute rituals, even well intentioned rituals. OSU's hazing rituals hold multiple meanings for members of the band. For some, those meanings include fun, unity, and feelings of belonging. For others (those whose voice is silenced when these rituals become formalized and part of the culture), these practices mean shame, marginalization, fear, and immorality.
I say this as someone who, 15 years ago, would have sided with Cohen and her group. During my freshman year of college, I was hazed as part of my initiation to the men's soccer team. While it was uncomfortable and a little embarrassing for me, I wasn't overly bothered by it because I wasn't on the margins of the team--the team leaders liked me and I didn't feel threatened (it was also fairly mild as far as hazings go). But, I clearly remember two of my teammates who were very shook up by what went on. And, it's no coincidence that they were the two members of the team who, even before the hazing, were on the outside looking in (it's also no surprise that they left the team after their freshman year). From where I sit now, and as someone who has hopefully developed a bit of appreciation for diversity, I see how divisive that hazing was.
Ritual and tradition should always be a part of campus communities. But, institutional leaders (like Jonathan Waters) have a responsibility to (a) ensure that campus rituals do indeed have a unifying effect and (b) educate members of the community (especially students) about what constitutes a truly unifying ritual. As higher education professionals, one of the outcomes we claim to be promoting for students is an appreciation for diverse perspectives. Those advocating for the appropriateness of OSU's hazing practices clearly haven't learned that lesson.