Under MIT’s recently overhauled hazing policy in the Mind and Hand Book, I am guilty of hazing students.
I’ve probably hazed those around me almost every week of my time at MIT and will likely continue to do so into the future. Have I intentionally abused, harassed, intimidated, or otherwise endangered the physical or mental health of a colleague? Emphatically, no. Have I occasionally acted, intentionally or not, in a way as to induce “physical or mental discomfort or distress” in those around me? Absolutely. I am many times guilty and I wager most others, faculty included, are too.
It is not the case that we’re bad people. In fact, over my last five years at MIT as a TA, researcher, student leader, and mentor I’ve increasingly enjoyed working and learning from each year’s new admits. So what am I talking about — how can we all be perpetrators of a Mind and Hand Book violation that carries with it punishments as severe as suspension and expulsion?
It is because the inquisitive and intellectual environment that MIT demands in order to carry forward its mission is fundamentally predicated on our ability to question, debate, interrogate, and hold sacred no idea, no matter how common it may be. This courage to ask hard questions, endure challenge, and grow is what makes MIT so special and what is under fire with the Mind and Hand Book changes.
Specifically, MIT has augmented the definition carefully delineated by the State of Massachusetts that defines hazing as “any conduct or method of initiation… which willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person” into the far more encompassing “Any action or activity that causes or intends to cause physical or mental discomfort or distress, that may demean, degrade, or disgrace any person, regardless of location, intent, or consent of participants, for the purpose of initiation, admission into, affiliation with, or as a condition for continued membership in a group, organization, or living community.” This definition is agnostic to intent, consent, and severity, as well as time and place. Let that soak in for a second. Try to imagine your last conversation that didn’t take place in a group, organization, or living community or with another student who shared membership in a group with you.
What does this mean for us practically? Under this zealous extension many of the creative and demanding processes that I and others require for growth in our fields and as individuals are now under scrutiny. To name a few, passionate debates during research meetings, student leaders challenging rising talent with harder individual assignments before giving them more responsibility, faculty expectations that students work during nights or weekends as standard lab practice, or the ability to run intense practices for intramural or club sports teams. These are all circumstances in which I have witnessed friends upset or distressed and all now fall in the prosecutable domain of hazing.
Is it wrong that students should be offended or distressed at MIT? In situations where the cause is willful or reckless in nature, without a doubt. However, the logic that students need constant protection and insulation from each other and from every subtle offense in order to enjoy an environment that is conducive to learning is wrong. Academic and personal growth can and sometimes should be painful. The First Amendment lawyer and author Greg Lukianoff put it best when he noted “Being offended is what happens when you have your deepest beliefs challenged. And if you make it through four years of college without having your deepest beliefs challenged, you should demand your money back.”
Perhaps the most dangerous outcome of ambiguous speech codes like MIT’s revamped hazing policies has nothing to do with whether or not they will actually be enforced. Unclear language creates unclear expectations, is prone to variable interpretation, and most importantly, can result in a chilling effect on campus.
Charges need not be brought to make students think twice before debating portions from Nabokov’s Lolita out of fear child abuse may be a trigger for somebody. Some may view this as a stretch, however we need look no further than the slow decay of the MIT’s Good Samaritan policy to see how lack of speech protections chill and suppress student action. Though broad language is great for covering all the bases, it casts an unknowably large shadow and creates a quiet back-door for the slow and steady decline of speech freedoms on campus.
Simply put, when we try to craft protective and risk-averse bubbles around ourselves and MIT we do so at the peril of burdening our community with a degree of paranoia which tempers and censures our everyday ability to think and act with courage.
And so it is that bad outcomes can come from good intentions. Certainly, nobody in the administration is out to hurt students or undermine the Institute’s mission. Rather, our administrative leaders sometimes grapple with a different set of challenges than those in the academic side of the house.
There are external threats and litigation that drive risk-mitigative behavior, there are desires to appear progressive in comparison to our peers or the state, and there are occasions where support staff who deal with the real effects of serious hazing on a regular basis are inspired to create expansive language to impede hazing at all costs.
It is in these zealous charges to address a single component of the university experience that we lose sight of the larger optimization at play and we begin to destabilize the delicate ecosystem of growth that we cherish and society needs. It is important for us to have a public and frank discussion about where the balance should be and whether this new language achieves those ends.
And though I’ve shared my opposition to this loose language as a graduate student leader during the 2013 drafting stages and again in this opinion piece, I want and need the community to challenge me. If I am wrong, make me feel and know the wrongness of my assumptions. Make me lose sleep over them. Cause me a little bit of “mental discomfort”. This is how I learn.
Brian L. Spatocco is a PhD Candidate in the department of Materials Science and Engineering as well as a former GSC President, Chair of Housing and Community Affairs and Chairman of the Sidney Pacific Board of Trustees.