In the latest news from the north, the student who sustained a cerebral oedema, a severe brain injury, while being initiated in Groningen was reportedly the victim of a personal vendetta. The Vindicat member who found it necessary to stand on the freshman’s head evidently had a score to settle with him. As if this weren’t bad enough, the older students who witnessed the incident appear to have been too intoxicated to intervene.
What are the chances of someone here in Maastricht crossing the line too, while their peers just look on from the sidelines in a drunken stupor?
Slim, apparently, at least if the four main student associations stick to the code of conduct they have signed. They pledged to enforce a policy of “restricted alcohol consumption” during the initiation period, not only for the newcomers but for all members. Of course, students and their associations have something of a reputation when it comes to drinking, so whether this pledge will be implemented is an open question. According to a freshman who wishes to remain anonymous, this is not how things went down at Tragos. “We were only given water, but the older students were often seriously wasted.”
The Introduction Period Code of Conduct was introduced in Maastricht in 2009 and has been periodically updated since then. It is an official UM document, signed annually by the presidents of the four main associations: Koko, Saurus, Tragos and Circumflex. The thirty or so associations affiliated with the umbrella organisation ‘Independent Maastricht’ engage in hazing too – albeit to varying degrees – and so are set to be added to this list as well, says Pascal Breuls, director of the Student Services Centre (SSC). “And not on a voluntary basis”, adds rector magnificus Rianne Letschert.
The attitude of the university administration and the SSC, which take express responsibility for the smooth running of the introduction period, is different today even compared to the recent past. As late as 2013 the annual report by the UM confidential adviser Marloes Rikhof indicated that various complaints had been made about initiation rituals. Moreover, neither the Maastricht Introduction Period Committee nor the university saw itself as accountable for what happened within the student associations. In short, complaints about hazing were the responsibility of the associations themselves.
Dismissing the board
But times have changed. SSC director Breuls consults periodically with the presidents of the student associations, both as a group and individually, including on the topic of the introduction period. Further, he chairs the Maastricht Orientation Committee (which counts among its members a psychologist, a student dean and the company doctor) as well as installing the complaints committee, which first-year students can approach with complaints about initiation practices.
The current rector, Letschert, is outspoken about the need for university involvement in any incidents that may occur. “These are UM students; we share a financial relationship. So you can’t claim it’s merely an ‘internal matter’, as Groningen initially did when reports emerged of the ‘bangalijst’ [a list of supposedly promiscuous female students –Ed.] and mistreatment by Vindicat.”
What if something similar were to happen here? “I wouldn’t have to think long: I’d withdraw the board subsidies and dismiss the board. And then investigate further.”
Of course, whether something is unacceptable is not always clear-cut. Letschert: “With the incident in Groningen it was crystal clear, but there’s always a grey area. That’s why you really have to investigate properly. At present we have one report from this year’s initiation period. If the complaint turns out to be justified we’ll disclose what happened and how it was dealt with. There’s no cause for secrecy when it comes to these things.”
With this complaint, it appears the code of conduct has been violated. So what does the code actually involve? There are several elements. In the event of wrongdoing, the board (or senate) may not hide behind internal committees or individual members. The board is responsible for everything that happens during the introduction period, including at affiliated associations. And in addition to the ‘restrictive’ alcohol policy, the boards make a number of strict ‘guarantees’. Physical and emotional violence are prohibited, including any form of discrimination. Also banned: forcing someone to perform ‘degrading acts’, abuse of power and violation of physical integrity. The health of the ‘freshers’, ‘zeros’ or whatever else they are called is an important theme: they must be permitted an adequate amount of sleep – at least six consecutive hours per night – and given enough food and drink. The hygiene rules stipulate that they must be allowed to “wash and brush their teeth every day”, with a revealing footnote adding that they “shall use their own toothbrushes”.
As director of the SSC for more than a year now, Breuls has seen two introduction periods in office. “Usually it goes fine, as far as we know. No, I’m not there in person, but I trust the boards of the associations; you build up a relationship with them. There’s the occasional incident: this year someone who didn’t get enough sleep, last year someone who felt their personal integrity had been violated because they were never looked at. They found that degrading.”
To the outsider, humiliating or demeaning treatment would seem to be part and parcel of an initiation ritual. Is it degrading to be addressed as a number? At Circumflex aspiring members are ‘zeros’, president Nick Sanders explains. They are addressed as ‘zero 26’ or ‘zero 84’. The practice is, in Sanders’s view, “not demeaning”.
But one Tragos ‘zero’ – known as a feut (“and if you do something wrong: kutfeut”) – found it less than pleasant to be constantly and exclusively referred to as ‘feut’ by an intoxicated older student, especially because the practice was accompanied by excessive yelling. The student made a complaint and was, as it turned out, actually listened to. “So I’m satisfied with the introduction period at Tragos”, says the student. “The hazing committee had already let us know that we should report it if we found something unacceptable, if somebody crossed the line. And when I did, they took it seriously.”
At Circumflex and Saurus, too, the presidents stress that there is a lot of internal oversight (the issue is somewhat less relevant for Koko because they do not have a traditional initiation). “For 100 or so first-years, we have 75 older students keeping an eye on things”, says Circumflex president Sanders. “There are strict protocols that are always respected. We don’t want to risk being banned from having an initiation.”
Yet it is Circumflex that tends to be implicated in the wildest stories. Take the tale about the giant container of food scraps (and in previous years, allegedly vomit and other unspeakable substances) that the zeros are forced to make their way through, heads submerged, and afterwards are not allowed to shower but only clean off their face and hands. “Not true”, says Sanders. “They don’t have their heads under, they’re hosed down afterwards and they can take a shower that evening. Also, the container was mainly filled with mud, although we didn’t tell them that.” He denies too that the hazing rituals go hand in hand with alcohol abuse. As does Lotte Hoogkamer from Saurus: “We’re a sports club; the sporting aspect is important for us. During the four days of the initiation there’s only rowing going on.”
Year after year, getting first-year students to talk about their experiences during the initiation period proves as hard as getting blood out of a stone. Only a few are willing to lift a corner of the veil. So do the freshers here, like those in Groningen, have to sign a statement pledging not to spill the beans? While Vindicat threatens to slap a 25,000 euro fine on anyone caught doing so, things are not quite so absurd in Maastricht. Moreover, the code of conduct explicitly prohibits such enforced silence. New students can, at most, be “asked” to not reveal any “playful surprises”. Saurus president Hoogkamer says their hopefuls are not given any statement to sign, “and as far as I know it’s not even asked of them. The atmosphere is just that you don’t going around telling everyone exactly what happens. It makes for a stronger mutual bond if as a group you don’t know what awaits you.”
At Circumflex newbies are asked to “keep things internal”, but after the fact, says Sanders, and not in writing. “The hazing is in principle the same every year, so you’d lose the element of surprise.”
Tragos appears to be the exception, according to one student: “We had to sign a statement in advance that we wouldn’t tell anyone what went down during the initiation.” The students were not given a copy to keep. “They took it away again; it was a bit of scrap paper really, with a few paragraphs of text on it. Looking back I can’t be sure it was all that serious.”
Tragos president Max Andriessen seems to squirm when confronted with this on the phone. At first he refuses to comment, then asks three times which code of conduct is being referred to, and eventually says that Tragos “follows the rules made by the university”. After some pressing he concedes he would be willing “to look into it”, but the next day he proves to be unreachable by phone. What’s more, the Tragos number goes to voicemail as of four pm, yet the office does not officially close until five.
Also news to Andriessen was the fact that as of this year, the code of conduct was extended such that it no longer applies only during the introduction period. In a special addendum, the boards declare that the code applies throughout the course of the entire academic year. “Oh”, Andriessen said. “I wasn’t aware of that.” The new rule means, among other things, that the policy of “restricted alcohol consumption” applies to all members, all of the time. Is that feasible? Even Pascal Breuls raises an eyebrow at this.
To return to the issue of secrecy surrounding the initiation rituals: Rector Letschert, too, wonders what purpose this serves. “If you have nothing to hide, why would you not be open about things? Not the ‘surprises’ in the programme, I get that, but for the rest?” Observant agrees, and proposes to the three associations sending a reporter along during next year’s hazing.
“It’s not going to happen”, says Andriessen from Tragos, with unflinching certainty.
“We’re not going to do that”, says Sanders from Circumflex.
Only Hoogkamer from Saurus is slightly less dismissive. After a pause, she says, “I haven’t discussed it with the rest of the board, and I think it would be less fun for the new students, and less exciting the following year to initiate people who already know what’s going to happen.”
But the matter is open for discussion?
“Possibly, as long as not everything comes out in detail.”