Hazing is in the news again. It was recently announced that criminal charges will be brought concerning an incident in 2016 that occurred in student union Vindicat in Groningen, when a senior student stood on a freshman's head. Groningen university will now introduce a code of conduct, something that has existed in Maastricht for years. NRC Handelsblad subsequently published a series on hazing, especially about the practices in Groningen. In the process, the newspaper appealed to the Freedom of Information Act to acquire information. A remarkable outcome was the fact that the supervising body acting on behalf of the University of Groningen, was ignored by the student associations for years. They just did what they liked.
Something like that would be impossible in Maastricht, say Letschert and Pascal Breuls, director of the Student Services Centre (SSC). This partly has to do with the age and hence the stature of the associations; Vindicat in Groningen, for example, is more than 200 years old and an institute in itself, whose board members - at least until recently - were able to openly distance themselves from university opinions.
In Maastricht, associations are much more interwoven with the university. The SSC director especially, plays a large role in this. Breuls consults with the chairpersons on all kinds of subjects every six weeks, including the introduction periods. These associations are compelled to submit their hazing plans beforehand, just like the thirty fraternities that operate under the flag of 'Onafhankelijk Maastricht' (Independent Maastricht). Breuls: “The plans were submitted a few weeks ago and I have some queries. It says somewhere that the first-year students will be tested every evening on things like their knowledge of the mores of the fraternity/sorority, and when they don't get the question right, they have to carry out an order. I want to know what the orders are, where it will happen, and what the schedule is.” The latter is connected with the rule in the Introduction Period Code of Conduct, which states that a minimum of six hours of uninterrupted sleep each night is compulsory during hazing. All associations and all organised fraternities/sororities sign this code of conduct annually. The drift of it (among others, very little to no alcohol, no humiliation, guarantee of physical and mental safety) was recently made well and truly understood to the association boards during their annual meeting with the UM’s Introduction Period Committee. This committee has a student counsellor (who is also a confidential advisor for the association) and the university’s medical officer in its ranks, while Breuls himself is chairman. As SSC director, he is also the person who imposes sanctions for violations, “after consultation with the Executive Board,” as the regulations state. The penalty for not submitting a plan is that the association or fraternity/sorority concerned does not het mentor groups during Inkom. They really need those mentor groups to be able to recruit new members. “Inkom is a crucial time for them,” says Breuls.
Another sanction that hits home hard is withdrawal of board grants. Such a sanction was provisionally imposed on Tragos last year, after a number of slips during hazing. Letschert felt that an implicit punishment was too much in this instance. The rector spoke out loudly in Observant last year - when she had just taken up her position - about sanctions to be taken in the case of any similar ‘situations like in Groningen’: not just the withdrawal of board grants, but also make the board members step down, she said. She now doubts whether she has the authority to enforce this. In addition, she also wonders if students who have committed criminal acts during hazing, can be removed from the university. “I will look into it,” she states.
The common theme in the approach to student associations and fraternities/sororities, say both Letschert and Breuls, is mutual trust. This trust has increased among UM board members since Letschert read the ‘self-reflections’ that she had asked the associations to submit at the end of last year. Those documents are not public, Letschert promised them. “But they were wonderful reports, they were very open. They realise that the world around them has changed, that issues that play elsewhere reflect on them too, as well as on the UM. I told them that they have a responsibility in this, for each other as associations but also for the reputation of the UM. This realisation has sunk in with them. They also have detailed protocols for when something goes wrong, I was very impressed with that.” One of the things that have been set up, is mandatory reporting of any crisis situation. Breuls: “They can call me in the middle of the night in that case.”
The rector also adds: a negative approach of the associations is misplaced as far as she is concerned. “They told me all about what they do in the neighbourhoods, social activities, I didn't know that.”
There are still some weaknesses when it comes to supervisions, she acknowledges. To start with, there are fraternities that are not registered and that have no official relationship with the UM. SSC does not know exactly how many of these there are.
Furthermore, the most fantastic plans can be submitted, but do people stick to them? In Groningen, this didn't always happen. For that reason, the rector said, SSC director Breuls will make unannounced visits during hazing. The agreement was already in place with the associations, says Breuls, but since his appointment two years ago, he has never carried it out. His predecessor, Astrid Boeijen, didn't do so either, as far as she can remember. Not that distrust is now the rule, says Breuls: “I will do it specially to have an answer for the media. Because they always ask - you at Observant as well - how I know for sure that nothing happens.”
Letschert on that topic: “If something had happened, I would have had calls from parents, or complaints from students.”
Agreements have also been made on the media approaching the associations themselves. Letschert felt sorry for the Tragos chairman last year, “who is a young guy and he was bombarded by the media.” Breuls adds: “They often don't know what to say. The agreement is now that they may refer to the UM.”