In this year’s first opinion piece, James Nash weighs in on initiations.
The tragic death of first-year student Ed Farmer in December 2016 has led to valid questions concerning the dangers of University initiation events.
Newcastle’s answer to accusations of carelessness and indifference has always been that initiations of any form are banned at the University. However, many would argue that this is clearly an empty statement – an Agricultural Society initiation did happen, and a student died – should the University be held responsible for failing to stop it? Multiple sources have confirmed that these events, albeit to a lesser extent, still take place. So are initiations virtually unstoppable?
The culture of initiations has long belonged to that of American college fraternities, but in recent years, initiations, like many other cultural traditions, has found its way across the pond. Whether it’s the money burning antics of Oxbridge or David Cameron’s pig-gate, being forced to prove yourself to your peers by committing ridiculous and depraved acts has somehow embedded itself into British university life. Rather than a bit of harmless drinking in Fresher’s week, these ceremonies usually involve excessive amounts of alcohol, eating strange items and bizarre competitions and challenges – at best leaving the initiates worse for wear.
Overseeing the well-being of a student body of over 20,000 isn’t an enviable task, but it’s a promise that Newcastle, and every university, holds itself to. Boasting over 150 societies, the University places its trust in their student leaders to provide a fun, safe environment in which others can explore hobbies, sport etc. Is this trust misplaced? Nine times out of ten, no – societies are brilliant extra-curricular activities that can be both rewarding and a lot of fun. But when something does go wrong, who is held accountable? The lines between University-run and student-led are somewhat blurred, complicating the issue further.
Is it therefore the responsibility of those running the events to take care of their initiates? The trouble with this blanket statement lies in the issue of age and consent. Initiations that have taken place more recently have, allegedly, emphasised the lack of peer pressure involved– no one is forced to do something they don’t want to do. Every initiate is eighteen or over and can make decisions for themselves, without relying on the safety blanket of the University or their peers. However, in place of peer pressure comes self-inflicted pressure – an overwhelming desire to make friends and prove yourself, and an immense fear of social exclusion. This is far harder to stamp out, not only manifesting in initiations, but in social nights, Fresher’s week, even academic study, and cannot be monitored by anyone other than the individual themselves.
Whilst the University has failed to prevent initiations, no-one can accuse Newcastle for lack of trying. Frequent messages threatening expulsion have made their way round the societies, whilst talks advocating safe drinking have been scheduled in for first-years. The responsibility therefore lies on everyone, University, societies, and students alike, to take care of each other and ourselves, and hope that what happened to Ed Farmer never happens again.