In late October 2011, UA President and Engineering and Wharton senior Tyler Ernst referred the UA to Penn’s administration and the Office of Student Conduct. He said he asked the OSC to “look into” allegations of hazing that took place during a new member initiation event earlier that month.
The UA’s executive board learned of the investigation’s findings within the last week, Ernst added.
In its investigation, the OSC found no single member to be guilty of hazing or alcohol policy violations, but rather the whole UA body.
The Penn community was alerted to the hazing allegations in a Daily Pennsylvanianguest column published on Nov. 3 by College senior and former elected UA member Mo Shahin.
Though Shahin did not personally attend the events in question last October, he wrote that he learned from fellow UA members that “this year’s festivities included a scavenger hunt, blindfolds, pledge names, multiple drinks in rapid succession and being tied to a chair, yelled at and locked in a small closet with other freshmen.”
While the OSC’s investigation affirmed the existence of a scavenger hunt with blindfolds — along with “quizzing new members on parliamentary procedure” and “verbal confrontation” — it cleared the UA of allegations related to “forced consumption of alcohol and the binding of students to chairs,” according to the statement.
“I trust that the UA members and the UA have learned from this experience and more fully value the privilege and responsibility of student leadership,” Executive Director of the Office of Student Affairs Karu Kozuma wrote in an statement.
Kozuma wrote that he was unable to provide details about the UA investigation. He also declined to answer specific questions.
“As a University community, we take allegations of hazing by any students or student groups extremely seriously,” Kozuma wrote in the statement. “Hazing is inconsistent with the goals and purposes of the University and, in accordance with state law, is explicitly forbidden.”
While Wharton senior and UA Vice President Faye Cheng declined to say how many of the UA’s new members attended the October event, she added that “not all eight” of the freshmen representatives were present.
As a result of the OSC’s conclusions, the UA will be required to participate in educational sessions on alcohol and hazing.
One goal of these workshops — which will be specifically tailored to the UA — is to reset the norms of the organization, Ernst said.
“We’ll be asking who thought this was hazing, who thought it wasn’t, giving members an opportunity to debate it amongst themselves,” he said.
While all other elected UA members will be required to participate in the anti-hazing and alcohol education programming, the eight freshman UA members — as well as associate members — will not have to attend.
In addition, according to the statement, the UA will also have to “join other campus partners to help lead and support efforts to educate students and the Penn community about hazing and alcohol,” as well as “submit any plans for programs or events involving welcoming or educating new members to the OSA for consultation and approval.”
Some UA members have expressed concern that the OSC’s corrective measures will apply to the entire UA body.
“The executive board should have been held more accountable because they are the ones who plan these hazing events,” said College sophomore Ernest Owens, a UA representative and Daily Pennsylvanian columnist. “Why is it that the whole general body has to go through these alcohol seminars? Everyone has to take time out of their day to become educated on the hazing and alcohol policies, when most of us did not even participate.”
The UA’s executive board consists of the positions of president, vice president, treasurer, speaker and secretary.
On Nov. 3 — the same day that Shahin’s piece ran — Owens wrote an accompanying column in which he addressed October’s new member event, as well as a similar event that allegedly occurred in Oct. 2010.
Though Cheng acknowledged that the executive board is “definitely the leadership of the organization [and is] held to a higher standard for that reason,” she said it made sense for the entire UA to be held accountable.
“This was an event that was planned by multiple members of the body,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that there’s any one person planning-wise who could take all the credit or burden.”
Ernst added that, when he informed non-executive members of the UA of the OSC’s decision at a retreat on Saturday, everyone “took it very maturely, and was quick to reaffirm their confidence in us.”
For UA Speaker and College senior Cynthia Ip, however, the fact that the initiation activities were considered hazing was unexpected.
“I [had] never heard of people being uncomfortable with the initiation event on the UA until the DP columns,” Ip said. “If I had, we would not have done the initiation at all. It was a surprise for all of us.”
Cheng, though, acknowledged that she “can definitely see why there would be elements [of the events in question] that would make people uncomfortable.”
Looking back, looking forward
Though Shahin said he raised individual concerns about the UA’s new member events with the executive board in October — as well as with the OSA — some freshmen who attended offered different accounts of what happened.
When Shahin reached out to members of the executive board, he said he received a response along the lines of “it’s not your concern — this is the executive board’s concern.”
Wharton freshman and UA representative Christian Cortes, who participated in October’s event, said that “in no way were my individual rights compromised.” He added that he is thankful that “the punishment was not as bad as it could have been.”
“Obviously there is reason for the investigation, but from my personal opinion, we’re just paying for the academic consequences,” Cortes said. “In the more moral sense, it’s not fair to the UA because hazing occurs in other organizations on campus.”
When other student groups are found guilty of hazing, they risk losing funding from the Student Activities Council, University recognition and the use of campus facilities, according to the University’s anti-hazing regulations.
The UA, however, is in a unique situation, because it receives its funding from Penn’s Board of Trustees, and allocates a significant portion of those funds to SAC.
“Even though our organization might not be fully deserving of the punishment, it sets a precedent and a warning to outside organizations that hazing is unacceptable,” said UA representative and College freshman Willie Stern, a former Daily Pennsylvanian contributing writer. “Any organization that put its freshman members in jeopardy will face the consequences.”
UA Treasurer and College junior Jake Shuster added that, looking forward, the UA will reconsider how it welcomes new members.
College and Wharton sophomore Abe Sutton, the UA’s academic affairs director, agreed, adding that he “believes 100 percent that the UA initiation process will change as a result of these findings.”
College sophomore Dan Bernick — a former Daily Pennsylvanian columnist and current Civic and Philadelphia engagement director of the UA — sees the workshops as “a way for the UA to learn about alternatives to hazing.”
“Moving forward, as an organization we should look for more ways for having programming without antagonizing or objectifying [new members] or making them feel uncomfortable in any way,” Cheng added. “It is a challenge for all of us moving forward, on how to bring benefit to new members without costs. And the costs can be very great.”
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