July 23, 2024
The university has been grappling with hazing for well more than a century, from cases involving athletic teams and Greek life to class warfare between sophomores and incoming freshmen.

Angie Leventis Lourgos | Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Accusations of hazing on Northwestern University’s football team have sent shock waves across the school this summer, fallout that continues as former players from a variety of sports come forward with new allegations of abusive behavior, bullying and a toxic culture.

Yet the prestigious university has been grappling with hazing for well more than a century, from cases involving athletic teams and Greek life to class warfare between sophomores and incoming freshmen.

One high-profile instance roughly a hundred years ago had particularly tragic consequences when an 18-year-old student went missing following participation in an annual freshman-sophomore hazing event, a case that remains a mystery today.

The allegations this summer show the trauma and emotional damage that hazing can inflict, according to the claims of some former athletes in lawsuits filed against the university.

“No teammate I knew liked hazing,” one former football player told the Tribune in July. “We were all victims, no matter what our role was at the time. But the culture was so strong that we felt we had to go with it to survive, to be respected and to earn trust.”

Former Northwestern football player Lloyd Yates, second from left, arrives with attorney Ben Crump and other former players to speak about the abuse and hazing they say occurred at Northwestern University, July 19, 2023. Behind Yates are Warren Miles Long, from left, Simba Short and Tom Carnifax. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune) 

The history of hazing at Northwestern illustrates how hard it can be to extinguish this kind of behavior, a struggle many colleges and other institutions across the country have long faced.

After each incident of hazing at Northwestern came to light, authorities typically pledged to put a stop to these types of initiation rites, sometimes disciplining or threatening action against the culprits. Yet the cycle always seems to continue, with new allegations surfacing on campus years or decades later.

”Hazing is a human problem and it exists across cultures, across group types, across campuses, and across time,” said Gentry McCreary, CEO of Dyad Strategies and a researcher who studies hazing at colleges and universities. “Northwestern wouldn’t be alone in trying to tackle the problem and failing, because hazing is a deeper-seated cultural issue than people are willing to admit. … It‘s a much more complicated problem than people are willing to admit.”

Here’s a glimpse at some notable stories about hazing at Northwestern, during nearly the past 150 years:

Guilty of being freshmen

Two Northwestern students’ apartments were forcibly entered one night in December 1876 by a masked band of “bulldozers” in two “aggravated cases of hazing” according to the Chicago Tribune.

“The poor unfortunates were subject to mock trials, found guilty of the heinous crime of being freshmen and condemned to nakedness and bed,” the article says. “And the sentence was literally carried out, the victims being stripped of all their clothing and tenderly put to bed upon the slats, (and) the mattresses, tables, desks, chairs, and other fixtures of their room being piled above them.”

These “facts were promptly reported to the faculty,” who began searching for the guilty parties, “who will doubtless be severely dealt with if a case can be made against any of them,” the story added.

‘Cane rush’ admonished

The president of Northwestern chastised students in May 1894 after a recent “cane rush,” a hazing event where members of one class would try and steal from members of another class — often violently — the ornamental walking canes that were traditionally carried.

A Tribune headline read “Cane wars are over,” adding that “Northwestern students resolve to be good in the future.” While no one was punished, the president says new students in the future will “be required to pledge themselves to refrain from all manner of hazing.”

Annual freshman-sophomore fight

In a case that remains unsolved, a Northwestern freshman went missing in September 1921 after an annual hazing event of the era called the “freshman-sophomore fight,” which often involved students kidnapping members of the opposing class and “ducking” them into Lake Michigan.

Eighteen-year-old Leighton Mount never returned home after being last seen at the hazing event, according to the Tribune.

Theories about Mount’s fate abounded on campus: Some believed he died by suicide because his girlfriend didn’t return his affection. His mother worried he was alive but suffered amnesia. The university president was dismissive of the whole affair, at one point contending that Mount wasn’t even a student because he temporarily lapsed a tuition payment, which Mount’s mother fiercely denied. Others believed Mount had been kidnapped and was still held prisoner.

During the hazing event another student, Arthur Persinger, was found tied up and hanging upside down in the lake “with waves breaking over him,” according to the Tribune.

After Persinger was rescued, he told authorities he had been kidnapped from his fraternity house by four men who first tied him to a tombstone in a cemetery and left him there for hours. Persinger recounted that his kidnappers returned later to bind and gag him, dump him in a canoe and paddle him out in the lake, where his body was retied and suspended from the pier, hanging upside down in the water.

A Tribune story described the culmination of the annual freshman-sophomore fight that year:

“The climax of the night came about midnight when nearly 1,000 freshmen and sophomores met in a pitched battle at Fountain square,” the article said. “Many windows and heads were damaged, clothing was torn to shreds and yelping students in automobiles charged into the melee flinging decaying vegetables.”

In a stunning discovery, police in May 1923 uncovered Mount’s remains after a 12-year-old boy found a human bone in an old breakwater. The bone turned out to be part of Mount’s skeleton, which was recovered near the spot where Persinger had been tied to the pier and rescued.

Mount’s mother told authorities a silver belt buckle bearing the initials L.M. found at the scene belonged to her son and a dentist later used the skeleton’s teeth to confirm that they were Mount’s remains. A physician said the bones were treated with acid, allegedly to conceal the victim’s identity.

“The boy was murdered,” the Evanston police chief said at the time, according to the Los Angeles Times. “He didn’t crawl in there to die. His body was thrust in and hidden by the men who killed him. I am going to uncover the murderer if I have to question the entire student body.”

A few days later, the police chief declared that hazing was abolished at Northwestern, according to the Tribune. The son and nephew of Northwestern’s president were among those questioned about the case by the state’s attorney; both denied knowing anything about Mount’s disappearance but the son also refuses to divulge “matters which he considered fraternity secrets” to prosecutors, according to the Tribune.

The circumstances of Mount’s death remain murky and no one was ever convicted in the case.

But the Tribune reported peace between the freshmen and sophomores in September 1923, at the start of the first school year after Mount’s bones were recovered. Northwestern leaders warned that “any disturbance or indication of a fight between the sophomores and freshmen will mean that the men involved will be immediately dismissed from the university,” according to the article.

“This tranquillity was in contrast to the battling which formerly inaugurated the college year, before the tragedy of Leighton Mount cast the shadow of death over Northwestern’s annual sophomore-freshman fight,” the Tribune reported. “This year there was no posting of ‘proclamations’ to the new students, no hectic skirmishing in the streets of Evanston.”

A ‘pileup’ injury, no university action

The Tribune reported that a freshman was injured in March 1937 at a Northwestern fraternity during a “hell week stunt,” referencing a tradition of subjecting fraternity pledges to a week of hazing prior to initiation.

The accident occurred “as the result of a pileup of 17 students in the fraternity ‘hell week’ festivities,” according to the Tribune story. Although the 20-year-old was hospitalized “in a serious condition, with his neck muscles and ligaments strained” and the injury had been reported to police, “when questioned later the fraternity members refused to discuss the accident,” the article said.

A university official told the Tribune that Northwestern wouldn’t take any action since “the boy seems to be improving,” adding that his condition initially seemed worse because “he was tired and worn out from loss of sleep during the ‘hell week’ activities.”

Deserted in Lake County

In February 1951, the Northwestern chapter of Sigma Chi fraternity was placed on probation for the rest of the school year after two pledges were left in Lake County with no money or identification as part of a hazing ritual; the chapter was barred from social activities and intramural athletics, the Tribune reported.

“We have campaigned for years against hazing in our university and each president of a fraternity has been instructed regarding the written rules,” the university dean of students said at the time.

‘Hell week’ becomes ‘help week’

To promote a positive spin on fraternity recruitment, members of Phi Kappa Sigma at Northwestern in January 1952 replaced “hell week” with a service project for initiates called “help week.”

Seventeen freshmen spent a week volunteering at a local nonprofit before their initiation into the fraternity, according to a Tribune story. The president of the fraternity and the member in charge of initiation “reported that the pledges preferred these assignments to the hazing, which would have been their lot under the old system,” the Tribune reported.

Supreme Court justice calls for end to hazing

At an annual Big Ten university sorority and fraternity conference held at Northwestern in April 1964, Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark — who was also a national officer of a fraternity — told students that hazing should be ended, according to the Tribune.

“Changing times call for changing treatment,” he said during a lecture to students representing multiple universities, including Northwestern.

Window-breaking, egg-throwing

After initiation week hazing violations in March 1967, five Northwestern fraternities are fined and another is reprimanded by the university’s Interfraternity Council initiatory board. The heaviest fine was $300 for “window breaking and egg throwing,” according to a Tribune story.

The flask and the beluga whale

Kappa Sigma fraternity, the largest fraternity at Northwestern, was put on probation after a pledge was hospitalized following an alcohol incident during a scavenger hunt event called a “pledge dad hunt” in 2002. As a result of investigating that incident, the university’s Interfraternity Council established a hazing hotline and pledge educator courses, The Daily Northwestern reported.

“We are in a precarious situation,” the university’s Interfraternity Council president said, according to the student newspaper. “On one hand you have a possible hazing violation, but as an institution of higher learning we should feel obligated to help Kappa Sigma learn and grow from the incident.”

But in 2003, Kappa Sigma was suspended by the university and its charter was revoked by the fraternity’s national organization following allegations of vandalism, alcohol use, safety issues and reckless behavior — as well as animal endangerment — during a spring formal held at the Shedd Aquarium, which violated the terms of the probation agreement.

Fraternity members said the animal endangerment accusation was believed to have “stemmed from a fraternity member dropping a closed flask in the beluga whale tank. The whale then brought the flask to its trainer, who returned it to the fraternity member,” The Daily Northwestern reported.

The flask contained Southern Comfort whiskey, according to the Tribune.

The New York Times reported that the fraternity made special shirts, reading “Kappa Sigma — a Whale of a Good Time.”

Women’s soccer online photos reveal hazing

Northwestern suspended its women’s soccer team in May 2006 pending an investigation after photos surfaced online depicting alleged Northwestern soccer players wearing only T-shirts and underwear, some blindfolded and others with their hands tied, according to the Tribune. Words and pictures were scrawled on some of the bodies and clothing of the women as well, and it appeared that some were drinking alcohol, according to a Tribune story.

The fallout led the university to reveal another recent case of hazing on the men’s swimming team, as well as a hazing incident associated with the university’s mascot.

Hazing on the swimming team consisted of underage drinking, having new members swim in Lake Michigan when the beach was closed and “additional inappropriate behavior” that violated the school’s anti-hazing program, according to a university news release. The athletic department canceled a swimming team training trip to Hawaii and the team was placed on disciplinary probation; members had to participate in a team community service project and attend anti-hazing education sessions.

In another hazing case, “students staged a fake abduction of new students who were candidates to play the role of the mascot,” according to the news release.

“When it discovers allegations of hazing or other violations of student conduct regulations, the University will respond quickly and take the appropriate actions,” the news release said.

‘In praise of hazing’

After the women’s soccer photos appeared online, a Northwestern sociology professor wrote a June 2006 Tribune opinion piece titled “Kids gone wild? In praise of hazing,” though he acknowledged that sometimes “initiations can go too far.”

“Hazing is good for America,” the professor said in the op-ed. “Those of us who have been through fraternity (and some sorority) initiations, at one time a hallowed part of campus life, know that they develop shared feelings of honor and pride. But such rituals have been toned down in today’s no-risk, litigious, surveillance society. Where once we accepted the rough-and-tumble of youth culture, now everything is examined through the thorny eyes of lawyers.”

Football hazing scandal

Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald at practice on Aug. 23, 2017, in Evanston. (Phila Velasquez/Chicago Tribune)

Northwesterncoach Pat Fitzgerald squats on the sideline in the first quarter against Wisconsin on Oct. 27, 2018, at Ryan Field in Evanston. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald celebrates with his team as they hoist the Land of Lincoln Trophy after beating Illinois at Soldier Field on Nov. 28, 2015. (Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune)

Pat Fitzgerald watches during football practice in Evanston on Aug. 12, 2015. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

Pat Fitzgerald throws out the first pitch before the Chicago Cubs play the Chicago White Sox in the crosstown classic at Wrigley Field on July 11, 2015. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune)

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, left, celebrates as wide receiver Austin Carr scores a touchdown reception in the second quarter against Wisconsin at Ryan Field on Nov. 5, 2016. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

Pat Fitzgerald and quarterback Clayton Thorson (18) on the sideline after Thorson’s long touchdown run in the first half of a game against Stanford on September 5, 2015. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald walks the sideline in the fourth quarter Nov. 18, 2017, at Ryan Field in Evanston. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald watches the video board in the first quarter against Wisconsin at Ryan Field on Nov. 5, 2016. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald during practice on Aug. 9, 2017, in Evanston. ( Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune)

Northwestern football coach Pat Fitzgerald waves to the crowd before throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a game between the Cubs and Yankees on May 6, 2017, at Wrigley Field. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune)

Northwestern Wildcats football quarterback Clayton Thorson, on a knee at left, listens to coach Pat Fitzgerald in a huddle after practice on Aug. 23, 2018, in Evanston. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune)



Northwestern President Michael Schill fired head football coach Pat Fitzgerald on July 10 for his “failure to know and prevent significant hazing in the football program.”

The stunning leadership shake-up came just a few days after the university suspended Fitzgerald for two weeks without pay following an independent investigation into hazing allegations, a report that has not been made public.

“The hazing included forced participation, nudity and sexualized acts of a degrading nature, in clear violation of Northwestern policies and values,” Schill said in a statement.

A few days after Fitzgerald was fired, the university dismissed its head baseball coach amid accusations of bullying and abusive behavior.

Multiple former Northwestern athletes who played several different sports have filed roughly a dozen lawsuits against the school in the wake of the hazing scandal. A former volleyball player has alleged long-standing hazing, harassment, bullying and retaliation on the volleyball team. Several former football players described facing racial discrimination, as well as rampant sexualized hazing, while playing for Northwestern.

On Monday,three former baseball staff members filed a lawsuit against the university claiming Northwestern failed to protect them and student athletes from an “abusive, toxic and dangerous environment.”

“This lawsuit is without merit and the university intends to contest it vigorously,” Northwestern responded in a statement.

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