Last week, we reported on a flat initiation involving a live eel. Since then, the ODT and NZ Herald have picked up the story, police have been informed, and an investigation by the Uni (who knew about the incident prior to publication) is underway. A minority of students defend the initiation in the name of “good fun”, while the majority have never, and will never, engage in one.
There is mounting concern among many, chiefly the Proctor, over the escalating severity of initiations. Critic spoke to the Proctor, who explained that over his seven years in the role, initiations have evolved. But they’re not actually tradition: “Students say it's been around for 50, maybe 100 years. It’s not, it’s maybe 15 years old.”
Despite this, students involved ardently defend the activities - though they’re not quick to put their names, faces or addresses on record. Wonder why. One of them commented to Critic that they think “the Proctor’s been really harsh about it all.” In response, the Proctor said, “I’d rather be seen by students as trying to ruin their fun than sit back and wait for someone to die.”
The Proctor said initiations had subsided a bit with Covid, but this year they’ve been “back with a vengeance… What seems to happen is that year on year the events are added to, so if one year the host flat did A, B and C, year two it’s A, B, C, D and E and then we get to a point where it’s really dangerous and really feral and we’re harming people.” Or, in some cases, animals. But, even considering the chugging of vomit, the beatings, the hospital trips and stomach pumps, “At the end of the day everyone is enjoying themselves,” said one student.
The Proctor also gave us a copy of a letter penned to flats who plan on hosting initiations. In it, he points out the section of the Student Code of Conduct relating to initiations that reads: “Organising or participating in any initiation event or ceremony that jeopardises your fellow students’ wellbeing, personal, physical or emotional safety, or encourages breaking the law” are among behaviours that “put you in serious risk of facing exclusion from the University for a semester or more”.
This is part of a “proactive approach” initiative that was sparked after 2017 when a vomit-filled Debacle initiation made national headlines and saw the nine hosts expelled from the Uni. It resulted in what Critic reported on at the time as a “crackdown” on initiations by the Uni. The Proctor told us that this was opposed to “sitting at the bottom of the cliff and waiting for them to crash - let’s get to the top of the cliff and put some barriers up.”
“So we go and have a conversation about the expectations, we provide them with a copy of the Student Code of Conduct, and then this year we followed up with an email to the flat.” The email contains the foreboding statement that “there is genuine concern that one of these events will result in serious harm or death.”
“If we have a really bad event and a student dies - has an anaphylactic shock to something that they’re forced to eat, or dies of alcohol poisoning or whatever - who's gonna be investigated? The host flat [will be], and that'll be for a manslaughter charge,” said the Proctor. “And I don't want that. I don't want the death, and I don't want the flat investigated.” He has heard more rumours than evidence, and he said that this year especially, the stories are starting to take a toll. But “I will sleep quite well at night knowing that I'm doing this work. And I'll make no apologies for it. It's not a tradition. I don't think it reflects our students at all.”
And as media coverage creates scrutiny, many initiations have moved indoors or into backyards, away from public view. There is still a group of onlookers present, who are generally encouraged to bring shit to throw at the first-years. Last year, an egg cost one student the better part of his eye. “It worries me that that’s how we can treat our own,” said the Proctor. “Our first-year students are less than a year’s difference in age, and yet it gives the second-year students permission to bully, intimidate, humiliate, degrade.”
Another major concern is the power imbalance between the second and first-years meaning that even if they wanted to, they couldn’t say no to being subjected to these events that entail “humiliation, nudity, bodily fluids, bullying, intimidation or harassment” because of the immense pressure coming from the second-years and their fellow initiates. “And then you add a hundred people in the crowd who are encouraging and love the debauchery and the salacious nature of it. And sometimes that can be a catalyst for the hosts losing control of it and things spiral quickly out of control.” It’s like our very own fucked up version of Lord of the Flies.
Besides the initiation we know involved cruelty to a live eel (that carries a maximum sentence of five years prison and hefty fine, mind you) there have also been rumours going around that some initiates may have been or will be asked to bring live ducks. And considering recent events, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. “Absolutely no good could ever come of this,” said the Proctor. “I don’t think it reflects who we are.”