01/14/2013 05:22 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

Hazing Reform Begins Where Ties to Membership Privileges End

Fayetteville State University, Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina A&T State University, Winston-Salem State University and North Carolina Central University's School of Law will host an online forum on hazing January 23, bringing one of the most controversial topics in black college culture to a national, public discussion centered within the HBCU context.

The teleconference will focus on several key elements -- how to define hazing, consequences of hazing, hazing alternatives and how people should respond to hazing. The focus is well-timed heading into the spring semester, but from the outside, it lacks vital focus on the cultural and social currency that hazing gives to those who commit, or submit to its appeal.

Most anti-hazing efforts, particularly at HBCUs, attack the surface-level implications of hazing. The goal is to convince young scholars that committing or submitting to violence and degradation doesn't make them a better brother or sister, and that real family ties are made without humiliation or physical attack. But these efforts rarely get to the heart of what makes illegal pledging a constant in college culture, and why certain people so readily accept it in whatever form the desired organization or chapter requires for membership.

Hazing culture is not composed of self-loathing followers yearning for social acceptance. Members and pledges are usually independent, high-achieving thinkers with designs on professional and personal achievement. They know what membership in a social organization means -- the influence it yields over students, the alliances it builds with administration, and the networking possibilities it builds beyond the campus walls.

For these people, violence and humiliation are but necessary evils on the path to social status and professional mobility. It's nothing personal for the one yielding the paddle or the one in the cut; it's the way business gets done. It's the symbolism of confronting life's obstacles. It's personifying dedication and endurance. It's committing to principles of solidarity, brotherhood and loyalty.

It's rhetoric that, if hazing reform is to take place in earnest, would mean an irreversible tarnishing of the rights and privileges constructed around organizational hazing over the last 60 years.

How do you reverse engineer a culture that has long promoted hazing as an acceptable rite of passage? How do you convince students at one campus who "went hard" in their process to respect those of another line or on another campus who "skated?" How do you stop older members from looking down upon newer members who are coming of age in an era where hazing, once the tool of character-building and lifelong organizational fidelity, is now culturally defined by lawsuits and bad press?

Most of all, how do you get millions of organizational members to universally concede the fallacy of extreme hazing, when that fallacy has helped to produce some of history's most notable leaders in black political mobilization, economic development and educational outreach? If they were courageous and bold enough to withstand extreme hazing, who are today's incoming members to challenge its value or to reject its practice?

Universities, Pan-Hellenic organizations, marching bands, lodges and social fellowships must be bold if they are serious about ending hazing. That boldness will be measured by the hazing they can prevent today, but also by denouncing the hazing of yesteryear and admitting the mistake of celebrating or ignoring its practice.

Imagine major CEOs, activists, educators and scientists coming forward to say "this is how I was hazed, this is the way that I hazed others, and for both, I was wrong." What if organizations didn't stop at denouncing hazing culture, but offered public support for "skating?" What if there was a public reprimand retroactively issued for every chapter and member known to have participated in a hazing ritual or process, no matter how long ago, and without regard for the severity or longevity of the process?

No one would publicly agree that violence and humiliation are acceptable parts of an intake process, but until organizations take the lead to sever membership privileges from hazing culture, "going hard for letters" will continue to be a worthy exchange for social and professional advancement.