Dunedin's University of Otago warns students of expulsion over flat initiations

It comes after allegations of animal abuse during initiations organised by Dunedin students.
It comes after allegations of animal abuse during initiations organised by Dunedin students. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Tess Brunton of RNZ

The University of Otago fears someone could be killed or seriously hurt at flat initiations as events become increasingly associated with absurd, dangerous and depraved behaviour.

The university has stepped in to stop initiations going ahead, warning students in a letter seen by RNZ that there was "genuine concern that one of these events will result in serious harm or death to a guest".

The Otago Daily Times today reported two women were forced to strip to their underwear and called "piggies" during an initiation, while reports have surfaced of students mistreating ducks and a live eel.

A group of students told RNZ they recently planned to hold an initiation for new flatmates involving drinking and eating sardines, but were visited by Campus Watch the night before and given a letter warning they could be expelled from the university.

One of the flatmates Elise, who did not want her surname used, said the group was annoyed but decided it was not worth the risk.

"I get the banning of initiations because a lot of them have got out of hand, particularly the animal abuse - but it was annoying when we got the letter because it was like 'Why us?' when ours was going to be innocent," she said.

"We had a lot of flat discussions about what we were going to do, how it was going to pan out and to make sure it was safe and everyone was okay."

The letter from deputy proctor Geoff Burns said the Proctor's Office was aware the flat was hosting an initiation event and warned of the potential for bullying, intimidation and harassment.

"There is a genuine concern that one of these events will result in serious harm or death to a guest. For that reason, the Proctor's Office undertakes this proactive prevention work yearly, seeking to address the risk by educating you as potential hosts of an event," the letter said.

"Please be aware that there is a power imbalance between your guests and you as hosts. Please be mindful that this imbalance can quickly lead to bullying, intimidation and harassment.

"Your guests are human beings and there is an expectation of them being treated with dignity and respect."

The letter warned the students that flat initiations could breach the code of conduct and result in hosts being expelled from the university.

"Any activity involving humiliation, nudity, assault, bodily fluids, bullying, intimidation or harassment would fall well short of expectations and would be investigated by this office as serious misconduct. If proven the university has historically held the hosts more accountable than the guests and we have expelled hosts from the university as part of the consequence," Burns said.

"If despite this information you chose to continue and host an event - think carefully about whether you invite a large number of guests to watch, historically the guests watching can encourage antisocial and harmful behaviour in which you as hosts get caught up in and things spiral out of control quickly. It will be you as hosts that will be investigated and if proven, held accountable.

"Historically students under investigation have advised that they did not know, or that there was a mixed message provided. This email removes either excuse, you are now informed and there is no mixed message."

Another flatmate, Izzy, said she had participated in an initiation as part of the ritual of taking over the flat last year.

"We just had to drink a lot and eat tuna covered in flour, so it wasn't that bad at all," she said.

Elise said her initiation was not dangerous or humiliating.

"It was nothing like animal cruelty or physical abuse or getting yelled at or anything. It was just a harmless initiation," she said.

The University of Otago said it was investigating the claims involving animals, although so far it had not found any evidence to suggest students had bitten the legs off live ducklings.

"The university became aware of the alleged incident involving an eel prior to the article being published in our student magazine Critic and immediately began investigating as an alleged serious misconduct matter. Police have been informed as part of the process. Local iwi have also been advised and cultural advice sought," the university said.

"Despite investigating allegations regarding ducks, we have not yet found any evidence to date. The University of Otago takes these allegations extremely seriously and any assistance from the community to help us identify those allegedly responsible is crucial. We urge people with knowledge of any student activities that involve harm to animals or humans to contact us via the Proctor's Office, the Police, OUSA and SPCA."

University of Otago Students' Association president Quintin Jane said hazing rituals were relatively new and were not a part of the student culture.

He said they were designed to embarrass students and the initiation involving the live eel was unacceptable.

Police said they were not aware of any formal reports about flat initiations in recent years.

"Local police have been advised by the university of an incident involving an eel, and that they are making enquiries into the matter," a spokesperson said.

"Police visit and have prevention conversations with students as well as people who register their parties through the Good One party register.

"Police would like to remind students to please engage your brain before acting. We want you to enjoy all that is great about being a student in Dunedin, but not at the expense of someone else or someone else's property.

"Our goal is for students to be safe and feel safe while having a good time and working hard, we love the energy students bring to the city, however, please leave any anti-social antics at home."