Student Deaths Spark Debate Over Hazing at Portugal’s Universities
EDUCATION, 24 Mar 2014
18 Mar 2014 – By almost any measure, Portugal’s universities have had a turbulent time. After the end of the country’s dictatorship in the 1970s, public education found itself overwhelmed by soaring numbers of young people seeking degrees. The unmet demand opened a market for private universities, generally regarded as being of lesser quality.
But where academic achievement has often failed to create distinction, hazing, known as praxes in Portuguese, has taken on a new and prominent place at the newer private universities, with some having their identity closely tied to the ritual. The situation thrust itself into the public debate here after the drowning deaths of six students during a suspected hazing ritual.
Since a jogger discovered the body of Pedro Negrão, 24, on Dec. 26 washed up near Meco Beach, south of Lisbon, a police investigation has yet to establish the precise circumstances surrounding the deaths. But before he left for the weekend, 11 days earlier, Mr. Negrão had told his parents that he was meeting with other students in a rented house to prepare hazing activities for their school, Lusófona University, founded in 1989.
The sole known survivor of the encounter, a fellow student, João Gouveia, has since been receiving psychological treatment and has not given his account of the events. No one has been charged and a court date could be three or four months away, according to Vítor Parente Ribeiro, the lawyer representing the families of the six victims.
“I think the university needs to give us some answers as to why these young people went to the beach,” Mr. Parente Ribeiro said.
A Lusófona representative, Eugénia Vicente, said in an email that “at this moment in time there exists no evidence of a relation between any activity conducted by the university and the tragedy that took the life of six of our students.”
But in the vacuum of information surrounding the deaths, a fierce debate has broken out among the students, and in the society more broadly, over the value of hazing rituals that some credit with building esprit de corps among students, and others say have grown increasingly dangerous. Unlike at American universities, and others in Europe, hazing is not limited to fraternities or sororities, but is a general rite of initiation for first-year students.
At Portugal’s oldest public university, founded in 1290 in Coimbra, about 110 miles from Lisbon, hazing has a strong and storied tradition, and it is that legacy that universities with far shallower histories have tried to emulate.
Until two decades ago, “hazing in Lisbon simply didn’t exist,” said José Miguel Caldas de Almeida, a professor of psychiatry and former dean of the medicine faculty of Nova University, a state establishment. “Many of our universities, especially private ones, are of bad quality, so people are desperately trying to recreate the feeling that studying there is something special,” he said.
What he witnessed as a university dean, he added, was “more violent than the hazing that I saw in the army in Africa,” while serving there as a military doctor during Portugal’s colonial wars.
About 70 percent of Portuguese between 18 and 24 attend higher education, compared with 9 percent in 1974, when a revolution toppled Portugal’s dictatorship, according to Pedro Lourtie, a former Portuguese secretary of state for higher education. Yet in the 2013 Shanghai rankings of the world’s universities, no Portuguese university entered the top 300.
A dramatic change took place in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Mr. Lourtie said, when demand overwhelmed the public university infrastructure and opened the door instead to “a real business” of creating private universities.
Still, “the first choice of young people is to go to public universities,” Mr. Lourtie said. As for some of the private establishments, he added, “they want the recognition and probably overdo it sometimes in trying to show themselves as great universities.”
Diana Antunes, who is studying music in Lisbon after attending university in the city of Aveiro, said the drownings at Meco Beach “brought to the surface a real problem, which is that newer universities pretend they can be like Coimbra and use praxes to create an identity rather than focus on raising education.”
On a recent Saturday, she joined students outside Lusófona’s campus to pressure the government to ban praxes. Ms. Antunes, who is 28, said that not joining the ritual “makes you an outcast.” While studying in Aveiro, Ms. Antunes said, she experienced the pressure herself when she refused to join a hazing ritual that required simulating sexual intercourse, as well as licking yogurt from a boy’s lap. Her mother complained to the university, but no action was taken.
Still, other students have staged competing demonstrations in support of the hazing rituals. During a recent visit to Lusófona’s campus, students defended both the school’s reputation and its hazing activities.
Frederico Campos, the leader of the law faculty’s praxes, said that “none of our games are really risky or could lead to something like what happened on that beach.” Typically, he said, new students are encouraged to join games like playing soccer with a leg tied to that of a teammate, or having to walk across town blindfolded, with other students acting as their guides. Any alcohol-related problems or other abuses, he said, are reported to the university authorities or the police.
Another Lusófona student, Victor Santos, said hazing was “a great way to break the ice between students and give a sense of family belonging to people who come from everywhere.”
But since the deaths, Mr. Campos said, he has been the target of insults and even objects thrown at him while walking around Lisbon wearing his traditional black praxes outfit.
Portugal’s education minister has been discussing with universities how to deal with the praxes. After the drownings, Paula Teixeira da Cruz, Portugal’s justice minister, said, “A ban is not the solution.”
Even as the police investigation continued, TVI, a private television channel, recently aired a program aimed at reconstructing the Meco Beach tragedy. It showed students with their wrists tied and their backs to the ocean being forced by a hazing leader to take a step back into the water every time they answered a question wrong.
Ana Leal, a journalist from TVI, said that her research showed that braving the ocean’s waves on a winter night was considered “a normal game” at Lusófona. The university called the report “only media speculation.”
Still, even the parents of Mr. Negrão, an accomplished swimmer who studied business management at Lusófona and was in a four-year relationship and due to move in soon with his girlfriend, said their goal was merely to establish legal responsibility for the death of their son.
“We want to find out the truth, but not eliminate the praxes, because they’ve also made many students happy, including our son Pedro,” his mother, Maria Fátima Negrão, said.
A version of this article appears in print on March 19, 2014, on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: Student Deaths Spark Debate Over Hazing at Portugal’s Universities.
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