KU Leuven rector considers lessons of hazing-related death

Luc Sels, rector of KU Leuven, discussed the causes and consequences of the 2018 hazing-provoked death of civil engineering student Sanda Dia in his opening speech of the academic year.

Speaking on 21 September, Sels pondered on how people can be drawn into doing evil deeds and how a university needs to cope with such deeds undertaken by some of its members, in this case 18 identified members of the now disbanded student club Reuzegom, in 2018 when the hazing of Sanda Dia and two other students took place, with this tragic result.

Sociologist Sels, who said that he found it difficult, as a father, to understand the deeds performed by the students, said in his speech that he read several books during the summer to try to understand and that the literature has been of help.

“It was a restless summer. Still, I was able to do a bit of reading. Two books left an impression on me. The first was Humankind: A hopeful history by Rutger Bregman. The Dutch historian won me over, although the summer temperatures sometimes made it hard. But his conclusion is true: most people are good,” said Sels.

“The second was the magnum opus of the Japanese writer Junpei Gomikawa: The Human Condition. This book shows you how it’s possible that some people are not good, stop being good, are suddenly good again, or are good but not to everyone.

“Gomikawa begins his foreword as follows: ‘I had the brilliant idea of wanting to study whether someone can still be human under certain conditions.’ The answer is masterfully revealed over 1,400 pages,” said Sels.

He said it was a strange feeling to read this book at a time when the Reuzegom tragedy was dominating the press. “As a father of children, I was horrified and deeply moved by the pain and suffering of the family and friends of Sanda Dia.

“[It was] the darkest page in three years at the Rector’s Office, because a young man, popular and talented, was taken from us in an appalling manner . . . One of the darkest pages in the recent history of the university, as the Reuzegom ‘baptism’ dishonours everything that KU Leuven stands for,” he added.

Individual and collective violence

Sels delved into peer pressure as a mechanism behind hazing and wondered how universities could respond to minimise such peer pressure.

“This tragedy is also a story about human conditions and responsibility, about the group that drags the individual along, about peer pressure that restricts free will, and about collective behaviour that leads to collective violence. Collective violence that repeats itself over and over again with regard to new ‘initiates’ who go on to become the new brutes. Because this is considered normal in the group,” said Sels.

“In such a clash of beliefs, especially when they result in a death, the university is prompted to react and question itself. What can the university do to prevent tragedies like this? What can it do to avoid aberrant peer pressure? What can it do to teach its members, staff and students, the sense of responsibility to say ‘no’ when it is necessary?

“Laurien Ntezimana, the Rwandan theologian, in his reflections on the genocide, always pointed out: ‘You were given machetes and there was a lot of pressure, but you also could have just put the machetes down’.”

Sanda Dia’s death

The Belgian engineering student Sanda Dia, aged 20, died in 2018 of a heart attack after being forced to down large amounts of alcohol over a short time-span and pints of salty fish oil in a bizarre Bullingdon Club-style initiation ceremony by the notorious ‘Reuzegom’ club for wealthy students at KU Leuven.

The Reuzegom student club, which dates back to 1946 but is now disbanded, was infamous in Leuven for its champagne-fuelled parties and luxury trips abroad.

Sanda Dia, a Belgian national with a Senegalese father, was one of the first people of colour admitted to the initiation ceremony of Reuzegom. He spent several days in a log cabin in the forest far away from the university close to Antwerp under the supervision of senior members of the club. He was forced to drink large quantities of fish oil with huge amounts of alcohol and to sit naked in the freezing cold forest under pouring rain.

He was taken to hospital after he had collapsed with a very low body temperature and was found to have a high salt concentration in his body, but he died of multiple organ failure.

Rector’s call for reinstatement of values

Rector Sels finished his speech with an appeal: “Yes, I’m picking up the gauntlet and I’m inviting all of you to do the same with me. Help me and point out my mistakes if necessary. Because this is not a job for the rector alone. It is the responsibility of all of us: students, professors, researchers, staff members and alumni.

“We have to realise this in how we deal with each other, in our attention to personal and social development, in the emphasis of our research, in the social engagement that drives us.
And let’s not forget the fact that most people are good.”

University reaction

As details emerged of the events leading up to the death of Sanda Dia, the police investigation found reason to pursue criminal punishment of those involved.

At the same time, in response to increasing calls for punishment of those identified as being present, the university decided upon 30 hours of societal service and the writing of an essay for each of the 18 Reuzegom members involved.

In early September, the public prosecutor announced a decision to prosecute the 18 club members for administering harmful substances, unintentional manslaughter, degrading treatment and refusal of assistance due to guilty negligence. The students involved are all at risk of a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

The prosecution was then suspended upon the intervention of several lawyers for the 18, and prosecution is now pending.

However, by then Sels had been attacked for not taking stronger action against the 18 students. At the end of July this year he responded in the media stating that activities such as those organised by Reuzegom in no way can be reconciled with what the KU stands for.

He also said that, in 2017, he had required Reuzegom and other student organisations to sign a charter creating a safer framework for students’ initiation rituals and that, as a consequence of the Sanda case, all student clubs had signed a charter for student initiation rituals in March 2019.

Open letter and petition for arrest

On 4 August 2020, 20 professors at KU Leuven wrote an open letter demanding stronger punishments for those who had participated in the initiation ceremony for Sanda Dia.

“As signatories, we ask that all members of the now disbanded Reuzegom who are currently studying at our alma mater be suspended immediately and all ties with the university be severed,” they said.

“KU Leuven must also consider the possible sanctions it can still take against those who have graduated in the meantime, of whom at least one is employed at the university.

“The elements that have surfaced in the coverage of the affair clearly point to racism and elitism. We also call on the university to make even more of its equal opportunities and diversity policy, which has so far been non-committal.”

As of 23 September this year, 28,225 people had signed the petition, “Arrest the killers of Sanda Dia”.