Initiation Troubles

Objections to initiation rituals started to gain traction in the 1920s when real consequences began to be felt. Two major cases against initiation were those of Dwight Rice and Armand Powlett.

The Rice Affair of 1924-1925 was one of the first major publicized criticisms of initiation. Dwight H. Rice was a teacher in his mid-20s who decided to attend university to get a bachelor’s degree. As a mature student, Rice refused to participate in the Freshie Parade around campus and wear the outfit designated for freshies that year. Later in the term, Rice was summoned to Sophomore Court over his refusal to participate. When Rice failed to attend Sophomore Court, the Student Union summoned him to Student Court, the main disciplinary committee of the student body, run by the Student Union. Again, Rice failed to attend.

Provost’s Report on Initiation, 1933, Initiation - Powlett Case, Reference File, University of Alberta Archives

Provost’s Report on Initiation, 1933

Accounts conflict, but Rice claims members of the Student Union harassed him between classes and eventually told him he could no longer attend classes if he refused to submit himself to the rules and regulation for students, created and administered by the Student Union. The Student Union claims Rice’s failure to take the Student Court system seriously showed that he was not a good member of the university community. Rice demanded the whole situation be dropped or he would not return to school. The Student Union refused and Rice officially dropped out of school during Winter semester 1925. [1]

Despite the Rice Affair, initiation carried on, albeit with a few more rules and regulations in place. Problems that arose from initiation rituals in 1932, including a student with a fractured shoulder, ended widespread initiation practices.

According to the official committee report to the Senate of the University of Alberta, Armand Powlett had been on the University of Alberta campus for less than a day when it started to become clear to those around him that he was not dealing with initiation well. [2] Powlett had strong convictions and even kept a framed photograph of Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, a man Powlett greatly admired, beside his bed. This would prove problematic in the days that followed.

One of the tests the sophs subjected the freshies to was to ask them what the lowest and highest forms of life were. The answers to those questions were freshies and sophs, respectively. Powlett refused to call sophs the highest form of life, however, insisting that Prime Minister Bennett was the highest form of life, the sophs the lowest. Powlett’s refusal to play along with the soph games led to his being singled out for additional punishment. The sophs asked him repeatedly to denounce his prior claims that Bennett was superior to the sophs, which upset and aggravated Powlett. Powlett had “Bennett” written on his forehead.

When it became clear Powlett was not playing along with the initiation rituals, he was “tubbed,” that is to say, dunked in an outdoor bathtub while fully clothed. When Powlett still did not play along, the soph secretary ordered him to the “skin game,” wherein Powlett was stripped naked and carried down a hallway multiple times before being spanked. Powlett still refused to play along and change his answer for who was the highest form of human life. According to the students involved, Powlett endured these punishments without expressing emotion. The organizing sophs began to grow concerned over Powlett’s mental state and recognized that he was not taking initiation well. 

Evergreen and Gold, 1934, p.189. Drawing of a tombstone erected in the quad by unknown persons after the trial verdict was announced.

Drawing of a tombstone erected in the quad by unknown persons after the trial verdict was announced. Evergreen and Gold, 1934, p.189.

The organizers offered to halt Powlett’s initiation, but Powlett refused. He insisted on continuing with initiation and went back after dinner on the first full day of initiation for further punishments.

On the second day of initiation, Powlett’s classmates, freshmen and sophomores, noted that he was behaving oddly and speaking incoherently. He asked his fellow freshmen how he was supposed to be acting, and feared the sophs were thinking poorly of him. After he was observed to be behaving strangely, the President of the Student Union spoke with him and told the sophs not to continue his initiation.

That night multiple people found Powlett wandering the residence in the middle of the night and attempted to put him back to bed. By morning he was found wearing someone else’s clothing and behaving oddly. He was henceforth removed from any further initiation practices and sent to the University infirmary, and the next day to the university hospital. Two months later he was sent to Homewood Mental Hospital in Ontario.

As a result of Powlett’s nervous breakdown, the Student Union unanimously voted to end the practice of initiation on October 8, 1932 and instead struck a committee to develop a plan to welcome freshmen in a voluntary program that would introduce students to academic work and university life.

In January 1933, after the Student Union had already voted not to continue initiation, Powlett’s father sued the university. [3] He was initially awarded $50,000 and upon appeal the verdict was upheld but the award was limited to $15,000. The University did not appeal the case further.

The Powlett case occurred during the height of the Depression and made national headlines. Unlike previous problems that hindered initiation for a year or two before it was reinstated, the Powlett case caused initiation rituals to be replaced with Orientation. [4]

[1] "Rice Balks at Initiation; then Defies Authority." The Gateway, vol. 15, no. 23, March 12, 1925, p. 1 & 6.

[2] "Provost’s Report on Initiation, 1933." Reference File: Initiation - Powlett Case, University of Alberta Archives.

[3] Mcleod, Rod. All True Things: A History of the University of Alberta, 1908-2008. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2008, p. 104.

[4] Mcleod, Rod. All True Things: A History of the University of Alberta, 1908-2008. Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 2008, p. 104-106.