Cumberland family asks UT for hazing reforms following the death of their son

Lisa Nhan

The family of former student Nicky Cumberland, who died in fall 2018 from injuries sustained on the way home from a Texas Cowboys retreat, sent a letter last night to University administration asking for hazing reforms.

The letter, written by Nicky’s father Shawn Cumberland, contains reform suggestions for the Texas Cowboys and “broad-based reforms” for other student organizations and was sent to President Gregory Fenves and Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly.

Click here to read the Cumberland's letter in full. 

“We want to stop hazing,” Cumberland said to The Daily Texan. “It’s part of remembering Nicky, but it’s also the nature of our family … hard challenges are not something we aren’t going to go after.”

Since their son’s death, the Cumberland family has requested an investigation into hazing they believe occured at the retreat. The Cumberland family said they were told by Cowboys who attended that hazing had occurred before the crash. The Texas Cowboys, a University spirit organization, is best known for firing “Smokey the Cannon” at football games.

In the letter, Cumberland calls for a ban of the Cowboys for “an appropriate amount of time” but said the Cowboys shouldn’t be removed permanently. Rather, Cumberland said he wants the spirit organization reformed with a focus on hazing prevention.

“The Cowboys should represent an uncompromising force for good, a promoter of equality and protector against humiliation,” the letter said. “In short, The Cowboys should be the staunch anti-hazing organization on campus.”

Cumberland also suggested other reforms for the organization such as making Cowboys coed and establishing a new motto and reform committee.

The University-wide reforms include disciplining those who keep silent about witnessed hazing and prohibiting organizations from confiscating members’ cell phones. Cumberland said there is one “unifying theme” to these broad reforms.

“Transparency,” Cumberland wrote. “Transparency would have prevented Nicky’s meaningless death.”

Cumberland said in the letter that he met with many fraternity members who said “hazing exists today within their organizations, they don’t like it, they wish things were different, but there’s nothing they can do about it.”

“We talked to this guy who said, ‘What can one guy do?’” Cumberland said to The Daily Texan. “We’re not defeatists. We’re actually gonna try to win this. These boys don’t want hazing and we’re gonna help.”

Eddie Lopez, president of the Texas Cowboys Alumni Association, said they will, “consider the recommendations suggested by Mr. Cumberland.”

“Our hearts go out to his family, and we support their efforts to ensure that something positive comes from this tragedy,” Lopez said in a statement.

University spokesperson J.B. Bird said the letter “addresses issues of great importance to us and our students.”

“The president and dean of students have received Mr. Cumberland’s letter and will follow up with him directly,” Bird said. “We’re grateful for Mr. Cumberland’s commitment to making our community safer.”


Cumberland said he spent a lot of time after his son’s death learning about the Cowboys’ history and its past hazing infractions. Previously, the Texas Cowboys were suspended from campus for five years in 1995 after the University determined hazing occurred at the Cowboys’ initiation retreat earlier that year. The investigation was spurred by the death of then-pledge Gabe Higgins, who was found dead in the Colorado River near Bastrop with a blood alcohol content twice the legal limit for driving.

Higgins’ mother, Ruth Harten, then published “The Cowboy’s Secret” detailing her son’s death, the Cowboys’ history of hazing and the Cowboy’s return to campus. Cumberland said each member of Texas Cowboys should be required to read the book to understand the implications of hazing on “individual, organizational, and cultural” levels.

Along with the University investigation, UTPD is also conducting its own investigation into the alleged hazing at the Cowboys retreat.

Lopez said in the statement that the Cowboys conducted their own investigation last fall.

“That investigation ruled out alcohol and hazing as playing any part in the accident,” the statement said. “However we were disappointed to learn that there was misconduct that occurred at the retreat that did not align with the standards of the Texas Cowboys, and was in direct violation both of of our values and The University’s policy against hazing.”

“Based on that misconduct our judiciary board … moved swiftly and unanimously to recommend disciplinary actions, which included a combination of expulsions and suspensions of those individuals responsible for the misconduct,” Lopez said in a statement.  

Cumberland said he hopes to continue the legacy of love his son embodied as their family continues to fight for reform.

“Nicky lived his life exuding love,” Cumberland told the Texan. “Hate is not the way to address a problem it only gets met with hate … This is not an attack on people, this is an attack on a flawed system.”