Inside Higher Ed: Colleges fling spring parties

By Allie Grasgreen, for Inside Higher Ed

March 29, 2011

Students may be feeling spring fever, but thanks to a recent wave of college crackdowns on celebrations that tend to foster high alcohol consumption, many will have to adjust their plans.

Earlier this year, the University of Connecticut decided to cancel its annual Spring Weekend celebration. A student was punched to the ground during last year’s event, and died several days later; his parents are now suing the university.

Now, other universities are following Connecticut’s lead – and the events being called off range from decades-old parties to those that haven’t even taken place yet.

After a St Patrick’s Day riot in which students helped to cause $12,000 in damage to the city and at least 12 of them were arrested, the State University of New York at Albany announced this week that the campus was suspending a traditional spring celebration much beloved by students.

In the Midwest, administrators at Illinois State and Illinois Wesleyan universities are trying to avoid such chaos by discouraging students from attending an April Fool’s Day event whose stated purpose is to congregate thousands of drunk people. And Tufts University just announced that it is cancelling the annual Naked Quad Run, which – while a seasonal winter event – has caused similar trouble. The presidents of Albany and Illinois State both emailed students directly to condemn dangerous and irresponsible behaviour, whatever the celebration; the president of Tufts echoed that sentiment in a student newspaper piece.

One of the more longstanding events affected by the spring crackdowns is Albany’s Fountain Day, a 40-year-old tradition centred around the heart of the campus, where students and others frolic in the water. While the president is only suspending the event, the fountain is slated for renovation and will be out of commission until 2012, at which point the future of the celebration could be reassessed.

After students became keen on drinking during Fountain Day, administrators shifted the event from a weekday lunch-hour to a Sunday afternoon gathering of students, faculty and staff. For a while it went smoothly, but in recent years more students – some underage – have shown up to Fountain Day drunk, said Christine Bouchard, vice-president for student success. While the suspension of Fountain Day was partly damage control from the riots – to this end, the university also moved one of its spring breaks to coincide with St Patrick’s Day next year – administrators have been concerned about the event for some time, she said.

“Even if a few students use the occasion to drink heavily, it would be one too many to have at a school-sanctioned event,” Bouchard said. “We’re trying to really use this as an occasion to redirect the conversation in a different way, so that students understand how important the reputation of their school is to the integrity of their degree. And I think once students start hearing this, they look at it in an entirely different way.” Bouchard said that after the riots, Albany received letters from employers who said they would not hire any of the university’s graduates.

In his letter to students, Albany president George M. Philip wrote, “I regret that this action will punish students who had no role in the disturbing events of March 12. But the need to proactively respond and to uphold our reputation has never been greater.”

Regardless, many students are still miffed about the decision. Some took to Facebook to voice their opposition; others turned to the student government, whose president told local media that the majority of them are disappointed. One student predicted on a Fountain Day Facebook page that students will transfer because of it. Another wrote, “Make the right point and follow through with a course of action that banishes the individuals that were a part of the riot last week – not by canceling a historic event.”

Not all students are opposed to the cancellation of various events. Last week, on the same day that the student newspaper at Tufts published the piece by President Lawrence S. Bacow, who asserted that the university’s annual Naked Quad Run was too dangerous to continue, it wrote a piece of its own, expressing the same worries about the end-of-fall-semester celebration.

“Every year, the tradition is invariably marred by multiple cases of alcohol poisoning – sometimes from nearly fatal levels of alcohol consumption – as well as injuries resulting from falling naked on the concrete surrounding the Res Quad,” The Tufts Daily editorial board wrote. “It is not difficult to envision that a drunken mass of naked students, all sprinting along the same icy path and surrounded by a crowd of spectators, could result in a death or a serious injury; we should count ourselves lucky that it hasn’t already.”

Tufts spokeswoman Kim Thurler said a dozen students were hospitalised and one was arrested at last year’s Naked Quad Run. In 2003, the university provided food, spread sand on icy sidewalks and adopted other safety measures at the run, which dates back to the 1970s. But Bacow said in his piece that the spectacle has been a hazard since he arrived on the campus back in 2002.

“Basically the event was something that could no longer be managed safely, and we felt it was best to end it, frankly, before a tragedy occurred,” Thurler said. “It’s impossible to predict what will happen in the future, but we do think that most students are going to be responsible.”

Meanwhile, universities in the Midwest are trying to clamp down on new parties before they turn into unmanageable traditions. As many as 10,000 people confirmed, via Facebook, their planned attendance at Fool’s Fest, which a few Illinois State students planned in the Normal-Bloomington area.

But the event’s cancellation hasn’t stopped local colleges from preparing for the worst. Illinois State, in particular, is taking precautions against a potentially massive influx of party-goers. Administrators also wanted to keep the event from becoming akin to the annual Unofficial St Patrick’s Day celebration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where students precede the holiday with a weekend of heavy drinking. That event has resulted in hundreds of arrests and various student injuries over the years, and in 2006 a graduate’s death was linked to the celebration.

To avoid such problems, Illinois State is coordinating with campus, local and state law enforcement, and adding extra security measures at residence halls and other campus buildings. Illinois Wesleyan spokesman Matt Kurz said his university is also cooperating with police, and the office of student affairs issued statements to warn students about the event – while being mindful that publicising it can also generate interest.

“This is not something that we want to see occur again. That’s why we have been so proactive in this first attempt,” said Steve Adams, vice-president for student affairs at Illinois State. “As much as I’d like to think that because the university seems to be prepared for this – a little bit of alcohol here and a little bit of alcohol there – judgment becomes impeded and all of a sudden you have a lot of people who are interested in being a part of the action. I just have a feeling that regardless, we’re going to see a weekend that’s out of the ordinary. I’m not sure there’s anything you can do to completely put a stop to this.”

Others agree: as one person – who, like others, did not identify as a student – commented on a local news article, “The more you try to stop something, the more people will show...See you at the party!”

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