A Friendly Fire

by Dan Pollock | 10/27/00 5:00am

As the administration's recent threat to eliminate the bonfire shows, there is a fundamental difference between the philosophies of the students and the administration at this school. For the students, by and large, this school is a community of adults living together, a place to learn more about yourself, a place to learn about others, and a place to learn about certain aspects of the world in exquisite detail.

The administration seems to have the attitude that this school is like an advanced placement version of Disney World. A kind of four-year "Pirates of the Caribbean," in which you must keep all hands and feet behind the handrail at all times, refrain from touching the fire, enjoy the ride in an orderly fashion and collect your diploma at the end.

There are a number of actions that the administration has taken over the past two years that offensively ignore or refute the opinions and considerations of the adults that attend this school. (Strangely enough, the administration never refers to the students as adults.)

The administration's latest decision -- to seriously consider doing away with the bonfire and Freshman Sweep -- only provides more evidence of this difference in philosophies. The letter sent to HBs last weekend was a bizarre warning to students that unless they take more responsibility for their actions, there is a strong likelihood that the College will do away with the bonfire. The letter was strange because, in talking about banning the bonfire, it made several references to 12 University of Texas students who were killed during the construction of a bonfire there last year.

The comparison is tenuous at best. Dartmouth's bonfire is not anything like the one at the University of Texas. The tragic deaths of the 12 University of Texas students occurred as a result of a series of events that were easily preventable. Many of the students were not wearing proper protective clothing. They were violating the safety rules, in terms of structural height and in where they were working. Some of them were drunk. Their deaths are just as unfortunate as someone getting killed while driving drunk or doing any other kind of behavior that is dangerous and stupid.

But just as we don't ban driving because some people choose to drive in a stupid and dangerous way, there is no reason to ban Dartmouth's bonfire just because students at another school acted in a stupid and dangerous way.

The administration's argument is that despite Dartmouth's safer construction design and procedures, students still act in stupid and dangerous ways during the bonfire celebrations. In an article published in The Dartmouth last Friday, this newspaper reported that, "Last year [the administration] saw an across-the-board increase of alcohol violations, arrests, vandalism and sexual assault over Homecoming weekend - with many of the violations coming on the night of the bonfire."

This might have been because it was the first Homecoming celebration since the announcement of the Initiative. But even if bonfire-goers are acting wild and crazy, it is only a rare few that act in a way that is dangerous to themselves or others. The actions of a few "bad apples," as Bonfire Committee Chair Joe Cassidy calls them, does not merit punishment for all.

There is a rather cynical reason why the bonfire may continue to exist, despite the protestations of an over-bearing administration. The administration might fear the loss of alumni donations that could come as a result of such a ban. People enjoy the bonfire and other Homecoming events so much during their time at Dartmouth that thousands of them return as alumni every year to take part in the festivities. The cancellation of one of Homecoming's main events might cause some alumni to reconsider. Although given the recent downturn in donations as a result of the Initiative, and the recent upturn in the college's endowment, it seems unlikely that the administration would be that concerned with the financial arguments.

Many of the problems the administration seems to associate with the bonfire such as sexual assault, alcohol violations and arrests are quite common on other party weekends that don't have bonfires -- such as Green Key -- so it's not at all clear that ending the bonfire would improve the situation. The fact is that there are a number of steps the College could take that might achieve some of their objectives, but would still fall short of the complete abolition of the bonfire. What are these steps? Ask the students! If given a chance, students can come up with some pretty remarkable solutions to problems.

But that's not the way the administration works. Instead, it employs a tactic that has all the logic of "throwing the baby out with the bath water." It makes a provocative declaration about some aspect of student life which it finds objectionable. The students react to the declaration with anger, shouting at Student Assembly meetings, responding with editorials (like this one) and sometimes even protests.

The administration pretends to compromise on a more rational "middle-of-the-road" solution that might have been agreed upon in the first place if they had merely considered asking student opinion in the first place. For example, a few years ago, when the administration was considering electronic door locks on the buildings, it questioned students about their feelings on the matter and discovered that most students didn't think it was necessary. Common sense solutions to the safety issues surrounding the bonfire are possible and are necessary. The adults that attend this college deserve better than administration by decree.