We Didn't Start the Fire

by Heather Szilagyi | 10/25/12 10:00pm

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by Allison Wang / The Dartmouth

While the College has made efforts to create a more positive atmosphere around this year's bonfire, some still question the bonfire's impact on the Dartmouth community.

Director of Greek Letter Organizations and Societies Wes Schaub said he is participating in a committee whose goal is to find more positive ways for people to be involved in the bonfire, but the committee has not "chosen a direction yet."

The Homecoming bonfire is similar to Dartmouth Outing Club First-Year Trips in that its primary focus is on freshmen. While many agree that Trips positively welcome new students to campus, some members of the College community said that the bonfire has the potential to be a less welcoming and more negative experience for freshmen.

A mere six weeks after the end of Trips, upperclassmen shift to shouting "worst class ever" at first-year students during the bonfire, women's and gender studies professor Michael Bronski said.

"There's no way in my mind that this can't be seen as bullying or at least hazing," Bronski said. "Why are we not welcoming people to the campus in a continuous way?"

Schaub said that students have asked him on several occasions whether the Homecoming bonfire is an act of hazing. Due to spectators' disrespect, the bonfire could potentially generate a harmful environment for freshmen, he said.

"The bonfire in and of itself isn't a bad activity, but when one group of students treats another group the way some of our students treat the students who are running around the bonfire, that's not a good atmosphere," Schaub said.

Collis Center for Student Involvement Director Eric Ramsey said he does not believe the bonfire and the events associated with it constitute hazing.

"We work really hard to make sure that positive behavior is supported at the bonfire and that students feel safe," he said.

The Collis Center which assists in planning the College's big weekends, including Homecoming works to eradicate behaviors that are contradictory to Dartmouth's Principle of Community, Ramsey said. For example, Safety and Security or Hanover Police intervene when students heckle and yell derogatory comments at first-year students.

Despite these attempts at intervention, problems like pushing and shoving invariably arise from year to year, Bronski said.

"All of that in combination with drinking and running around a fire I don't see any excuse for it," Bronski said.

Jessica Womack '14 said she was very apprehensive before her freshman bonfire and had safety concerns about the fire itself and the drinking that occurs among some students beforehand.

"The concept of having 1,000-plus students running around in a circle around a really big fire was really stressful to me," she said.

Womack said that while she ended up enjoying the bonfire after participating, it "fundamentally goes against the College's policy of hazing" because it could be perceived by a rational person as causing physical and emotional harm.

Many freshmen, however, have positive experiences at the bonfire. Homecoming's focus on first-year students positively distinguishes it from other big weekends, including Winter Carnival and Green Key, Samantha Sherman '15 said.

"It makes you feel like you're part of the Dartmouth community," she said.

While Ramsey acknowledged that negative aspects of the bonfire do exist, he also said that maintaining traditions helps foster a sense of community.

"Our traditional weekends are moments when students can reflect on their experiences and see their experience within a larger lens surrounded by alums who have been here many years ago," he said. "We are continually focused on the positive elements of the traditions and trying to minimize behaviors that are not in line with our values of community,"

Yet the events current students are accustomed to as part of the bonfire "tradition" such as running laps around the fire are not decades-old practices every Dartmouth student has participated in, according to religion professor Susan Ackerman '80.

Bonfire traditions were different when Ackerman attended the College. Students constructed bonfires for each home football game, started building the Homecoming bonfire the Monday before Dartmouth Night and gathered around its dying embers at approximately four a.m. to roast marshmallows, she said.

Upperclassmen yelling insults and first-year students running around the bonfire are relatively new traditions and might just be bad habits, according to Bronski, who said he would advocate eliminating these activities during the celebration.

Calling these activities "traditions" attempts to normalize them and make them acceptable, he said.

Although the bonfire ceremony is similar to hazing in some ways, it is still a pervasive part of Dartmouth culture and highly important to College alumni, Womack said.

"If Dartmouth got rid of the bonfire because of its likenesses to hazing according to its own policy, then I think the alums would absolutely throw a fit," she said.

Students are still confused about what exactly constitutes hazing according to the new policy, and the College has drawn a "very harsh line in the sand" regarding potential hazing activities, Director of the Ethics Institute Aine Donovan said.

One of her students was unsure if wearing a duck hat around campus which the student was asked to do as part of initiation into a group constituted hazing, Donovan said.

"Almost anything could be classified as hazing if it takes the wrong turn," she said, emphasizing that every group in the world has some form of initiation practices.

Not all potentially harmful activities should be banned, and initiation practices that denote membership within a community whether it is wearing a sweater or a class ring are common, Donovan said.

The College's definition of hazing is strict and unrealistic, Sherman said.

"By my definition, I don't think that [the bonfire] is hazing," she said. "By Dartmouth's definition, I think it would be considered hazing."

While there is nothing wrong with the nature of the bonfire tradition, it is important that people take personal responsibility to ensure that no harm arises from it, Donovan said.

"I think you have to look at the nature of an activity, [which] is to bring people together for a really special weekend," Donovan said.

The College's hazing policy states that almost anything required of new members but not of others, or any activity that lacks "legitimate educational value," could be considered hazing.

First-year students are not required to run laps around the bonfire and should not feel that their participation or lack of participation affects their standing in the Dartmouth community, Ramsey said.

"I think it's really important to note that '16s became members of this community a long time ago at matriculation when they shook [Interim] President [Carol] Folt's hand," he said.

There are students who choose not to run around the bonfire, and the "power structure" surrounding the event differs from that of other organizations conducting hazing activities, according to Schaub.

Students hazed as part of a fraternity pledge term, for example, do not belong to the organization yet, whereas freshmen running around the bonfire are not trying to prove their ability to attend Dartmouth, he said.

Edwin Yung '15 said that running around the bonfire is not hazing because it is not compulsory for freshmen.

"Nobody is forced to do it, and I think that's the best part about it," he said. "If someone was forced to do it then I would consider that hazing."

Laura Bergsten '15 said that Dartmouth considers hazing to be initiation activities required of new members that do not serve a purpose to the organization.

By this definition, the Homecoming bonfire ceremony is not hazing "because it serves a purpose to the group of freshmen," Bergsten said. "Every class at Dartmouth goes through the same bonfire experience. It makes Dartmouth more of a community throughout all the classes."

Although the Homecoming bonfire should not be eradicated, there is room for reform, Schaub said.

"I think that if people really evaluated why they go to the bonfire and why it's such a great tradition, I think that students in general could begin to question if some of the behavior is appropriate and could begin to make some decisions on their own about the bonfire and how we treat each other on campus," he said.