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Bonfire blues: Old traditions get a fresh look at Dartmouth

New Hampshire Union Leader

July 15. 2018 2:38PM
Dartmouth College students run around the homecoming bonfire, a tradition that began in 1888. (Courtesy Dartmouth College)

HANOVER - For 130 years, homecoming at Dartmouth College has been symbolized by a roaring bonfire.

Freshmen run around the pyre, which tops 35 feet, and a few go farther - darting past police officers in a decades-old tradition aptly called "touching the fire."

Even among Ivy League schools, Dartmouth has a reputation for taking pride in its ritualistic and rowdy history as a crucible for the nation's future elite.

"Dear old Dartmouth, set a watch, lest the old traditions fail," goes the famed college's alma mater.

But in recent years, several of the student body's oldest traditions have been extinguished, or are growing dimmer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is draining the abandoned Elizabeth Mine, a popular cliff-diving spot that had been a staple of Dartmouth students' sophomore summers. The school is considering doing away with its requirement that students pass a swim test to graduate. Participation in the Winter Carnival snow sculpture carving has evaporated.

But perhaps the most notable change will come in October.

Two decades after a bonfire collapse at Texas A&M University killed 12 students and alumni, prompting some schools to curtail similar traditions, the town of Hanover has decided the situation at Dartmouth is untenable. It is refusing to grant the college an outdoors activity permit unless Dartmouth takes significant steps to reduce the likelihood of collapse and prevent students from trying to touch the flames.

"We've been working with the college on this for a number of years," Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin said. "Two years ago, we had some 75 students attempt to touch the fire and at that point we said, 'Time out. This is not good. This cannot continue.'?"

Last year, Dartmouth put up a 6-foot-high chain-link fence around the bonfire. More than a dozen students climbed over it and ran toward the blaze, Griffin said.

The college has assembled a task force to re-engineer the bonfire and recommend other safety measures. It expects to submit a report to President Philip Hanlon in August.

"We know how important it is to honor Dartmouth's traditions and unique spirit, and we also understand that traditions have always and will continue to evolve," Diana Lawrence, the associate vice president of communications, said in a statement.

In recent years, the college has added an "escape shoot" for students who want to stop running around the fire, brought in EMS personnel and water stations, increased security, and started disposing the fire embers, among other actions, Lawrence wrote. No officials from the college were made available for an interview.

Some students, like rising junior Teddy Einsidler, see the coming change as a loss, although not one that will irreversibly tarnish the Big Green experience.

"I really enjoy the tradition, and being a second-generation Dartmouth student, I know the importance of such traditions," he said, adding, "Knowing what we used to have and not having it - it's kind of upsetting."

Tradition, a word so ubiquitous at Dartmouth that a campus apparel store is named Traditionally Trendy, has vastly different meanings for its changing student body.

"There exist sublimely bountiful traditions at Dartmouth, but they are so often convoluted with this misguidedly vague sense of tradition that we forget what makes this school so traditionally fantastic: the parties," wrote three members of the Class of 2011 in "Green: The Unofficial Student Guide to Dartmouth College." The book instructs students on how to properly seduce each other during beer pong and describes the bonfire as "a multitude of pre-pubescent children running around a towering inferno."

The town of Hanover has refused to grant Dartmouth a permit for its homecoming bonfire unless the school takes significant steps to reduce the likelihood of collapse and does more to prevent students from attempting to touch the blaze. (Courtesy Dartmouth College)

Sophomore Rebecca Luo didn't run around the fire her freshman year. It symbolized a part of the Dartmouth culture she doesn't enjoy.

"I think it can be kind of dangerous at times, just sticking to traditions no matter what," she said, adding that in a certain way "sexual assault is a tradition" at Dartmouth.

In 2017, more than 34 percent of female Dartmouth students reported experiencing unwanted penetration or sexual touching involving the use of force or incapacitation during their time in college, according to a school survey. That was up from 28 percent in 2015, when the school launched its Moving Dartmouth Forward program. 

The initiative came in response to several years of negative press focusing on the college's drink-until-you-vomit fraternity culture - the movie "Animal House" was inspired by a Dartmouth fraternity - and a national study that ranked Dartmouth second in the nation for reported rapes in 2014. The college missed out on the top spot. Brown University and the University of Connecticut both had 43 - Dartmouth, 42.

Last year, students accused three Dartmouth brain sciences professors of sexual misconduct. The school quickly suspended them and began investigations. Two of the inquests have concluded and the professors resigned. 

"Because Dartmouth sometimes feels like they're in the shadow of the other Ivy League campuses they sometimes try to outdo the others as a place of fun," said Simon Bronner, a distinguished professor emeritus at Penn State Harrisburg and the author of "Campus Traditions: Folklore from the Old-Time College to the Modern Mega-University." That fun is centered around the three big party weekends: homecoming, Winter Carnival and Green Key.

But across the country, school administrators are increasingly concerned with liability and they're cracking down on traditions like bonfires that carry danger but were historically viewed as character and community building.

"There's a lot of danger involved because they're testing themselves. Usually that danger is controlled, kind of a manageable trauma," Bronner said, adding that traditions like bonfires are effective at creating senses of connection to particular places and among students from different regions.

Maintaining connections with alumni is a priority for most colleges - they donate money, provide expertise, and open doors for current students. Dartmouth alumni flock back to Hanover for homecoming weekend every year, and it's a wonderful thing, according to Griffin, the town manager.

But about half of the eight to 16 arrests the Hanover police make each year at the event are of alumni, she said. And according to the authors of "Green," the "multitude of alumni ... come up for the weekend and, in a cycle of humiliation, take out repressed memories of their freshman Homecoming" by shouting "'Touch the fire!'?"

Despite the dispute over the bonfire, Hanover and Dartmouth have a very good working relationship, Griffin said. She praised steps the school has taken to curb some of the drunken revelry that has eaten up town resources, particularly the relatively recent prohibition on one tradition: hard alcohol on campus.

"Some things never change; other things change over time and new trends emerge," she said. "The good news is we are seeing a reduction in the blood alcohol content at Dartmouth over the last five years."

Public Safety University Hanover

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