Who Wants to Reform Dartmouth Night?

By Georgia Travers

Every year, on a righteously cold October evening in Hanover, the entire freshman class of our College assembles, cluster by cluster, into a massive parade of spandex, class jerseys, green flair and face paint, and winds their way towards the Green.  The bonfire site is cordoned off with caution tape of about a 40 ft radius, and a second ring of tape, about 30 ft further out, forms a track-like ring around the blaze.  The freshmen parade is channeled into this space at the end of their march across campus.  After a brief word by President Kim and a considerable amount of effort by S & S, the wood catches fire.  Spurred on by adrenaline, alcohol, spirit, and tradition, the freshmen begin running their laps around the bonfire: 100 plus the number of their class year (this year they will be challenged to run 114 laps).  

This year, however, three concerned upperclassmen formed a committee and have been working around the clock to make this year’s bonfire a more “positive and inclusive” experience for the whole Class of 2014. Callista Womick ’13, Matthew Dahlhausen ’11, and Farzeen Mahmud ’12, have been collaborating on this initiative for almost a month, each focusing on improving different aspects of the freshman “Dartmouth Night” experience.

A variety of traditions that surround the Homecoming bonfire.  Upperclassmen typically yell aggressively at freshmen to “touch the fire!” and that they are the “WORST CLASS EVER!!!”  According to Womick, however, it is not these particular “verbal traditions” that their “inclusivity efforts” are focusing on.  “We’re not trying to eliminate traditions that are all in good fun,” Womick explained.  “Yelling those things, it’s silly and it’s part of the experience.  What we’re trying to get rid of are the things that are cruel.  It’s not fun to get punched in the face or spit on by an upperclassman.  Excessive rough-housing can make people really uncomfortable.”  Womick said that her experience at Bonfire last year was not completely negative, but was definitely mixed. “I had fun, but I definitely judged certain upperclassmen.  I witnessed a lot of verbally abusive, rude, and threatening comments, and I know a lot of people who left early and felt extremely uncomfortable.  Students think it’s their right to do certain things just because it happened to them.  We want to change that precedent.”

Womick also made it clear her group is not aiming to remove alcohol from the event entirely.  “We know that people drink at Bonfire, and that’s fine, it’s their choice.  But when they come really inebriated, shouting, kicking and punching freshmen, pushing them back in when they try to exit the mob, that’s when we start to really object to the behavior.”

Dahlhausen, Mahmud, and Womick have organized a number of upperclassmen, and are approaching these concerns from different angles.  “It’s a total grassroots effort,” Womick explained. “We’re starting conversations with upperclassmen all over the place, and that’s where this has got to start, by making people think about it.”

Dahlhausen has been focusing on changing the dynamics around the bonfire itself, by encouraging anyone who knows a ’14 to come out and cheer on their friends.  “He’s organizing lots of volunteers, particularly trip leaders, to come out wearing flair and to run with the ’14s who elect do to all the laps, giving them encouragement and support,” Womick explained.  Dahlhausen is also working on setting up a water station, a clearly designated exit lane, and a number of boom boxes to inspire the runners.  The size of the outer circle of tape around the fire itself has also been expanded by ten feet, so as to give more space to the runners and allow more room for people to avoid the extreme heat when the fire is first lit.  Dahlhausen’s group has also gotten 20-25 volunteers trained in crowd control, who will try to prevent the rough pushing, tripping, and trampling that often occurs because the entire class (1,300 people this year) is confined to such a small space. 

Womick and Mahmud have also been working to organize a large dance in Collis Commonground after the bonfire, called “the Embers.”  Womick described how “by the time people finish running laps, its still too early for them to ‘go out,’ and having a formally organized dance nearby provides a non-alcohol social option for ‘14s without their having to leave the immediate area.”  

Some upperclassmen have expressed displeasure with Womick, Dahlhausen, and Mahmud’s efforts, arguing that their initiative aims to eliminate the harmless traditions that make Dartmouth Night special.  As one ’13 put it, “That’s like, the single, two-hour period of hazing that they get for just being freshmen.  Why do we have to get rid of the one, brief time where they pay their dues for their position on campus?  It’s part of Dartmouth tradition, and it’s just not a big deal.”

Womick addressed these concerns, saying, “Bonfire is an event for the entire community.  If people elect later on to join groups that sanction hazing and other types of ‘initiation,’ that’s fine.  But it’s not appropriate to bring that into Bonfire, which is effectively a mandatory event for the freshman class.”  She also drew a line of distinction, specifying what her initiative is really targeting.  “It’s not the ‘worst class ever’ chants and the demands that freshmen ‘touch the fire.’  It’s the physical aggressivity, and the threats. It’s okay to have fun.  It’s not okay to be mean.”  Womick cited the positive precedent of DOC First Year Trips, which she believes are very successful at achieving a balance between tricking the ’14s with pranks and genuinely welcoming them with the extensive efforts of the Croos and Trip Leaders.  

“We’ve gotten an unbelievably positive reception from upperclassmen since we blitzed out,” Womick said, “and with the help of such a diverse cross-section of campus, we’re really hoping to change the overall culture of Bonfire for years to come.”  While it would seem that obstreperous upperclassmen and excessively fratty bros will remain a Homecoming constant for years to come, it seems that the initiative of Womick, Dahlhausen, and Mahmud may have tapped into a simmering reformist spirit at the College. Nonetheless, the chant this year will still reverberate around the Green, as it has for generations: the Class of 2014 most undoubtedly is, and will remain, the Worst Class Ever.