Friday, January 20, 2017

In Defense of Orgo Night #2

On Thursday, December 15, 2016, at midnight, the Columbia University Marching Band (“the cleverest band in the world™”) performed a show of music and satirical comedy in sub-freezing temperatures on the steps outside Butler Library on the Columbia campus.  Since 1975 the Band has performed a similar show, dubbed “Orgo Night,” in which the Band skewers university administration, other Ivy schools, rival student groups, and the world in general in a witty and often raunchy program.  The location of the show on December 15, however, was unusual.  Traditionally the band marches into the main College Reading Room inside Butler Library, known as Room 209, to the strains of the school fight song before launching into its program.  This scheduled study break for the assembled students who choose to study for finals in that room typically lasts between 30 and 45 minutes.  This fall, however, Vice-Provost and recently hired Head Librarian Ann D. Thornton, with the support of President Bollinger and Columbia College Dean James Valentini, banned the Band from the library.  The ban, which was not discussed with the Band or with university students in advance, was announced only days before the scheduled event.  Ms. Thornton stated that the reason for the sudden change in tradition was a desire to maintain quiet study space inside the library, and President Bollinger publicly maintained that it was based on “complaints” from students about the Orgo Night show.  University officials claimed that the ban was not related to the content of the shows and that they were not trying to censor the Band’s speech.  The university offered to permit the Band to stage the show in a different location at midnight, but the Band chose to stage its show outside the library as a protest, which was attended by several hundred students.

Since the sudden and unexpected eviction of the Band from the library, all four undergraduate student councils have called for reversal of the decision, the editors of the Spectator and BWOG have issued statements of support for the Band, and many alumni have sent letters of protest.  University officials have remained resolute in their decision, however.  This series of essays, drafted by concerned alumni, addresses the university’s claimed reasoning for its decision, the process by which it was implemented, and the reasons why the decision should be reconsidered.  Links to earlier essays are included in the right margin à.

The Value of the Orgo Night Tradition
            Google “quirky college traditions” and the first search result is an article from the web site “collegeraptor” titled “13 of the weirdest college traditions.”  The article begins: “There are strange things happening at college campuses across the country. Students are nailing their shoes to trees, howling at the moon, and kissing statue’s bums with no one giving these weird pastimes a second thought. From the outside looking in, there is no way to explain these odd acts, but campus traditions are a huge part of what takes a bunch of students, and makes them a community that lasts a lifetime.”  (  The #1 entry on this list is: “Orgo Night:  Columbia University.”  The article notes the essence of the event: “Each year, on the eve of the orgo final, the Columbia marching band heads to the library to entertain all of the orgo students (and anyone else lucky enough to be studying at that time) with the fight song, jokes, and music. The tradition is a great harmless way for students to blow off steam during finals.”  The web site then links to other information about Columbia for the benefit of users who are researching different schools.  You would think that Columbia administrators would be proud that their school ranks #1 (on this list) in yet another aspect of American universities – or at least it used to.

            In fact, the Orgo Night tradition is listed in all six of the top search results on Google, where articles from BuzzFeed, USA Today, and list the most interesting and memorable events on campuses across the country.  In all cases, Orgo Night is lauded as a fun stress reliever for students during finals week.

            Other colleges also have idiosyncratic traditions that set them apart and provide their students with a bit of fun and a sense of unique identity.  In most cases, the school officials themselves embrace these culturally iconic events.  At Emory University, a skeleton named James W. Dooley is escorted into a classroom on a random day and announces that all classes are cancelled, and the entire school has a “Spirit” Day party.  The Emory skeleton is said to have more power than the university’s President.  Similarly, at Rollins College, the President declares a “fox day” without notice, and all students are dismissed from class for a campus-wide celebration.

            Many colleges have developed traditions that are intended to be stress reducers during finals week, when students are otherwise focused on intense cramming.  At Carlton College in Minnesota, during finals prep week, the students put on headphones, press the “play” button simultaneously on their music players, and stage a giant, silent dance party in the library.  At Regis University in Denver, after four nights of enforced quiet study in the week leading up to finals, the signal is given for the “all hall scream,” and students spend ten minutes screaming, laughing, and running through the halls.  At UCLA, there is a “midnight yell” on the steps leading into the campus.

            Other college traditions are just silly or sophomoric, but often they serve as a break from the seriousness of college studies and are a bonding experience for those who participate.  At Georgetown University, on Halloween, after screening the film “The Exorcist,” students gather in the university cemetery and howl at the moon.  At Occidental College, where Barack Obama spent his first two years before transferring to Columbia, tradition says that on your birthday you will be thrown into the campus fountain (by your friends).  During the “Pterodactyl Hunt” at Swarthmore College, students don garbage bags and roam campus beating each other with foam weapons.  At the University of Virginia, students run naked across the campus lawn and kiss the statue of Homer in the days leading up to graduation.  At Muir College, students drop giant pumpkins off the tallest building and watch them splatter on the ground below.  At the University of Pennsylvania, students throw pieces of toast onto the football field after the end of the third quarter of home games.  (Rather than try to ban the practice, the university designed a special Zamboni-like machine to vacuum up the stray bread.)  During the winter carnival at Dartmouth, a hole is drilled into the ice of a local pond, and students jump into the freezing water (with a safety rope).  At Ohio State, thousands of students hurl themselves into the campus lake on the day before the annual football game against Michigan, despite often frigid temperatures and risk of hypothermia.  At MIT, student groups try to outdo each other by placing creative objects on the sides or top of the campus dome.

The attraction of these oddball traditions was summed up in another article on the subject: “These crazy college traditions toe the line of insanity, while at the same time ensuring fun for all who participate.”  (In the article, Orgo Night at Columbia was #8 of the 25 listed events.)

In some cases, college traditions have been modified over the years when there was good reason for university administration to step in.  At Vassar College, after freshmen serenade the seniors with satirical songs, the seniors used to spray the freshmen with mustard, ketchup, and other messy items from the cafeteria.  School officials decided to do away with the condiments and now limit students to water only, which transformed the event into mostly a water balloon fight, while still preserving the free-spirited format.  At Princeton, there were objections to the “nude Olympics”—where students ran naked around the quad on the night of the winter’s first snowfall—because of its propensity to foster sexual harassment, and it was therefore officially discontinued, although rebellious students continue the tradition clandestinely.  A similar tradition continues at Tufts University, where students run naked in the first winter snow.  At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., freshmen were regularly beaten with pillows stuffed with objects that gave them some extra weight.  After serious injuries occurred, when pipes and wrenches found their way into the weaponry, the practice was banned.  In those cases, there were legitimate concerns for safety or incidents of bad behavior that prompted the changes.  Other schools have continued to permit activities that place students at risk – such as diving into frozen lakes – based on college tradition.

For high school students searching for information about student life issues at Columbia, one of the most prominent campus events exemplifying the Columbia spirit is Orgo Night.  In the Wikipedia entry for Columbia University, there are three entries under “Traditions.”  They are (1) Orgo Night, (2) the tree lighting and Yule log ceremony, and (3) the Varsity Show.

As Columbia itself advertised in a feature article in Columbia magazine, the marching band (“the cleverest band in the world™”) is one of Columbia’s jewels, and Orgo Night is one of the Band’s signature events, described as “one of the best Columbia arts traditions.”

On Columbia’s own official web site, there is a prominent entry on Orgo Night among the stories that alumni were invited to write about their memories of the Columbia experience as part of the C250 (250th anniversary) celebration.  University editors chose this as one of the best stories:

Orgo Night Y2K
Tamar Simon
Columbia College 2003

One of my most memorable experiences at Columbia was Orgo Night in the undergraduate reading room in Butler Library. I attended Orgo Night in all eight semesters I was at Columbia. Each was an experience of its own.
The most memorable would have to be in the year 2000, at the end of my second semester of freshman year. The crowds started piling into the reading room very early in the evening and, by the time midnight rolled around, there were hundreds of students clogging the entrances and pushing their way into the main room. Students were everywhere: on top of every shelf, every windowsill, every table, and every copy machine. The reserves desk was inundated with students jumping over the desk and clobbering each other to reach the door to the reading room. I was one of many who struggled to get into the reading room. After pushing through the masses, I finally made my way in. The crowds gathered as the marching band magically made its way through the madness.
Despite the rumors of more than $10,000 of damages done to the library that night, the show of school spirit was unmatched in the years following at all other Orgo Nights I attended. In addition, that night's craziness forced the administration to heighten security and limit the number of people allowed to enter the reading room for Orgo Night to 200.
Cheers to Columbia and its passionate students who continue to fight for our school's age-old traditions.
Meanwhile, in a recruitment brochure for high school seniors, Columbia lists fifteen items as “Fun on campus” events that new students can look forward to.

It is debatable whether student government budget meetings, University Professor lectures, or Engineering Weeks belong in the “fun” column, but it is significant that Orgo Night is on the university’s official list.  In another recruiting brochure titled “Columbia Blue,” the university’s office of undergraduate admissions lauds various traditional campus activities, including Bacchanal, the Varsity Show, the President’s annual Fun Run, and Orgo Night:

“Orgo Night Merriment. The night before the Organic Chemistry Final — Orgo Night. On this night in December and again in May, the main study room in Butler Library starts getting packed around 11:30 pm. You see practically everyone you know and despite being finals week, everyone is excited and happy. At midnight sharp, you hear the sound of instruments and all of a sudden, the marching band storms into the room playing songs and reading jokes while the rest of us are standing on the tables and chairs dancing and laughing. debbie goodman, Lido Beach, NY; CC”

            All this would suggest that the university administration should value Orgo Night as something that is unique to Columbia, demonstrating how a peculiar tradition can provide some needed stress relief during an otherwise tense finals period.  One would think that Columbia officialdom would view the Orgo Night show as an heirloom that generations of Columbia alumni share as a common memory.  A tradition like this, which places no students in harm’s way, should be perpetuated and certainly should not be discontinued on a whim, without serious and considered discussion.  If there were a substantial reason for Columbia to decide that the Orgo Night show was a danger to students or otherwise presented some serious problem or risk, then ending it could be on the table for consideration.  But, in the absence of a significant problem, ending the Orgo Night tradition (and, yes, evicting the Band from the Library is effectively ending it) should not be an option, even if President Bollinger, Dean Valentini, and the new Head Librarian don’t like it.

-        Hamiltonius

1 comment:

  1. Yet another reason never to donate money to this place, my law school alma mater. I give only to my undergraduate school.