In Defense of Orgo Night #9
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 because Vice-Provost and recently hired Head Librarian Ann D. Thornton, with the support of President Lee Bollinger and Columbia College Dean James Valentini, banned the Band from performing the show in its traditional location inside the library. 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. 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 found along the right margin of the blog. à
Why the Band matters to Columbia, why Orgo Night matters to the Band, and why preserving Orgo Night should matter to Columbia
In the classic movie, Animal House, Dean Vernon Wormer, head of Faber College (motto: “knowledge is good”), has a conversation with the mayor of the fictional town in which the college resides. The mayor tells Dean Wormer that he needs to “do something about that zoo fraternity of yours,” referring to Delta Tau Chi, which notoriously caused good-natured mahem. Dean Wormer convenes a hastily arranged disciplinary hearing in order to expel the undesireable students and to revoke their frat charter. At least Delta House got a public hearing, even if the deck was stacked against them.
At some point in the fall of 2016, Columbia President Lee Bollinger and Dean James Valentini had a conversation about Orgo Night. Others might have been involved, but clearly Prezbo and Deantini (as they like to be affectionately known around campus) had to be the decisionmakers. On the table for discussion was whether to “do something about Orgo Night.” In this case, the “zoo fraternity” was the Columbia University Marching Band (CUMB) and, for reasons known only to the closed circle of administrators involved, December of 2016 was the moment when “something” needed to be done to quash the Band’s long-running Orgo Night show in Butler Library.
Previous essays have documented that the reasons publicly stated for this decision were either false or grossly overstated and that easy and obvious alternatives that would have entirely solved the alleged problems were ignored. We have also documented the complete lack of notice and process surrounding the decision, as if Vallentini and Bollinger wanted very much to act swiftly and without any opportunity for consideration or discussion among the student body or interested alumni. And we have documented that the obvious implication of these actions is that Bollinger and Valentini were really trying to muzzle the Band and suppress the content of the Orgo Night show.
But why did they feel this way? Why didn’t the tradition and history of the Band have more value to them? Why were the other considerations (whatever they really were) so much more important than the value of the Orgo Night show? Until Bollinger and Valentini agree to discuss the issue publicly, we may never really know, but it is certain that the Band is important to Columbia, and Orgo Night is important to the Band, to a great many current students, and to an even larger segment of alumni. And therefore, Orgo Night should be important to Columbia.
The Marching Band’s Unique Columbia Identity
Of all the many and varied student organizations on campus, the Marching Band is certainly one of the most visible—and colorful. It entertains fans at football games, both at home and on the roard. At Baker Field, the Band performs before games in the picnic area as well as on the field in pre-game and halftime shows. The Band plays at all men’s and women’s home basketball games and on certain occasions makes an appearance for home contests in other sports. More often than not, the Band section is leading the cheers and certainly the Band secton is always the most enthusiastic segment of the crowd at any Columbia sporting event. The Band also makes appearances at reunions, alumni weekend/Dean’s Day, Homecoming festivities, orientation, April Fool’s Day, Tax Day, and many other events – at the administration’s sepcific invitation or otherwise. The Band is a rallying point for student and alumni morale even when the major sports teams struggle to win games, as they have sometimes done on an epic level. The Marching Band is usually at the center of any event where “school spirit” is being generated.
One of the Band’s primary responsibilities is to entertain the football crowds with pregame and halftime shows. Those shows have evolved over the years, but the one constant since around the time the Ivy League was formally established in the 1950s is that they have been satirical in nature, spoofing events or policies on campus or current events from the nation or around the world. In approximately 1963, the CUMB first employed the “scramble band” approach on the field, partly in a mocking parody of the Harvard Marching Band, which at the time would run rather than march from formation to formation. The CUMB pioneered the total abandonment of marching (and in some cases even formations) in favor of madcap running around and quasi-random, strikingly modernist arrangements of personnnel on the field, as in the famed “amorphous blob.” The practice was so popular that the Band kept doing it, and around the same time adopted the catch phrase, “the cleverest band in the world™.”
While scrambling around the football field between songs, members of the Band in the 60s would sometimes shout “Schmok! Schmok!” In tribute to comedian Steve Allen. In writing its halftime show scripts, the Band, in the spirit of the best comedians everywhere, has often tackled controversial issues through satire. As the football team became ever more ragged over the years, the Band’s shambling on-field presentations grew to be firmly associated in the public mind with the university and seen as a devastatingly apropos symbol of the state of its most prominent athletic program. The Band always acquitted itself well vis-à-vis other schools’ bands, even when the team on the field did not.
Over the years, the Band’s achievements, and sometimes notoriety, got it attention in circles extending well beyond the confines of Morningside Heights. The CUMB has received positive notices and has been featured in each of the three major New York dailies plus Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and the Dallas Morning News, as well as Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Associated Press, and United Press International. The Band has made appearances on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the Late Show with David Letterman, the Howard Stern Show, MTV’s Total Request Live, and the Good Morning show from Tokyo and has had cameos in the movies Turk 182! and Game Day. These citations and appearances helped to burnish the university’s brand and reputation as a crucible of creativity and cutting-edge humor. Truly, the Band embodies the spirit of Columbia.
Columbia itself celebrated the Marching Band and its rich history in Columbia magazine, including the cartoon below depicting the band marching into Butler Library for an Orgo Night performance.
The Band is one of Columbia’s jewels, and as an entirely student-run organization it represents an “organic” source of amusement and enthusiam on a campus notorioiusly lacking in school spirit.
Orgo Night, its tradition, and its meaning to the Band
Orgo Night, began sometime around the middle of the 1970s; certainly, a December 1975 photo from the New York Times attests to its existence then. The appearance by the Band inside the college reading room in Buter Library on the eve of the Organic Chemistry exam is a break – at midnight – from the grind of studying for finals, not just for organic chemistry students but for the entire assembled student population. The Band’s show is advertised heavily around campus and is well known to all students. Anyone not wishing to have their studies interrupted can easily choose a different library venue on that one night and thereby avoid the show. But for the hundreds of students who look forward to the Orgo Night show, it is a celebration of absurdity and humor in the midst of an otherwise serious night of adademic intensity.
The Orgo Night show includes both music and satire as the Band takes comic shots at everything from the quality of cafeteria food to the university’s stance on carbon diverstiture. The Band pokes fun at other Ivy schools, other student groups, and political leaders. The jokes are often raunchy, but always intellilgent. The Band always finishes the show by making fun of itself, with the sign-off tag-line, “remember, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the Band!” The Band then travels (this band seldom actually marches) around the campus, serenading the residence halls with renditions of “Roar, Lion, Roar!” “Who Owns New York” and other Columbia standards.
As detailed in an earlier essay, Orgo Night has been recognized in almost every national compilation of quirky college traditions as one of the defining events at Columbia, one of the most unique college traditions anywhere, and something that sets Columbia apart from all other schools.
For the Band members, the Orgo Night show is an opportunity to demonstrate how clever the Band can be, a chance to vent some steam at university administration, a time to connect with and share frustrations with fellow students, and a chance to show off to their peers how much fun it is to be part of the Band. For one current member of the Columbia Alumni Association Board of Directors, Orgo Night was such a memorable part of the Columbia experience that he named his restaruant in Singapore “Orgo.”
Why Columbia should value Orgo Night
And so, Columbia has a unique Marching Band, with its own traditions and idiosycracies, that has become part of the identity of the school. And the Marching Band initiates every semester a unique event, attended by hundreds of students, that is one of very few campus traditions and something that helps frazzled students have a little fun and blow off some steam just before the grind of finals week. It is such a wonderful part of the Columbia experience that as part of the university’s celebration of its 250th anniversary, the university administration posted on its official “C250” web site this memory from a young alumnus: “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. . . . [T]he show of school spirit was unmatched in the years following at all other Orgo Nights I attended. . . . Cheers to Columbia and its passionate students who continue to fight for our school's age-old traditions.” http://c250.columbia.edu/c250_perspectives/write_history/1062.html
Columbia, which is generally lacking in events that leave alunni with warm memories of their college days, should welcome and embrace something like Orgo Night. The students who participate (the Band) and the students who attend are all likely to be connected alumni (and those who donate their time and money to their alma mater). To the extent that there are some students who have objected to the content of the Orgo Night show, President Bollinger and Dean Valentini have to ask themselves: are those complaining students the ones who are going to be future Alumni Association Board members?
And, yes, the location of the Orgo Night show matters. Make no mistake that when Bollinger and Valentini decided to “do something about Orgo Night,” the intention was to kill it, not merely relocate it to a more appropriate venue. Expelling the Band from Butler Library was in no uncertain terms a decree that Orgo Night is finished as a tradition at Columbia.
The Band held the show outside the library (in freezing cold) as a protest, and sure enough just about every student that was studying in the college reading room (Butler 209) took a study break and came outside to watch the show.
(The photo shows a near-empty Butler 209 at 11:59 p.m. on the night of the December show.) The act of “taking over” the reading room and performing the show in the study space during finals week is quintessentially part of the Orgo Night event. Sure, the same show could happen anywhere on campus, at any time of the evening, but the Tradition that is so uniquely Columbia is not that the Marching Band has a performance, but that the performance is in the library. When university administrators broke the news to Band leaders a few days before the scheduled show in December, the announcement was not that the performance was being moved, it was that the performance was being canceled. The idea of sending the Band off to some other venue was an afterthought once there was protest, and even that was not well thought out, since the cost and inconvenience involved in opening up the auditorium in the student center for the show was disproportionate to the small inconvenience the show posed to the hypothetical students who allegedly objected to having their quiet study interrupted.
So, why did President Bollinger and Dean Valentini feel that they needed to treat the Band like Delta House and “do something about” Orgo Night? There is only one possible answer to that question. The Dean and the President wanted to avoid controversy. They wanted to avoid future complaints from students who might be offended by some joke put forward on Orgo Night, or by some off-color inuendo included in one of the Orgo Night publicity posters. They decided, based on factors known only to them, that killing Orgo Night was a better option than dealing with it.
But the Band didn’t put fizzies in the swimming pool during the big swim meet, or cause the toilets to explode. The Band did not leave a dead horse in the Dean’s office. The Band, in continuation of a long tradition, held its Orgo Night show outside the library, the content of which was nothing more raw than what any student can see any weekend night at Stand Up New York down Broadway. Feel free to read it for yourself and judge. But, for some reason, this university administration decided that that fraternity known as the CUMB had to be put in its place.
The university adminsitration should value the Band more. They should value Orgo Night more. There is still time to rectify the situation by reinstating the Band’s permission to stage the May 2017 Orgo Night show in Butler Library, where it belongs. President Bollinger and Dean Valentini should act to restore and maintain the colorful and memorable tradition that is Orgo Night.