Earlier this week, The Hoya broke the news that Georgetown Day would be scaled back this year, due to a delay in planning caused by “a lack of student interest” this past fall. Of course, “lack of student interest” and “Georgetown Day” aren’t phrases you commonly find in the same sentence, and sure enough, Vox Populi editor Jackson Perry shed a little more light on what happened to Georgetown’s annual end of the year celebration in a blog post.
That lack of interest may be a product of the University’s failure to solicit any interest in the Georgetown Day planning committee, as they have done in the past. More troubling than that, however, were Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Jeanne Lord’s comments to Vox regarding “concerns about the scope and purpose of the day.”
For many students, that mission is day-drinking and a bacchanalia of food, bouncy castles, and lounging under the (hopefully) sunny sky on Healy Lawn. Needless to say, administrators are opposed to one part of that equation. Lord referred to “concerns about health and safety,” but Provost James O’Donnell was more explicit in his an email in the lead up to the event in 2009, saying the day “doesn’t need alcohol for its good times.”
It’s often hard for students to credibly gripe about Georgetown Day because they’re often arguing that the University should be encouraging public drunkenness. It’s naïve to think that administrators will unconditionally support what some students see as a drinking holiday. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the way the University has handled its concerns over Georgetown Day’s alcoholic focus represents a fundamental problem with the relationship between administrators and the students they’re supposed to be serving.
Lord was right in saying that the focus of Georgetown Day has changed since it first started in 2000. The inaugural event was created by students as a way to bring together the Georgetown community after a school year that saw a number of hate crimes on campus and a student, David Shick (MSB ’01), killed by another student in a drunken fight. The next year, an article in The Hoya painted a familiar picture of the event’s second iteration—games and rides, student performances, cotton candy—minus any drunken debauchery.
Then, over the next few years, the “clarity,” as Lord calls it, of Georgetown Day’s mission became muddled. It’s not hard to imagine how the giant outdoor carnival lost track of its somber origins and turned into a party. The students who knew the event’s original purpose graduated, and the University probably wasn’t eager to remind them of such a tragic incident in Georgetown history.
Of course, Georgetown Day also became the drinking holiday we know it as today because there was a vacuum to be filled. The legendary Block Party, a kind of proto-Georgetown Day that took place right outside the front gates, was in its death throes as Georgetown Day was beginning. If alumni comments on blogs and message boards are to be believed, Block Party was an even crazier party than modern Georgetown Day. It also happened to be completely independent of the University, operated by a student-run non-profit (it even raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity). That all came to an end, however, when the University formally voiced its objection to the event, prompting the Alcoholic Beverage Commission to deny Block Party organizers a liquor license.
Georgetown Day obviously needs student volunteers and advocates to step up and help plan the event that students want. Administrators have no reason to encourage drinking without pressure, and they certainly aren’t going to work to facilitate it. But Block Party is a cautionary tale about the limits of participation. Even when students managed to independently put on a campus-wide party, University officials still interfered. The fight to bring back Block Party continued futilely for a number of years, but all that student planning and advocacy fell on deaf ears in the administration.
It’s not a unique problem. When presented with proposals for student-backed and student-run initiatives, the administration often stonewalls them (Healy Pub may be the most recent example). They do it, for one, because they can get away with it, but also because they don’t necessarily have student interests in mind. Administrators face a winnable war of attrition against students—the leaders of a cause will graduate soon enough. What University officials have to be more concerned with are the stakeholders with whom they have to deal for the long haul. Students work on a four year time frame, and the administration is focused on Ten Year Plans.
As it happens, another critical Zoning Commission decision on the 2010 Campus Plan comes on April 30, just three days after Georgetown Day. In her email to Vox, Jeanne Lord cryptically said that Georgetown Day is supposed to be a celebration of “the campus community,” not by “the student community” [Her emphasis]. Something tells me that this year, Georgetown’s neighbors are a major part of that former category.
I agree with the main thrust of your piece, but I do want to address a few items.
First, you kind of bury the lede when you end the penultimate paragraph with “What University officials have to be more concerned with are the stakeholders with whom they have to deal for the long haul. Students work on a four year time frame, and the administration is focused on Ten Year Plans.”
That is exactly what is at the core of Block Party’s demise and the current Georgetown Day saga. You think the neighbors are mad about Georgetown Day now? You think they make effective use of photos and video of drunken student debauchery on that day to demonstrate “adverse impact on the community” now? Imagine what it was like when the debauchery was off-campus, on public streets. By contrast, why are there so few complaints about Homecoming? Because everyone’s roped off in a tent in the McDonough parking lot, out of sight and out of mind.
Second, you say “When presented with proposals for student-backed and student-run initiatives, the administration often stonewalls them.” Now, I had more than my share of experiences with CSP/Student Affairs red tape as an undergrad, so I’m sympathetic to this. But the three examples you have in your piece – Georgetown Day, Block Party, Healy Pub – all have one thing in common: alcohol. As you said: “Administrators have no reason to encourage drinking without pressure, and they certainly aren’t going to work to facilitate it.” Not necessarily because of personal values – most senior administrators came of age when the drinking age was still 18, at least in DC – but because of community and governmental pressure.
I think it’s important to distinguish issues of internal, institutional dysfunction as regards student initiatives and programming from issues involving mass alcohol consumption and its attendant external impacts. I say this as someone who has long been an enthusiastic, though usually considerate, mass consumer of alcohol.