People inherently long to be part of a group, a village, a community. For communities to endure, they must have a history, and each generation must perpetuate the traditions of the past and pass them along to the next generation. Some such traditions are intentionally created and integrated into society at a young age, such as saluting the flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and singing the National Anthem. Others are more organic, like family picnics and watching fireworks on Independence Day. In a small town near where I grew up, the biggest annual event was the “irrigation festival,” celebrating the bountiful harvests made possible by the technology that brought water to what was otherwise an arid valley. In a small community, people seize upon whatever it takes to bring people together to eat, play, compete with each other, and socialize. These events are part of the fabric of our civilization.
The common experiences that occur during four years of college similarly bring a community of students together in many ways. Traditions within a college bind class to class, generation to generation, and bring current students from every academic pursuit a sense of togetherness and community and a bond of kinship. Many such college traditions are a bit odd or idiosyncratic, but they form a part of the identity of a school that every student carries away from commencement and (hopefully) brings back for class reunions. The attraction of oddball college traditions was summed up in one article: “[C]ampus traditions are a huge part of what takes a bunch of students, and makes them a community that lasts a lifetime.”
Examples abound throughout the country. 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 Occidental College, where Barack Obama spent his first two years before transferring to Columbia, tradition dictates 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.
And the Ivys are not too elite to participate in quirky traditions. At the University of Pennsylvania, students throw pieces of toast onto the football field after the end of the third quarter of home games. (The university has 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).
What traditions bind together the generations of Columbia alumni? There are few, other than the Core Curriculum. In the Wikipedia entry for Columbia University, there are only three entries under “Traditions.” They are (1) Orgo Night, (2) the tree lighting and Yule log ceremony, and (3) the Varsity Show. The first one on the list, Orgo Night, is one of the most unique traditions in all the land, and it is unfortunately under attack.
When you search“quirky college traditions” on Google, the first search result is an article from the website “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.”
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 website 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.
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 hercampus.com 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.
On Columbia’s 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:
“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. . . .[T]he show of school spirit was unmatched . . . Cheers to Columbia and its passionate students who continue to fight for our school’s age-old traditions.”
Meanwhile, in a printed recruitment brochure for high school , 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 values Orgo Night as something that is unique to Columbia. It is a living demonstration of how a peculiar tradition can provide some needed stress relief during an otherwise tense finals period and can serve as an heirloom that generations of Columbia alumni share as a common memory.
And yet, if you did not already know, the current University Administration has decided to end this tradition, claiming that the Orgo Night show is not an appropriate activity for Butler Library and relegating the marching band to performing the show outside, on the steps in front of the library in whatever weather might present itself. Banishing Orgo Night from the library is intended to diminish its significance and disassociate it from the process of finals studying. The Head Librarian who announced the ban in December of 2016 justified it based on the need to preserve quiet study space, although the University had received no complaints from students who were unable to find other appropriate study space or who were surprised by the appearance of the band at the well-publicized time and place that had occurred every semester since 1975. Despite protests by students and alumni, the University has remained resolute in its desire to kill the Orgo Night tradition.
This leaves only the tree-lighting and the Varsity Show as traditions common to present and past Columbia students – along with reading The Iliad. Will this improve the feeling of community and connection for future alumni? Will it make any students feel better about the university knowing that the administration took action to preserve their quiet study space during finals week? Years from now, the class of 2018 will remember the Orgo Night in December of 2016 when it was eighteen degrees and the valves in the band’s horns froze up after they were banished from the library. They will remember the notice sent out from Low Library in April of 2017 stating that the administration was “working closely” with the current band leadership to discuss the future of Orgo Night, when in fact there was no communication of any kind from the administration to the band, and none would follow that whole summer. They will remember how the tradition of Orgo Night was stubbornly perpetuated by the marching band despite the administration’s continued “war on fun.” They will probably lament that they are one of the last classes that can remember Orgo Night. As they mingle with the younger alumni from the classes of 2023 and 2028 and 2033 at a future class reunion, someone is bound to mention Orgo Night and some younger alumnus will say “I’ve heard of that, but by the time I was a student, it had died out.” That will be a sad day, but one that is entirely predictable, and apparently one desired by President Bollinger, who is the chief executioner in the crusade to end Orgo Night.
It is not too late to change this course; the scrappy marching band continues to plan an Orgo Night show despite the administration’s resistance. We, who love Columbia, should care. When Orgo Night is just a distant memory for a diminishing population of older alumni and someone laments the absence of enduring traditions that link current students to previous generations, we will all share the blame. We had Orgo Night, and we let it die.
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