Student Government or Student Humor?

Emory's self-declared "supreme ruler" declares war on Washington U. in St. Louis, which declines to engage in combat.
September 21, 2005

What with the lingering U.S. presence in Iraq, the devastation of Katrina, and the uncertain economy, it's no surprise that some students feel troubled.

The student government at Emory University is trying a novel approach to helping students: declaring "war" on Washington University in St. Louis. At Wash U., however, students appear to have other concerns and most of them are ignoring the war, possibly forcing Emory combatants to take both sides in a war of insults.

Last weekend, graffiti, leaflets with insults, and toilet paper in trees appeared on both campuses. But sources familiar with the skirmishes said that Emory students staged not only the "attack" on Washington, but also the one at Emory, in hopes of riling students. Most Emory students have not fled to bomb shelters (or anywhere for that matter). But the president of the student government -- a senior named Amrit P. Dhir -- held an emergency meeting of the student government and announced that he was abolishing the legislative branch and replacing it with himself as "supreme leader." The war declaration banned students from wearing Washington University clothing (unless it contained insults) and said that freedom of the press was "to be tolerated ... for now."

Dhir was elected to his post (as president, not supreme leader) in the spring, in part on a platform calling for the establishment of a rivalry with Washington University. Upon winning election, he created a War Department and Ministry of Propaganda, which has been publishing various critiques of the St. Louis institution. (While both Emory and Washington are members of the University Athletic Association, a league of eight private research universities, officials at both institutions said that the two institutions have no particular historic rivalry.)

In an interview Monday, Dhir said that the aim of the war was to raise school spirit at Emory, which he said has been lacking. "The whole war theme has this energy and enthusiasm that students responded to because it has an extra edge," he said.

The Emory war declaration and Ministry of Propaganda documents do explicitly state at the bottom that the war image is meant to be "playful" and not to promote violence. Of course Dhir and his supporters showed up at the emergency meeting he called Monday in faux military fatigues, as captured by photographers for The Emory Wheel. Dhir denies playing any role in the pranks on both campuses last weekend or knowing who was responsible.

Asked if all the war imagery might be a bit tasteless when a real live war in Iraq is costing many lives and dividing many Americans, Dhir noted the disclaimer about violence and said, "we are committed to being sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of everyone in the community."

Curt Carlson, vice president for public affairs at Emory, said administrators there supported the idea of creating more sports rivalries and school spirit. But he said that he did not consider the rules of the student government to have been abolished, and that officials "advised strongly against using the war terminology."

M. Fredric Volkmann, vice chancellor of public affairs at Washington University, said that a group of Emory students approached his university a few months ago and asked that the two institutions somehow become official rivals. Volkmann said that Washington declined the offer. He said that rivalries tend to work best when institutions are near one another and that the distance between Atlanta and St. Louis is such that he didn't want to be encouraging students to be traveling back and forth all the time.

One problem facing the Emory students is that war -- like many other things -- takes two players. Washington University students seem bemused by the conflict, but disinclined to take a very long road trip to pull off a few pranks in Atlanta.

David Ader, president of the Washington University Student Union, is encouraging students to ignore Emory's "war." Said Ader: "I don't disagree with the cause of school pride, but this method is not exactly productive."

There are better ways to help a college, he said, "than knocking others down."


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