'The Dionysian End to Summer'

Smith College rings in the new academic year in a most revealing way. Still, administrators worry that its students may not be putting their best foot forward. As a result, the institution has curbed what some consider lewd student behavior at a popular academic event.

September 30, 2008

Smith College rings in the new academic year in a most revealing way. Still, administrators worry that its students may not be putting their best foot forward. As a result, the institution has curbed what some consider lewd student behavior at a popular academic event.

The college’s annual opening convocation -- attended by nearly the entire study body and a smattering of faculty -- is more rock concert than it is somber academic ceremony. Students shout and scream at the acknowledgement of their year or residence by invited speakers, who often strain to be heard above the roar of the audience. Although some faculty still choose to wear formal academic regalia to the festivity, it is safe to say that some students leave the college’s dress code behind for this time-honored celebration of the new academic year.

Of the more interesting traditions at the women’s college, some students have taken to attending the event in somewhat, if not fully, revealing attire. While some students and faculty at Smith consider this an outward expression of the college’s free and welcoming nature, others are less than thrilled about being subjected to the nudity of their fellow classmates or pupils. The growing exhibitionism of students at convocation in recent years and a mounting number of complaints from both students and faculty led administrators to curb this year’s event. Now, following this year’s more subdued convocation, debate simmers among the college as to how and if this tradition should continue.

By most accounts, Smith’s opening convocation was, for most of its history, a formal academic ceremony not unlike many events held at most institutions near the beginning of the academic year. The event, however, became a more student-oriented and overtly celebratory event following the introduction of the college’s first female president, Jill Ker Conway, in 1975, according to Maureen A. Mahoney, dean of the college.

“It has evolved appropriately since,” said Mahoney, who sent a note to students before the event encouraging them to act responsibly. “But, the limits have been pushed so that students are coming with less clothing than we would like, partially because of the feeling of freedom being at a women’s college and it being a place where women can be themselves. Still, I don’t think students think of it as a public display. It’s not the best publicity for Smith outside of our confines. Now that images are so readily available on YouTube and other places, we don’t want people to get the wrong impression of Smith.”

In her note to students regarding proper behavior at the event, Mahoney stated that last year only 27 faculty members of some 275 attended convocation. She said some have expressed to her that they find student behavior and the partial nudity at the event embarrassing. In addition, a number of students have expressed a similar displeasure in recent years.

One of the more pointed criticisms of the event came in a spring editorial in the student newspaper, The Smith College Sophian, from a graduating senior. In it, she argues that the intimidating environment of the event is tantamount to sexual harassment.

“Upon actually arriving at Convocation, I found myself behind a topless girl with painful-looking nipple piercings; when I turned around to look for a clock, I realized I was face-to-face with the sheer-fabric-covered crotch of the girl behind me,” Anna Sauber Kuntz wrote in the editorial about her experience as a first year. “I left and I’ve never been back to Convocation since.… I signed up to go to a nationally renowned school and get a good education. I didn’t sign up to see naked strangers. It isn’t as though they warn you in Smith brochures or on campus visits.”

Others at the institution, including some faculty, view the event and the student shenanigans in an entirely different light. Jay Garfield, philosophy professor and this year’s faculty speaker, said he has attended every convocation in his time at Smith and appreciates the spirit of the event. This year, in the opening to his speech, he even acknowledged the student tradition by welcoming both “the naked and the clothed.”

“It’s often a bit of a shock to first-year students and faculty members who have never gone before,” said Garfield, who views the event as a pep rally for the academic year. “Unless you’re excessively prudish or want decorum for its own sake, you want students to be excited about academics. There’s no reason to put a damper on that. I wish the people who had problems with it would get over it.”

In defense of the tradition, some students expressed a similar sentiment. These students place great importance on the spirited event and consider the partial nudity of some of their fellow students as something akin to an act of community or solidarity.

“I think it’s a compelling, important and fun tradition,” said Sophie Ragone, a Smith senior. “It’s important that in this beginning part of the school year we celebrate the mind and the body together. It says something about us as a school that these are women who are smart and also beautiful in their many different ways. I don’t think it’s acting out. I don’t see it as us versus them. It’s unfortunate that people see it that way. For me, it is the Dionysian end to summer before the school year begins.”

According to both students and administrators, this year’s convocation was a bit more subdued than it has been in years past. Ragone said that, in response to common student complaints, organizers reduced the number of speakers at the event and allowed students to comfortably contain their rowdiness to certain moments. Additionally, heeding the call from Mahoney and the administration that students act more respectably, Ragone also said she was a bit more clothed this year.

When the tenor of events encourage inappropriate behavior at other institutions, Mahoney wrote in a note to students, administrators often change those events entirely or cancel them altogether. As for the future of Smith’s opening convocation and the tradition of students attending it in their skivvies, Mahoney said students and administrators are discussing ways to ensure that everyone feels welcome and that it continues to be a defining moment for students and faculty each year.

“Smith is full of wonderful contradictions,” Mahoney said. “I think students here, truth be told, don’t understand this as a somber academic event.”

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