Students at West Virginia University, perhaps more so than any other college, have a reputation for lighting things on fire.
Most famously, they burn couches to celebrate a football win or to vent over a loss. It's a tradition that stretches back to the 1970s, but over the years the flames have not been limited to furniture. They spread to trash cans and cars as well, occasionally helping to ignite what police call full-blown riots on and near campus. There have been at least six such riots in the past two decades -- the most recent of which occurred on Saturday, following West Virginia's win over Baylor University.
Three students have already been expelled for their involvement in the disturbances, and President Gordon Gee said more could follow. The swift punishments come at a time when Gee, who has served as president since January after retiring from Ohio State University, is pushing to clean up the university's hard-partying image. From Playboy to the Princeton Review, West Virginia frequently ranks on lists of best party schools.
Some students worry, however, that the expulsions have come too quickly, not allowing enough time to properly assess who was involved and what type of punishment they should face.
"We have made it clear that this university will hold students accountable for their unlawful behavior," Gee said in a statement Thursday. "We will not allow individuals to remain enrolled who commit these crimes and damage the reputation and achievements of our faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community."
The expelled students were among 14 charged by local police over the weekend. One of those charged is a redshirt freshman on the football team. According to police, students and other fans started seven dumpster fires and 32 street fires throughout Saturday night. Eleven emergency vehicles were damaged by rocks and beer bottles thrown by fans, and two street lamps were pushed over. In all, the riots caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage.
Gee initially addressed the disturbances in an email to the campus, saying "this is not how Mountaineers behave." He promised "swift and immediate disciplinary action" following a review of arrest records and posts on social media, many of which included videos and photographs of the riots. For many, he said, expulsion was the likely outcome.
"As Mountaineers, all of must insist on a safe, healthy environment in and out of the classroom for our students," Gee wrote. "To do this, we must change the culture of West Virginia University. We must collectively -- students, faculty, staff, alumni, and fans -- reject the reputation of our past and instill and embrace the reputation that is our future."
The previous president, Jim Clements, made similar pledges in 2012, following a riot that included at least 40 fires after the football team defeated the University of Texas.
University officials had also hoped that West Virginia's fiery traditions would somehow not survive the move to the Big 12 Conference that year. Student leaders on campus have long hoped to see an end to the couch and dumpster burning, and have backed Gee's attempts at addressing the issue.
On Sunday, some students took to social media with the hashtag #RespectfulMountaineer to show their support for the university's efforts. The campaign is organized by two WVU marketing students who created a Twitter account called Respect Mountaineer.
Other students are concerned that administrators are rushing to judgment and not allowing due process for students who were allegedly involved in the most recent riots.
An op-ed published in The Daily Athenaeum, the student newspaper, urged officials to "take caution in punishing students," especially those being identified through social media. "Each student facing charges is promised the due process of a judicial board hearing," the op-ed reads. "This whole process could take months to complete correctly."
Instead, the decision to expel the three students took about four days.
The university's media relations team is currently surveying students about the riots and the president's response. The survey asks students if Gee's decision to ask for help in identifying those involved in the riots came across as a request, a threat, or an order. It asks how the message made students feel and if they felt personally affected by "the Baylor Riots." Gee, in his email this week, told students that there was a "zero tolerance policy" for the type of behavior that occurred on Saturday.
"The Student Code of Conduct is clear on these manners," he wrote, "and so is the law."
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