Tent Hysteria

If students can camp out as part of beloved college traditions or to get athletics tickets, there's no reason to get authoritarian when they do so for political protest, writes Dennis Plane.

November 28, 2011

Like college professors across the country, last week I witnessed the sprouting of tents on the campus quad. That can mean only one thing: It's time for that time-honored Juniata College tradition known as "tenting."

Every year Juniata students unwind before final exams with a holiday celebration known as Madrigal. The professors serve the students a formal dinner and then everyone sings Christmas carols. The highlight of the evening is singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas," but the honor of singing the linchpin five-golden-rings verse goes to the group of students that was first in line to buy their tickets. Which brings me back to tenting. To be first in line for the golden tickets, students pitch tents on the quad weeks before they go on sale. As it turns out, the most exciting part of Madrigal is the ritual of tenting that precedes it, which is replete with zany ceremonies and harmless tomfoolery.

Students across the country are also setting up tents on their campus quads, but their reasons are not nearly as quaint as they are here at Juniata. Instead, they are the latest foot soldiers in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Colleges and universities across the country could learn a lot from Juniata’s decades-long tenting tradition.

For starters, instead of fighting the tents, colleges should embrace them. And there is certainly no need for campus police to respond with pepper spray to disperse peaceful student protesters.

But why? Peaceful protesting is a rite of passage on college campuses. Whether or not you agree with any of the myriad complaints levied by the diverse and disorganized Occupy movement, letting students take a stand builds character. As an undergraduate in the early 1990s, I spent a night on the campus quad in a makeshift shanty as part of an effort to get the board of trustees to divest from investments in companies doing business in South Africa. These sorts of protests help student hone their social consciousness — an essential ingredient of good citizenship. Heavy-handed police response, on the other hand, can diminish students’ faith in authority and their trust in government.

Like police forces across the country that have been cracking down on Occupiers’ tent cities, UC-Davis officials cited safety concerns for the forced evictions. I’m not buying it. Juniata students have been constructing tent fortresses in preparation for Madrigal for years and there have been no major safety issues. Juniata College is proof that tenting can be done peacefully and safely, as is Duke University’s annual tent city – nicknamed “Krzyzewskiville” for the famed coach – consisting of basketball fans who want to get a jump on tickets.

Before the mass evictions at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, the Occupy protestors offered to meet with city officials to address any safety concerns. Their offers fell on deaf ears. If safety was their true concern, city officials should have at least tried to work with the protesters first to figure out if there was a way to address them. Likewise, UC-Davis officials should have worked with the protestors and campus police to ensure student safety. It seems like the biggest safety concern stemming from the UC-Davis incident came directly from the police.

The real aim at UC-Davis and at other colleges and city halls across the country seems to be the elimination of an eyesore or — worse yet — the suppression of free speech and free assembly. Colleges and universities should be the champions of the free expression of ideas and should welcome student tenting — whether the goal is to incite social change or to get the good seats for Madrigal.


Dennis Plane is associate professor of politics at Juniata College.


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