Traditional changes

A new century brings with it a new set of traditions, while others fade into obscurity

Jon Breece
Members of the new Virginia Marching Cavaliers perform before the Sea of Orange, which recently replaced formal wear as the dominant  dress for home games.
Becky Davis
(Click image to enlarge)
Members of the new Virginia Marching Cavaliers perform before the Sea of Orange, which recently replaced formal wear as the dominant dress for home games.
Fraternity houses still remain central to student life, with one-third of students in the Greek system.  Recent challenges have forced the Greek community to confront new issues.
Heliodor Jalba
(Click image to enlarge)
Fraternity houses still remain central to student life, with one-third of students in the Greek system. Recent challenges have forced the Greek community to confront new issues.
The Seven Society is the most hallowed and mysterious of the secret socities.
Jim Prosser
(Click image to enlarge)
The Seven Society is the most hallowed and mysterious of the secret socities.
Few buildings are free from a secret society’s influence.
Jim Prosser
(Click image to enlarge)
Few buildings are free from a secret society’s influence.

The University is steeped in tradition. The word is thrown around Grounds. Stones, ties and patches of grass are looked upon with reverence. Tradition can govern dress, behavior and speech.

But as time passes, some longstanding traditions wane, others begin, and still others evolve.

What are upheld as traditions are not stagnant, nor have they ever been.

For example, Easters was last held in 1982. The week-long celebration of Easter week itself evolved from stately dances and athletic competitions in the late 1890s to being heralded as the one of the rowdiest parties in the country in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Now students flock to Foxfields each spring.

While traditional attire is still the status quo at the spring races, it has suffered setbacks elsewhere in student life.

Orange shirts are on the march. Ties and sun dresses in the student section of Scott Stadium are giving way to what University Athletic director Craig Littlepage refers to as a “new tradition” of an imposing sea of orange on Saturdays.

Finally, the celebrated act of streaking the Lawn only became a “tradition” after the full integration of women at the University.

Of course, some longstanding aspects of student life remain unchanged and untouched.

The distinctive University-speak still allows “First years,” not freshmen, the opportunity to walk to “Grounds,” not campus, where on the “Lawn” one might bump into “Mr. Larry Sabato,” not Dr. Sabato, stepping out of his Pavilion.

Greek life

To some, tradition means white pillars, verandas and brotherhood or sisterhood.

University Greek life has produced some notable alumni including former President Woodrow Wilson, Admiral William Halsey, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson and Today Show host Katie Couric.

The Greek community — which encompasses about one-third of University students — will continue to provide social outlets and leadership opportunities as it has for its 153 year existence, Inter-Fraternity Council President David Bowman said.

Though the future is uncertain, Aaron Laushway, associate dean of students and director of fraternity and sorority life, said this system — dependent on student self-governance not generally allowed at other institutions — should work into the future.

“I trust these men and women to do the right thing,” Laushway said.

The Greek community certainly has seen its share of changes in the past fifteen years. The Black Fraternal Council was formed in 1991. The Multicultural Greek Council originally was conceived in 1999 as the Fraternity and Sorority Council. Members later voted to change its name.

Since the raising of the drinking age to 21 nationwide in 1984, Rugby Road has become a center of undergraduate partying.

The IFC also is working hard to include underrepresented groups of students in the Greek system, Bowman said. A chair for diversity outreach was established last year.

Bowman acknowledged that the process of inclusion may be slow but fruitful.

“I sincerely hope that 10 to 15 years from now we are light years from where we are now,” Bowman said. “That being said, we are in a good place now.”

Fraternities across the country have been forced to confront liability issues, and Bowman said in the future rules governing Greek life will be more rigorously enforced.

Recent tragic deaths and injuries at Colorado State University, University of Colorado and University of Mississippi have led fraternities to examine liability more stringently.

“The onus has gone up on fraternity men to act according to their ideals,” Bowman said.

A strong Greek community fosters ideals like leadership, service and scholarship among students, which are in line with the University’s mission, Laushway said.

He echoed Bowman’s assessment that greater diversity is inevitable in the Greek community.

“Demographics are going to change,” he said. But “I think they are going to change slower than some would like, slower than I would like.”

Laushway also expressed optimism about the increased collaboration between the IFC, Inter-Sorority Council, the Black Fraternal Council and the Multicultural Greek Council.

The establishment of Delta Lambda Phi, a fraternity for gay, bisexual and progressive men, demonstrates the ability of all students to find a place in the Greek community though the presence and inclusion of and gay men in IFC fraternities should not be overlooked, Laushway said.

He added that the self-governance of the Greek System through the four Greek councils provides an important “laboratory for leadership” and is significant in molding the characters of those involved.

Laushway speculated that there will still be an emphasis put on social events years from now but expressed hope fraternities would return to their “founding virtues.”

Secret societies

Tradition can mean prestige and exclusivity.

On an admissions tour, prospective students can become enamored with white block lettering on an academic buildings and brick walkways, University Guide Service chair Stephen Ander said.

Board of Visitors Secretary Alexander “Sandy” Gilliam, who has served the University for 29 years, described the presence of secret societies as “a spirit of continuity.”

Gilliam said he expects these groups to continue to contribute to on-Grounds life in the future.

Such societies have existed on Grounds since the late 19th century, and in the last century, many colorful groups have come and gone.

Previous hierarchies of ribbon, ring, and at the pinnacle, numbered societies held up in the 1960s and 1970s have fallen by the wayside.

Today four truly secret societies remain active: the Seven Society, the Purple Shadows, the 21 Society and P.U.M.P.K.I.N.

The Seven Society is perhaps most elevated in the University’s imagination. Membership is only revealed upon death and students can communicate with the society by placing notes at the foot of Jefferson’s statue in the Rotunda.

The Sevens have given substantially to the University, as opposed to similar societies at other institutions like the Skulls and Bones at Yale University, Gilliam said. He said this generosity likely will continue in years to come.

Contributions include the bells in the chapel — which toll upon the death of a member — the establishment of fellowships and donations to each class.

The Purple Shadows, who derive their name from James Hay Jr.’s poem “The Honor Men,” chiefly function today to support the Honor System.

“We appreciate that they have had this sustained commitment to the Honor System,” Honor Committee Chair Meghan Sullivan said.

During fall convocation, the Purple Shadows leave notecards for first years formally welcoming them to the Honor System, Sullivan said.

Periodically when challenges are made to the Honor System such as proposals to alter the single sanction, the Purple Shadows send messages to students in support of the Honor Constitution.

Clad in purple robes, the society also presents the James Hay Jr. award to a University community member who has contributed to the Honor System at the Honor banquet in the Dome Room of the Rotunda.

Sullivan said she anticipated the group would continue to aid the system in the future as it has done in the past.

The group recently gave a stone to be placed between Peabody Hall and the new Special Collections Library, honoring Hay’s “Honor Men.”

Other semi-secret societies such as the Z Society and Incarnate Memories Prevail, the IMPs, also serve a role on Grounds.

“The IMPs and Zs probably represent the true undergraduate leadership at the University,” Gilliam said. Membership in such a society is “a form of recognition.”

The Zs also award a number of prizes for academic achievement.

Student life

Tradition, for others, can be seen in a longstanding commitment to excellence and the development of sophisticated crafts.

The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society is the oldest, continuously meeting collegiate debating society in the nation as well as the country’s second oldest Greek letter organization.

Founded on July 14, 1825 in room 7 on the West Lawn, the Society has welcomed into its membership Edgar Allan Poe, former President Woodrow Wilson, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore and University President John T. Casteen, III.

The society represents an alternative from Rugby Road, and President Donald Brownlee said he expects the society will carry forth unchanged into the future.

Friday night meetings at Jefferson Hall on the West Range provide a place for a collusion of ideas and discussion of issues of the day, Brownlee said. Speakers brought to Grounds by the society include Florida Senator Bill Nelson and William Johnston, former president of the New York Stock Exchange.

The society was also the first student group to admit black students. Presently a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wesley Harris became a member in 1965.

“The society has survived the Civil War, two world wars, the Great Depression, the introduction of fraternities and of varsity sports,” Brownlee said.

Some debating societies at other schools have been pushed out of existence by such factors, particularly the introduction of fraternities, Brownlee said.

The only difference between the society now and the society 10 to 15 years ago is greater diversity in its membership, he said.

“As the University has become more diverse so has the Jefferson Society,” Brownlee said.

While Friday nights on the West Range might remain unchanged for those in “the Jeff,” Saturdays for the general student body are up in the air as a hard-charging Athletic department challenges traditional conventions of student dress.

Football gameday traditions are in limbo as the Athletic department attempts to usher in a new era with new traditions.

The “sea of orange” shows a unity in purpose among fans and creates an imposing sight for opponents, Littlepage said. The “new tradition” is here to stay and, coupled with increased facilities and the establishment of the marching band, is part of a heightened game day experience, he added.

Selling the University

Tradition is seductive.

The University has wrapped itself in tradition and prospective students and parents respond to the exclusivity and “club membership” status traditions seem to establish, Ander said.

Parents and prospective students at times adopt University-speak while on tours, referring to the Grounds or First Year, UGS scheduler John Moran said. Doing so makes them feel they are already members of “the club.”

Traditions add to the allure of an already academically superior school and those on tour naturally ask about the nature of this complex beast, Moran said.

“No one is going to say ‘I like this school because they wear t-shirts,’” Moran said in reference to the rise of the “sea of orange.”

While the University’s academic reputation is often the foremost issue discussed on a tour, unique traditions such as the honor system share some of the limelight, Moran said.

Such features make the University distinct and are received by “overwhelmingly favorable response” of visitors on Grounds, Moran said.

Both Ander and Moran expressed hope that 10 to 15 years from now traditions would still be upheld.

Traditions, many agree, will remain vital in marketing the University and the idea of traditions should continue to be a strong component of student life in years to come.

Jon Breece is Health & Sexuality editor for The Cavalier Daily. He previously covered higher education for the News department.

Traditions take hold

As the University continues to grow in the coming years, many agree that the dynamics of how new traditions take hold are bound to change.

With some traditions waning and others on the rise, University President John T. Casteen, III said it is unlikely that the University will abandon tradition altogether.

“The tradition here is something like continual improvement,” Casteen said. “I do not see dramatic changes in how students live.”

Historically, the University’s location in a relatively isolated community helped to foster the growth of many traditions that are still practiced today.

”One tradition that ought to evolve over the next decade is the propensity here to define the University in terms of Charlottesville,” Casteen said.

Despite the University’s other unique characteristics, such as its founding as the brainchild of Thomas Jefferson, Psychology Prof. Timothy Wilson said more common traditions tend to play a prominent role as part of the broader college experience nationwide.

“All campuses have their traditions and social norms,” Wilson said.

The leading theory behind the development of trends and traditions has to do with “the tipping point,” a concept which was widely popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell in his recent book of the same name.

Critical in the development of trends are the presence of well-connected individuals who can pass the word along to those with fewer social connections, Wilson said.

“I think there are times when individuals...can really make a difference,” he added.

Still, popular fads that develop in this way will necessarily result in new traditions.

For many years the addition of “not gay” during the recitation of the Good Ole Song at football games was audible even for audiences watching at home. The chant has since faded into relative obscurity following the recent concerted efforts of various high-profile groups such as Student Council.

“There can be a lot of resistance, but things can change,” Wilson said. “I don’t think anyone can predict when these things take hold or not.”

The ability of a tradition to catch on is referred to as its “stickiness,” which often plays upon deeper-rooted psychological mechanisms. In much the same way as it did in the 1960s and 70s during the Vietnam War, Wilson suggested that student political activism could stick around if students feel directly at risk as a result of recent world events.

The threat of a military draft and general uncertainty about the future could provide the necessary stickiness for such a trend to take hold, Wilson said.

Other long-standing trends, such as dissent against the honor system’s single sanction, could be reaching a tipping point as well, with the addition of a well-publicized campaign and the involvement of well-connected students who are involved in the effort.

Casteen said the University’s long-standing tradition of honorable conduct is unlikely to disappear regardless of what changes are in store for the single sanction.

“I can’t predict whether or not the honor system and other aspects of student self-government will change in substantial ways,” he said. “I doubt that students will give up this aspect of the student culture.  But I will predict that debate will go on throughout the [next] 15 years.”

—Compiled by Jason Amirhadji