Hampden-Sydney’s Most Cherished Tradition: Student Protests

Dylan DelliSanti ’14 and Tarun Sharma ‘15

            Hampden-Sydney, more so than other institutions, places a special emphasis on its traditions. The Honor Code is held in high regard and posted in each classroom; tailgating has likely been the same since football players started wearing leather helmets; and despite over two centuries of existence, the school has managed to retain its old Southern charm. However, there is one tradition that has not received the respect it deserves: student protests. While protesting is not typically associated with Hampden-Sydney students, it is a rich part of our history. Throughout the College’s storied history, protests have been an effective and important method of protecting student and College interests, and should continued to be utilized in appropriate situations in the future.

            One of the main reasons that protests are appropriate, insofar as protecting and improving the College and its traditions, is because student happiness and collegiate life have a symbiotic relationship. Students have an interest in promoting the social fabric of the community because the College is part of each alumnus’ individual legacy. Motivation aside, as young people, they tend to have more “local knowledge” as to what is happening in pop culture and in social life. This knowledge allows for students to define their college experience, which the social interactions between classmates and guests weigh into heavily. At the same time, the faculty and administration can provide a nice counter-weight in trying to promote education, an almost equally important element to the college experience. This has guided past protests, like the Dance Protests in 1904. It is a well-known fact that the College was once directly affiliated with the Presbyterian Church. History tells us that when Presbyterians took control of the Board of Trustees in 1904, they immediately banned dancing due to the fact that it was considered to be an “immoral” activity. This resulted in a lack of dances or yearbooks in 1904 or 1905. Students responded by painting the President’s horse and various slogans on buildings. The student body found a likely ally in Maj. Richard Venable, who organized dances in the house in which the Hampden-Sydney Museum now stands, which was then off-campus and known as the Comity Club. Another example is the access of female guests to dorm buildings. In the 1960s, when students across the country were burning down administration buildings in protest of the War in Vietnam, Hampden-Sydney students camped out in the lawn of Atkinson Hall for most of a week. Eventually, administrators acquiesced to the students’ desires, and students were allowed to bring female guests to their dormitory rooms, a privilege that students still place a high value upon today. Students used quite docile protests in order to keep Hampden-Sydney’s social values and traditions up with the times.

Moreover, students will one day become alumni and will likely wish for their children to attend the College. Thus, they might know which traditions and institutions are worth preserving better than faculty members and administrators who do not have (or do not wish to have) a long-term connection to the College. This can be seen in the undistinguished legacy of President Leutze, who in his short tenure between 1987 and 1990, attempted to motorize the process of ringing the Watkins Bell Tower. Scaffolding was erected inside the Bell Tower so that the ringing could be mechanized. However, students went to the structure in the middle of the night and dismantled the scaffolding, reassembling it on the front steps of Middlecourt. The plans were promptly disbanded, and the bell is still manually rung today. Leutze did not have a great context of Hampden-Sydney’s main bell that, as General Sam says, calls Hampden-Sydney’s sons back to the Hill. He did not understand that not only did students value the tradition of the bell, but that it is considered an honor amongst the Buildings and Grounds staff to be chosen to ring the Bell Tower. Traditionally, the longest tenured housekeeping staff member is in charge of the manual ringing of the Bell. Thus, it is in the College’s best interest for students to determine some traditions that are maintained throughout the tenures of multiple Presidents.

So we find that it is sometimes necessary for student protests to occur, especially if student demands are being ignored. Not only can students curb wrongdoing that are committed by higher-ups in the administration, but preserve traditional values that the College and its sons still care deeply about, such as the aforementioned manual operation of the Watkins Bell Tower. At the same time, students are able to update social values that may be lagging due to Hampden-Sydney’s isolation. Protests have a long history of being successful on the Hill, and it is important to continue to value them going forward in events of student misgivings about occurrences because it is vital to the legacy of alumni and the future of the College. 

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