Convocation Traditions Stir Discussion of Inclusivity

Veronica Hernandez ’13
News Editor

Last week, students received an e-mail from Dean Mahoney, encouraging them to participate in a survey about potential concerns with Convocation. A contentious issue among faculty and students, the Smith administration is now working with the Student Government Association, Dean Mahoney and Dean of Students Rae-Anne Butera to address potential problems with the Smith tradition.

Convocation, the official beginning of the academic year, has been a celebratory, student-focused event since the 1975 introduction of the college’s first female president, Jill Ker Conway. In recent years, the college has made consistent efforts to address the consumption of alcohol and “excessive and inappropriate behavior” – notably the noise level and dress of some students.

“As I’ve tried to convey in my yearly emails on the topic, I am concerned about two things:  the safety of students attending and the inclusiveness of the event,” said Mahoney’s e-mail. “Over the years, an increasing proportion of students find Convocation uncomfortable and unwelcoming, to the point that they do not attend, or do not attend after their first year.”

“Convocation is definitely rowdy, but it wouldn’t be Convocation if it wasn’t,” said Chelsea Bartholomew ’13. According to Bartholomew, the majority of students “love Convocation and do not want to see any changes.”

“It’s a completely optional activity, so students can celebrate in alternative ways – or not celebrate at all – if they feel it’s too much,” said Bartholomew. “I didn’t feel like going this year, and nobody tried to pressure me otherwise.”

According to the email, 46% of respondents to the survey had some concerns about behavior at Convocation, but enjoyed it overall. The survey asked students to describe why they went to Convocation as well as what they thought the ceremony is now, and what it should be in the future. Students were asked to choose words to describe Convocation, including “fun,” “outrageous,” “shocking,” “out of control” and “meaningful,” among others. The survey also included questions about peer pressure as well as alcohol consumption.

“I am more concerned about increasing numbers of students who feel – often without expressing it – that the event is uncomfortable and unwelcoming,” said Mahoney in an email interview. Mahoney mentioned small modifications, such as enforcing a minimal dress code and banning noise makers.

“I think imposing constraints would mostly just serve to take the spirit out of it, and even – in the case of things like excessive drinking – drive certain aspects of the event that have been highlighted as concerns deeper underground, thus making them more dangerous and difficult to monitor,” said Bartholomew.

Another concern is that of safety, including excessive drinking, students leaning over balconies and other instances of “impaired judgment.” “It would be tragic to have a serious accident at the event, and I think we all want to do everything we can to avoid that,” said Mahoney.

Finally, Mahoney mentioned onlookers and outsiders as a safety concern for students. “Some non-Smith community members take photographs of students at Convocation or as they walk in groups to the event,” said Mahoney.  “The photographs are posted on YouTube and in other places.  They can be very compromising and are out in the world of electronic media forever.”

“I don’t think that students should have to modify their choices based on the inappropriate behaviors of others, especially since we are all adults and understand that we run this risk,” said Bartholomew. “Why not do more to stop these community members from taking photographs they shouldn’t instead of coming down on the students?”

Mahoney did not mention any specific ways of enforcing new rules or coming up with other suggestions for improving Convocation, however. “Since Smith has a great tradition of student self-governance, and since almost half of Smith students express some concern, I am hoping to tap the creativity and intelligence of students to make suggestions about how we might address the issues,” she said.

“Student input is absolutely essential in this process,” continued Mahoney. Butera, as well as the SGA, will be working towards organizing discussions and forming a group to offer recommendations to Mahoney and President Christ, though no timeframe was given.

“I would like to see respect for each other and respect for speakers as part of the culture of Convocation,” said Butera when asked about her vision for Convocation in the future. “I hope there will always be the same degree of pride, spirit and enthusiasm that we saw last fall and in past years.”

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