Students will be students

Admins should note how Wisconsin Dean Lori Berquam mishandled the Mifflin Street Block Party.

Cassandra Sundaram

By now, I’m sure you all have either seen or heard about the YouTube video of University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Dean of Students Lori Berquam warning students not to go to the Mifflin Street Block party, held on its namesake street in Madison every year. I don’t know whether it’s Berquam’s use of repetition as a rhetorical device or the overly parental tone, but the video has created quite a stir in Madison, and opinions about it are blowing up social media.

For college administrators, it’s a stark example of the way not to interact with students. Trying to dissuade students from participating in a historical tradition is nearly impossible, especially when that tradition is as historically out-of-control as Mifflin and especially when the methods used to persuade students are tone-deaf.

The University of Minnesota had a relatively quiet and successful Spring Jam this year. But I can understand school officials’ concern with alcohol-related incidents at such heavily attended, university-wide events. There is a need for proper planning and policing to prevent something like the Spring Jam riots of 2009 or the stabbings of last year’s Mifflin.

But telling students to simply not attend is a drastic and unnecessary crackdown that only perpetuates frustrated feelings of a generation gap between students and university officials. Dave Cieslewicz, Madison’s former mayor, agreed on his blog: “As a general rule, telling young adults not to do something has the effect of making that thing even more exciting to do.” Our own administrators should take note.

The Mifflin Street Block Party originated as a protest against the Vietnam War. The Mifflin Street area in Madison was filled with community organizers and anti-war activists — the original event involved dancing in the street and an out-of-control riot lasting three days. Over the years, the reasons and ways students participate in Mifflin have changed, but a tradition of disobeying authority remains, and its history is what makes it a unique college experience, like our Spring Jam.

Spring Jam also had its beginnings during wartime. In 1942, the University sponsored a “campus carnival” in an effort to boost morale. The event was transformed multiple times until it became the official, annual Spring Jam event it is today.

In 2009, however, it took a turn for the worse when it turned into booze-fueled, raucous rioting that resulted in fires, vandalism and attempts to flip parked cars. Police had to break up the riot with tear gas, pepper spray and riot sticks. Those riots undoubtedly contributed to the shortening of 2010’s Spring Jam and an increased police presence during subsequent festivities.

At the time, Jerry Rinehart called it “an unacceptable display of lawless behavior,” and Minneapolis police Sergeant Jesse Garcia said, “The way these kids acted really is going to make it hard for future students to enjoy Spring Jam safely.” But at no time did any school administrator or authority figure talk about canceling Spring Jam or ask students to stop participating in an event that is inherently part of our University’s cultural experience. School officials know these events are important to us, and they decided instead to make a few changes and trust us to behave more responsibly in the future.

University officials are concerned with our safety, and rightly so, but asking students to not attend events that are part of a college’s unique experience — whether they are sponsored or not — is ridiculous. College is more than classes; it is an experience, and so for better or worse, Spring Jam and Mifflin — and everything that goes along with them — are here to stay.