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The burden of tradition: NOD 2023 was the fault of systemic issues, not the students

By Nathan Horton     1/30/24 10:17pm

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked to the best of our ability and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher editors.

Student discourse in the aftermath of Night of Decadence has frequently taken a defeatist character. A muted “I guess that’s what we get” has risen in response to the cancellation of publics, without any form of organized protest. This passivity in the face of blatant paternalism ignores a major systemic issue: the loss of student autonomy in maintaining traditions.

NOD is not new, and neither are the problems that led to last year’s iteration being shut down. At NOD 2012, or “NOD-gate,” there were 32 students cared for by Rice EMS and 10 alcohol-related transports by ambulance to local hospitals, eclipsing the over two dozen sent to REMS and seven transported at this past year’s iteration. The 2012 story gained traction in local media, but those outlets failed to account for the fact that the transports “occurred nearly universally out of an abundance of caution,” evidenced in part by the fact that all 10 who were hospitalized were released early in the morning. While I am not certain if that abundance of caution was the case at this year’s iteration, the reason given in Dean Bridget Gorman’s message to undergraduates implies a similar strain on caregiving resources caused by the quantity of intoxicated students, not the severity of individual cases.

“NOD-gate” in 2012 sparked the imposition of a new round of alcohol restrictions the following spring, but of a much less drastic nature than those imposed this year with the cancelation of several publics. A key reason for this was then-Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson’s focus on treating Rice students like adults, emphasizing individual responsibility

Such reasoning appears dead today. Further, with every imposition upon students and residential colleges by administration, I fear that Rice will lose a piece of its unique culture. 

As is required by Texas law, the Undergraduate Alcohol Policy bans the consumption of alcohol for any student under the age of 21. This simple fact lies at the heart of why the residential college system has been so important to Rice’s unique culture. Any sphere which Rice University Police Department or the administration touch must enforce this rule. Publics such as NOD which used to be run entirely by students are now forced to spend massive chunks of their budget on security, the very presence of which ironically has an adverse effect on student safety. The presence of RUPD at, inside and around publics means that there cannot be any drinking on the premises, giving students the option to either not drink or to pre-game. It is this context that places publics today in such a precarious situation.

Perhaps I am ignorant, but I have yet to hear of REMS being stretched thin as a result of any private party or residential college-wide party, even those explicitly centered around alcohol. The difference lies in leadership; those events often have no on-site oversight from RUPD or administration, making pre-gaming a non-issue. Yes, there is occasional overdrinking by individuals, but that is where personal accountability and the culture of care come into play. Such isolated incidents are an entirely different issue from the mass transports at NOD — it would be foolish to conflate the two. Excessive intoxication from pre-gaming is the main reason for admin’s worries with publics of late, but in taking action we should look at the root cause. Events which are truly student-run face no such issues, so does the fault for the decay of publics really lie in the hands of students, or is it a systemic issue with how publics are operated?

This is a narrow criticism, but falls within a broader trend of power being taken away from residential colleges in the name of safety. Wherever admin or RUPD assumes responsibility, stricter regulations and a loss of student government autonomy follow. In the case of NOD (or any public recently), if RUPD decides who can get in, when the party shuts down, what the baggage/container policy is, when capacity is hit and how many officers need to draw from the budget to be there, then who has the real power? I am by no means criticizing RUPD’s conduct, but this issue necessarily results from them taking responsibility for student safety at publics. 

A huge part of Rice’s appeal is its unique culture created by the residential colleges as opposed to fraternities and sororities. If this trend continues, and campus-wide traditions lose the student direction that has defined them, I fear Rice will gradually become akin to the majority of other universities where every party is a private and inclusivity is an afterthought at best. To maintain the unique traditions that define Rice, it is critical for students to take the lead in creating responsible environments. Yet this cannot happen without the administration being willing to return some autonomy to the residential college governments, restoring individual responsibility and student governance as the dominating forces behind a safe environment at Rice. 

What happened at NOD this year is unacceptable, but not unprecedented. In response, we should not forget what we stand to lose. The burden of maintaining traditions at Rice should ultimately fall upon the shoulders of those who live them: the students.

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