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Blast from the flask: a dive into college night’s history

Guillian Paguila / Thresher

By Sam Balakrishnan     3/19/24 10:19pm

Although borgs and tinted water bottles come to mind when Rice students hear the words “college night,” the tradition had very different beginnings. 

The event began as a formal occasion, but throughout the decades has featured everything from wrestling matches to motorcycles. Food fights were a yearly occurrence and no matter the dress code, alcohol was almost always involved.

Will Rice was the first to hold a “college night meeting” in April 1957, according to the Thresher’s April 5, 1957 issue, originating as a college bonding and business event. Will Rice students congregated in the college commons during the evening “for coffee and dessert … Speakers [presented] brief talks at the meeting, and a general business section [was] conducted.”

Wiess followed the same year, holding dinner and voting for its constitution in the commons. One week later, Wiess College held a second college night during which the following year’s executive committee members were elected. 

The Thresher archives next referenced college night in 1965, when it was referred to as a “candlelight supper” for the men’s residential colleges. Only Wiess seemed to have called it “college night,” with other colleges simply planning an elegant Friday evening meal. A Hanszen College drama was planned for the same night, presumably following dinner, as part of a series of events planned for Homecoming. 

Although it had innocent beginnings, college night was not without debauchery. During Sid Richardson College’s college night in 1984, two male students showed up wearing togas, playing music with a tape recorder and carrying a blender to mix drinks. This greatly offended then- magister John Clark, who, according to the Thresher’s December 7, 1984 issue, required the students involved to either sign a document of disciplinary probation or face rustication. 

“Many members of Richarson [sic] felt that Clark’s ultimatum was inappropriate and that the people involved are guilty of no wrongdoing,” the Thresher reported at the time. “‘It was as quiet a college night as Sid Richardson has ever had,’” Marion Hicks, then-Director of Food and Housing, said. 

Food fights first broke out during Baker’s college night in 1986, its first college night since the legal drinking age was raised from 18 to 21 earlier that year. 

“The fun factor was very small and the lame factor was very high,” an unnamed senior told the Thresher at the time.

Prior to college night, Baker held several college-wide meetings to discuss potential changes following the increased drinking age. Baker students and faculty decided on dividing inner and outer commons into “wet” and “dry” zones. Underage drinking still occurred in dry zones, however, which was cited as the cause of the food fights. In the fall of 1989, more food fights than ever broke out — according to the Thresher’s March 16, 1990 issue, Sid Richardson created $700 in food fight damage from 36 broken glasses, 22 broken dinner plates and some tables and chairs, which were damaged after Sid Richardson students drove motorcycles into commons. 

The next year, college nights suffered fewer food fights as colleges implemented a variety of rule changes to avoid further incidents. Lovett established a semi-formal dress code to encourage a more professional attitude among event-goers and provided entertainment in the form of a few upperclassmen wrestling matches, entitled “Hulkamania.” They also imposed a $25 fine on food fight instigators and changed the format of the dinner to be a buffet-style, while Sid Richardson took a more low-key approach and changed the event to a Saturday night dinner.

While it had its mischievous moments, college night was still quite a formal affair through the 1980s, with many colleges traditionally hosting the event at the Rice Memorial Center’s Grand Hall. In 1987, Brown’s college night was held there and included a dinner and reception, followed by an award ceremony and a barbecue at the Magister’s House. Wiess followed a similar schedule, according to current Brown College coordinator Christy Cousins ’94.

“College night for us at Wiess was a really formal night. It was kind of like the way things are for Associates Night,” Cousins, a former Wiessman, said in an interview with the Thresher. “We would get dressed up, some people would bring wine, the Associates would be there too and then afterwards we had talent shows … that was the evening and then there were room parties after that.”  

The early 2000s marked the beginning of the modern college night. In 2003, students were reported to be drinking in class, with one student making an inappropriate gesture when asked to take part in a demonstration in CHEM 121 and another student mouthing, “I am so wasted right now.”

Then-Brown magister John Hutchinson told the Thresher in 2003 that he first observed in-class drinking during college nights in the year prior, suggesting that this tradition likely began circa 2002.

“There is no tradition,” Hutchinson, later the dean of undergraduates, said at the time. “I had the same problem with students a year ago … I thought it was all over.” 

In the late 2000s, instructors began to permit drinking in class — or at least turn a blind eye to it.

“For the most part [instructors] were just like, ‘Sit in the back [and] do what you’re going to do,’” Kate Coley ’11, Duncan College residential associate, said of Rice’s college nights in the late 2000s.

As for now, over a decade later, Coley says that college night has become cemented in Rice’s culture, whether a steak dinner or a water bottle of vodka.

“It’s changed so much, but it’s still so Rice.”

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