The Cavalier Daily
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Spring rush serves community interests

TOMORROW is Fall Convocation, and it was at Convocation two years ago that, summoning the views of many colleagues and students, I outlined the Faculty Senate's initiative to build intellectual community. We wanted to help reanimate the exchange of ideas among faculty and students, both within and beyond the classroom. In this context, I also briefly raised a question that had been around for some time -- namely, the deferral of fraternity and sorority rush.

As a former University student, I knew that many of my classmates and friends found service, loyalty and camaraderie in sororities and fraternities. As a faculty member, I also knew what it was like to be approached by students, overwhelmed in their first couple of months here by the pressures and exhaustive demands of rush, just when they were trying to get their feet on the academic ground. Like many of my colleagues, I knew what it was like to have bleary-eyed students in class, falling asleep at their desks, apologizing repeatedly for late assignments, sometimes even slipping into academic probation or suspension. Was the third week of the first semester the right time for the start of rush?

In a heated debate during the next half year, students, administrators and faculty championed the deferral of rush in countless e-mails, meetings, forums, articles and exchanges with fraternity leaders and alumni. Along with the University's president, vice president for student affairs, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and the dean of students, many student leaders in the Honor Committee, the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, and even The Cavalier Daily took a courageous stand on behalf of moving rush out of the first semester.

In the spring of 1998, the sororities decided -- of their own accord -- to defer first-year rush until the spring. At the same time, the College faculty voted unanimously to advocate the deferral of rush. Later that spring, then-Dean of Students Robert T. Canevari presented a clear choice to the Inter-Fraternity Council: Either ban open keg parties, or submit to the deferral of rush. In a revealing decision, the fraternities voted for the kegs. We shouldn't forget that the IFC in effect imposed deferred rush upon itself. In postponing rush, the University followed the lead of other universities from as far south as Ole Miss to as far north as Dartmouth -- institutions that also have been better off for the change.

Major changes in student life can be painful. The nearest precedent for the deferral of rush was the University's decision in the 1980s to abolish "Easter's Weekend," a ritualized period of drunken debauchery that attracted party-seekers from all over the East Coast. After a period of grumbling, it became clear that "Easter's" would never come back, because it was contrary to the core academic mission of the University. The same is true of fall rush.

Why has the faculty been so concerned with this issue? Because we share the responsibility for the academic lives of our students, and that responsibility, if it is to be meaningful, cannot stop at the classroom door. During the first semester of the first year, students form their college work habits and expectations, as numerous studies indicate. When rush occurs 10 class days into the first semester, it has an insidious influence on the intellectual tone of the University.

In an excellent Cavalier Daily opinion piece on the benefits of deferred rush, Dean Canevari described last year's increased involvement of first-year students in University organizations, along with fewer academic warnings and alcohol-related trips to the emergency room ("Spring rush brings benefits for all," March 31, 1999). My most powerful first-hand experience of the change's value was a University Seminar that I taught for first-semester, first-year students in the fall of 1997 -- the last year of fall rush -- and again in the fall of 1998 -- the first-year rush was deferred. The contrast was stark.

The first time around, a significant proportion of my students intellectually dropped out of the class during and in the aftermath of rush. The second time, my students remained focused, curious and energetic in the community of the classroom throughout the semester -- a tremendously rewarding experience for us all.

When the IFC disseminated a report last spring decrying the deferral of rush, the fraternity leadership seemed unable to grasp that the larger health of the University community, not merely of the fraternities, is the standard for measuring the success or failure of the change. As I wrote to Dean Canevari at the time, the question is not, "Has the deferral of rush inhibited the fraternities from fulfilling their mission?" Rather, the question is, "Has the deferral of rush enhanced the ability of the University to fulfill its primary mission?" I believe the answer to the latter question unequivocally is "yes."

The change in timing of rush is, in the grand scheme of things, a minor matter. Nevertheless, it is a powerful reminder of the University's ability to transform itself -- even in the face of entrenched interests -- when faculty, administrators and students come together. Tomorrow at Convocation, as we meet on the Lawn to celebrate the intellectual vitality of our students, we all should take pride in our collective capacity to renew the promise of our Academical Village.

(Jahan Ramazani is an English professor and former chair of the Faculty Senate.)


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