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Lutefest canceled after nine-year run; SGA president and VP say decision was ‘all facts’

PHOTO COURTESY OF SGA MARKETING

For nine years, St. Olaf students celebrated spring with campus bands during Lutefest. Pictured is a performance from Lutefest 2010.

Ashley Belisle and Amy Lohmann
March 14, 2013 • 8,527 views

Citing damage to students and campus alike, the Student Government Association (SGA) president and vice president planned to announce the cancellation of St. Olaf’s annual Lutefest celebration on Thursday, March 14.

The decision, executed by SGA President Catherine Haines ’13 and Vice President Matt Alveshere ’13, is the result of conversations that have been going on for months.

At the beginning of the 2011-2012 academic year, the previous President  Jon Laven ’12 and Vice President Klara Wagnild ’12 started a senate committee to address the behavior and attitude that has become associated with Lutefest. By collaborating with various branches of senate, including the Music Entertainment Committee (MEC), other senators and coordinators of student organizations, SGA hoped to make massive changes to Lutefest.

“We wanted to try to maintain a really fun event that would be safer than it had in the past,” Haines said. “It was going to be a last-ditch effort. If we put everything into this and it still didn’t work out, then we would really have to reassess.”

Last year, SGA decided to plan a night activity as part of Lutefest, a comedy performance by Judah Friedlander, to encourage students to do something safe and fun with their evening. SGA also added additional security in Stav Hall and around campus for the day, while student organizations and student government branches put in extra work and money. All in all, SGA spent nearly $35,000 on that day alone. According to Haines, even with the extra precautions, the campus saw just as many, if not more, hospitalizations.

“After [last year’s effort], we sparked a conversation to critically look at the issues,” Alveshere said.

This fall, Haines and Alveshere formed focus groups with residence life staff, hall councils and campus Public Safety to talk about issues and changes that could be made to Lutefest in the coming year.

After discussions with the focus groups, as well as additional conversations with Public Safety Director Fred Behr and administrators, Haines and Alveshere eventually came to their decision to cancel Lutefest.

“Of course, it was such a hard decision for both of us,” said Haines, who expressed disappointment in the failure of SGA’s efforts to minimize the damage of the event. “It comes down to the fact that it’s not a safe event, and you can’t just keep trying when it’s not safe.”

Alveshere agreed that the event was a hazard to the campus.

“The way we treat Buntrock Commons, Stav Hall, the employees of this campus, the vandalism of residence halls and in the quad – it’s this type of behavior that we couldn’t find an answer to address it and stop it,” Alveshere said.

Dean of Students Rosalyn Eaton-Neeb ’87, who has been a part the decision-making process, agreed that the vandalism is in no way justified.

“It’s difficult to put a price on food being thrown and trampled in Stav, or persons urinating on the Stav floor, or trays being left on tables for staff to pick up or having to bring in professional security staff to monitor student behavior,” Eaton-Neeb said.

In addition to vandalism issues, the event was not always a positive experience for the student body, according to Alveshere.

“Lutefest is an event that St. Olaf students leave campus because of,” Alveshere said. “So, we’re planning an event that students want to avoid. How can we, as a student government, run an event like that?”

St. Olaf is not the only campus that has been re-evaluating its spring events. Peer colleges are addressing similar safety concerns, and the issue of culture change on college campuses is not a new one.

“We actually did some research about college campus culture,” Alveshere said. He said that the research pointed to the same conclusion to which he and Haines had been arriving, that “unless there’s drastic change, you aren’t going to change the culture.”

The executive team also emphasized the inconvenience the event imposes, not only on students and staff, but also on the larger Northfield community. Each year the city’s resources, from hospital staff to the local police force, are taken up by St. Olaf students on Lutefest.

“One year, all of the Northfield emergency medical technicians were occupied with St. Olaf students, so when an emergency call was placed, they had to dispatch Faribault EMTs,” Alveshere said. “In addition, last year the Northfield Hospital proactively increased their staff for the day, without being warned by the St. Olaf campus.”

Haines and Alveshere expect students to be upset, but hope that they will listen to the reasons behind the decisions. “It’s important to communicate with our peers about why this decision was made,” Alveshere said.

Haines agreed, adding, “At least a good chunk will understand. They’ll be upset, but they’ll understand the reasons. There’s no opinion in how we made the decision. It’s just all facts.”

In an attempt to avoid making what would have been Lutefest a “dark day” on campus, SGA is discussing the possibility of alternative programming for that night. In addition, several branches of SGA will have more money for programming of their own to take place throughout the remainder of the semester.

The cancellation of Lutefest will likely be a disappointment for St. Olaf’s campus bands.

“Obviously, this decision to cancel Lutefest is going to make campus band people livid,” MEC Coordinator Ryan Peterson ’14 said. “This was the biggest show of the year. I think this decision is detrimental to campus bands and their morale. It will affect them poorly. It’s frustrating.” Peterson said that because the executive team made the announcement to him three months before Lutefest was scheduled to occur, “it’s a big stumbling block.”

Even so, MEC is planning to create a venue for campus bands to perform before the school year ends.

“We’re thinking about doing a last day of class campus band festival in order to get a similar outcome with a less destructive reputation,” he said.

Peterson is not the only one predicting a negative reaction from some students. Eaton-Neeb said that she anticipates some of the student body will be disappointed, while others will be relieved.

“It’s possible that some will respond poorly, but I hope that they are able to pause to consider why,” Eaton-Neeb said. “A group of smart, earnest people tried very hard to continue Lutefest and could not see a way to do so safely.”

The decision to cancel Lutefest after its nine-year run was, ultimately, the only possible solution, according to Haines. Hopeful for a safer campus and a happier community that Saturday in May, the executive team is looking forward to finding a different way to spend time, energy and $35,000.

belisle@stolaf.edu             

lohmanna@stolaf.edu


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3 Responses to “Lutefest canceled after nine-year run; SGA president and VP say decision was ‘all facts’”

  1. Reid Murdoch on March 14th, 2013 4:15 pm

    I am an Olaf alum. I was considering donating to the college. I will no longer be donating a cent to this institution until Lutefest is reinstated, if and when that ever happens.

    I am sorry that the college does not recognize the critical need for a time of outlet/release on the Hill. This was one day a year in which students could blow off steam, forget about academics, and feel a sense of solidarity with their peers. While I understand the concerns about vandalism, I couldn’t disagree more that Lutefest was not a safe event. The risky drinking associated with certain attendees will not stop now that Lutefest is cancelled. It will only continue in secret, and with greater gusto. When will the administration learn that pushing risky activities further underground only further endangers the student body.

    I suggest the powers that be get off their paternalistic high horse ASAP, and drop this ‘responsibility to protect’ crap. Let the students have their fun. Let them make risky decisions if they want to, after all, if they can’t learn how to be safe now, while they’re living in the relatively safe environment of the Hill and surrounding area, when will they? College is a time for experimentation with the limits of safety and prudence, to find what those limits are. I feel sorry for anyone who leaves college without figuring out how much is safe to drink in what contexts and how much is not. Sometimes we have to learn these things the hard way, which the college’s rhetoric effectively denies.

    Lighten up, remember what it’s like to be young. People act like Olaf is Stout or Mankato, greatly exaggerating the binge drinking culture. These are smart, engaged students who for the most part do not need Big Brother to hold their hand and plan their fun for them.

    [Reply]

  2. Zach on March 14th, 2013 11:51 pm

    As an alum and someone who is pictured at the top of this article,

    I performed as a member of a campus band for three of my four years on the Hill. Having Lutefest on the horizon was one of the driving forces behind our rehearsals and was always something to look forward to, similar to Christmas Festival for choirs and the St. Olaf Orchestra. I’m being completely honest when I say some of our greatest moments as a band and a group of friends happened on stage during Lutefest, and we often listen to recordings of or reminisce about our Lutefest shows. It was only one day a year, but it was a defining moment of my and many of my friends’ college experience to be part of a school that fostered such a wonderful festival. It was a chance for us to showcase everything we could do as a band, and it was a fantastic opportunity for us to see what our other compatriots in the campus band sphere were capable of. Pause space was (and I imagine still is) hard to come by, especially during weekends, so having such a primetime spot was indispensable. MEC Coordinator Ryan Peterson was absolutely correct in saying the decision to cancel Lutefest was one that was going to piss off campus bands. I’m even two Lutefests removed from St. Olaf, and to say I’m upset would be a huge understatement.

    While the hospitalizations and vandalism during Lutefest mentioned in this article are concerns worthy of deliberation, I think this article fails to capture the immense positive benefits of Lutefest for a large portion of the student body. Dean Eaton-Neeb’s comments regarding the use of Stav Hall and student Vice-President Alveshere’s comment about students leaving campus paint Lutefest as an event defined by and requiring needlessly drunken debauchery. I’m not going to hide – for the majority of my Lutefests I was intoxicated, as were a number of my friends. Despite being at times irresponsibly impaired, neither myself nor anybody I considered a friend or even an acquaintance was so disrespectful as to be found, “urinating on the Stav floor,” or any other act of vandalism. To cancel an entire event that has so many positive effects because of some irresponsible participants is not fair to the many students who enjoy Lutefest respectfully. I should also express that I experienced my first Lutefest without a drop of alcohol in my system and still had an absolute blast. Though alcohol use is popular at Lutefest, much like any other holiday it is by no means required for people to have a good time.

    From a sheer stress relief and mental health perspective, this event was essential to my second semester survival. Every year after the end of spring break, my classmates and I faced one gigantic academic push until finals week and the end of the year, when we would all part ways and relax wherever we called home. There were no more breaks between us and the end of the year, but we knew we had one day in the next two months or so where we could put all our academic pressures aside and just enjoy live music, exciting activities, and each other’s company. This is different than 100 Days March – an event only for seniors, and it is different than just a weekend party or concert in the Pause. This day is important in large part because it is established by student government and celebrated as an entire student body. Once a year, students are encouraged to let go of stress and enjoy themselves. For many students, this is the last chance to really relax with their classmates before the crushing pressure of finals starts exerting itself and the campus starts to retreat into itself.

    I currently live with an alum of Reed College in Portland, where they have an event similar to Lutefest but grander in scope, called Renn Fayre. I’ve been told a number of years ago Reed College faced a problem with Renn Fayre similar to St. Olaf’s with Lutefest: things were being damaged, people were being sent to the hospital unnecessarily, and as a result the festival was perceived negatively by too many people in authority and in the community. Reed’s administrators issued what was essentially an ultimatum to not just the student government, but the entire student body: Clean up your act, or you don’t get Renn Fayre anymore. The student body responded instantly and drastically. Rather than hiring outside security forces, the first thing the students did was hire an independent first aid/medical service. Their job was to provide immediate first-aid and basic medical attention to students who needed it, greatly minimizing Renn Fayre’s strain on local hospitals. They instituted a wristband system – students were all allotted a wristband and could purchase wristbands for guests if they desired. They also created specific student task forces to be active throughout Renn Fayre, all with specific tasks like strictly enforcing the wristband system, cleaning up messes, and ensuring student behavior did not get out of hand. The result was dramatic – minimal instances requiring professional medical attention, and an almost complete elimination of vandalism and mess.

    I recognize the student body of Reed in past years may differ than St. Olaf’s today, and I will also admit that I do not know firsthand how St. Olaf’s administration has dealt with their concerns of a destructive Lutefest, but I absolutely cannot impress how big of a mistake this is on the administration’s part. They have made their stance incredibly clear – they are willing to, with the support of a reluctant student government, cancel the festival so many of us treasure. I assure you the students now understand the gravity of the situation – give them a chance to clean up their act as a united student body, not just a small committee of student government representatives. As I entered my senior year at St. Olaf (2010-2011), the administration’s stance on alcohol and campus events was becoming noticeably more stringent. The emails sent to us from SGA and MEC announcing events were more and more often accompanied by what we perceived as empty threats: don’t screw this up or we’ll take away your Lutefest. We typically scoffed at these threats and viewed them as equivalent to an annoyed parent threatening their child’s TV time – they were not something we gave any sort of credence because the administration had never been one to impose its will on this grand a scale. I see now that this is not the case anymore.

    I don’t know what the musings of a young alum are worth, especially musings not accompanied by a large contribution to the endowment, but I urge the administration to give the Oles one last chance. The students understand the gravity of this situation, now more than ever, and I think you will be pleasantly surprised by their reaction. After all, recruitment brochures and tour guides tout that we are a college of socially aware, politically active people – real citizens able and willing to foster and enact social change.

    Let the Oles prove you right.

    [Reply]

  3. Olaf 78 on April 5th, 2013 10:18 pm

    As an old alum – class of 1978 – I remember Lutefest’s predecessor, Heathstock. Off campus at Heath Creek, lots of kegs, good bands, students blowing off steam before finals, the administration looking the other way… Still one of our fondest memories! The three differences I see are 1) Lutefest is on a “dry” campus; 2) drinking age is now 21, not 18; and 3) no one, to our knowledge, ended up at the hospital due to intoxication. Yes, there were food fights in the Caf (much less prestigious than Stav Hall), and, yes, people had headaches, etc. the next day, and, yes, the administration looked the other way.

    And nowhere near $35,000 was expended by SAC for this, even adjusted for inflation… They did chip in some money for bands.

    I have no solutions, except that students do need to learn to be responsible for their own actions. Learn your limits, and realize that there are consequences for bad choices. I hope that whatever replaces Lutefest – and yes, students are creative, and it will go on, whether Heathstock or Lutefest, or whatever – is fun, successful, and safe.

    [Reply]

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