Reflecting on Fishbowl: The Facts, The Future and Student Apathy

Since the outset of the spring 2013 semester a few weeks ago, certain buzzwords have floated throughout the campus vernacular. The Super Bowl, class schedules, juniors returning from abroad and the return of the NHL are four that have permeated my own senior spring consciousness. Yet one word that rolled boldly off the tongues of nearly every student on campus last semester has been conspicuously absent since January 21: Fishbowl. The cancellation of this pseudo-sacred yet beleaguered bacchanalia was, along with the meteoric women’s volleyball season, the headlining story of the fall semester. Students rallied around a perceived injustice handed to them by a seemingly distant and apathetic administration, and demonstrated a collective will to maintain shared governance and transparency within admin-student relations.

So what actually happened? What was accomplished? Was Fishbowl restored, in all its revealing glory? To clear the air, some Fishbowl facts, and my take on each:

The 2012 Fishbowl iteration is incompatible with the student safety standards of Connecticut College.

At the beginning of the first SGA meeting held to air student grievances regarding the cancellation of Fishbowl, Director of Campus Safety Stuart Smith made the unbiased and unequivocal statement that nudity and alcohol make for a recipe for disaster. Based on last year’s Fishbowl, I would not dispute this claim. Though no concrete facts have yet been made available, hearsay lists a near class-action lawsuit, an intoxicated student reaching for a safety officer’s weapon, students vomiting on themselves and numerous sexual assault violations among the indiscretions of Fishbowl 2012.

In an effort to reform what was becoming an increasingly unsustainable tradition, College administrators, in collaboration with students, made the decision before last year’s event to incorporate three drink tickets in order to curb binge drinking at the event.

To say that this plan backfired is an understatement. Though the College does have a responsibility to limit the amount of alcohol it provides to students due to safety concerns, I believe it was irresponsible on behalf of the administration to not foresee the outcome of this policy, and irresponsible on behalf of the senior class to take this as an invitation to get completely inebriated before arriving at the event. Though it was a collaborative solution, it should now be clear that enacting austere limits on the drinking habits of 21- to 23-year-old college students is significantly less effective than providing these same students with a safe environment in which to consume what they feel is healthy. Perhaps this means limiting hard alcohol, and offering only beer and wine at the event. There is no doubt in my mind that the relatively small group of students who effectively ruined Fishbowl in 2012 was “pregaming” with copious amounts of hard alcohol. Reforming the three drink ticket policy should be a focus of this spring semester between students and administrators.

In response to student outcry, Dean Denard offered to make available the non-confidential information leading to the cancellation of Fishbowl.

When a group of students first met following reception of the email from Dean Denard cancelling Fishbowl, the primary grievance that we planned to bring before the Dean and before SGA was that no concrete reasons had been given as to why the event was cancelled. We felt that Fishbowl’s importance to the senior class necessitated factual delineation of reasons why Fishbowl could not be continued. In the subsequent SGA meeting, the Dean graciously received our grievance, and promised to create a report detailing the factors leading to Fishbowl’s cancellation. To my knowledge, this report does not yet exist. During the second SGA meeting, the Dean apologized for not yet having the report available, and mentioned that it would be ready shortly. If anyone has gained access to this report, please share it with the College Voice.

Dean Denard finally admitted an ounce of wrongdoing in the process of evaluating and cancelling Fishbowl.

It became a heated point of contention in the two SGA meetings addressing the cancellation of Fishbowl that Dean Denard did not feel as though she had done any wrong throughout the process of evaluating and cancelling Fishbowl. Although President Higdon mentioned at the outset of the second SGA meeting that the decision had been made by “senior administrators” and that Dean Denard was simply the bearer of bad news, the responsibility to explain how the decision was made to the student body fell squarely on her shoulders as she was the only senior administrator available at both of the SGA meetings.

Listed close behind our student group’s initial grievance that we were given no concrete reasons behind the cancellation, was the issue that no students, including SGA president Taylor Gould and the senior class council, were involved in the process of making the decision. Connecticut College’s administration and student government operate within a framework of shared governance, in which students, faculty and administration collaborate to make decisions that affect the future of the College. I believe I speak for others when I say that I was appalled at the way in which student leaders and eventually the student body was handed down the outcome of the Fishbowl decision.

Dean Denard initially justified this method of decree with a student safety argument, which is somewhat legitimate. Though students are involved with most decisions at the College, the administration has a responsibility to the health and safety of the student body that extends beyond its responsibility to involve students in decisions. That being said, the absence of students in the meetings examining Fishbowl was, in the eyes of the student body, an affront against our ability to take care of ourselves and to participate in major college decisions that directly affect us. During the discourse of the SGA meetings, it became clear that if students had been presented with the (still unavailable) information that the senior administrators saw, they would have agreed that the event needed to be altered, if not cancelled. That this information is still unavailable and that students were in no way consulted before a cancellation decision was made are two clear shortcomings of the administration’s handling of the situation.

In the second SGA meeting, students at large were still miffed by the Dean’s conspicuously absent apology, and that no students were consulted at any point during the process. Process is the operative word here, as student leaders were given the result of the administration’s decision to cancel and told to start thinking of alternatives. During the second meeting, it took a student asking the Dean directly if she believed she could have handled the situation differently for her to finally make the admission that students should have been consulted.

The budget for the spring event set to occur in place of Fishbowl is exorbitantly large.

To the College’s credit, they seem to have realized the size and scope of what they have taken away from the senior class, and from subsequent senior classes. The symbolic power and unifying nature of Fishbowl was exemplified in the alumni response to the cancelation. In addition to various personal emails I received regarding my own efforts to unify the student body and address the administration in a civil manner, one anonymous alumnus in particular acquired the email addresses of a large number of students and sent them a relatively inflammatory email inciting students to fight back against the Dean and the administration. Whether the administration’s decision to allocate a surprisingly large budget to the new event is a result of this alumni outcry or a response to student concerns is not clear, but the reality is that the budget for the new event is significantly larger than any Fishbowl could ever have been. Though an exact number is not known, an anonymous source informed me that previous Fishbowl budgets were around $3,000-$4,000, and that the budget for this new event will be well above $10,000.

The administration delivered their decision to cancel Fishbowl immediately prior to finals period.

Perhaps most importantly through all of this is the administration’s decision to deliver the Fishbowl decision mere days before the beginning of finals period fall semester. The soft sell for the administrators to the students was that students are being given enough time to come up with and refine a “new tradition” before the late-April Fishbowl date. The hard sell was that the decision was delivered immediately before finals period and before winter break, at a time when students were likely occupied with papers, exams and break plans. Now that we’re back for second semester, the administration has effectively washed its hands of the Fishbowl controversy, and the senior class council is quietly and surely building one of the most legendary events the College will have ever seen.

In conclusion, it is an interesting exercise to use Fishbowlgate as a foil for the current Conn student. We are engaged in our college community, and highly protective of traditions we call our own. We are rational, intelligent and we demand our fair stake in the decisions that govern this College. We are hard-working, and committed, but only to an extent: the evaporation of the Fishbowl issue from the collective conscience is a testament to the tact of the administration, the importance that we place on academics during finals period and the ephemeral nature of any non-academic college issue across semesters. Fishbowl showed us that we care! We really do, but not for more than a week or two at a time.

Moving forwards, I would hope for some kind of assurance from the administration or from SGA that students will, without a shadow of a doubt, be involved in any and all decisions directly involving student life. Shared governance is a big part of why a lot of us decided Conn over the Trinitys, Hamiltons and Wesleyans of the world, and why we’ve been mostly happy to preach the Conn gospel to prospective students as well.

Macro concerns for the future include the fact that no preventative measures have been enacted to ensure transparency and adequate maintenance of shared governance in similar situations moving forward.

On the micro level, we never really solved the issue of Fishbowl itself. It cannot exist in its 2012 form, but could it have been altered and its integrity maintained? Will there be underground, non-sanctioned Fishbowls? Will people come to the new event, and if so will they get naked? I suppose this one is up to the senior class, but I can hardly imagine a senior semester at Connecticut College without some majestic unified nudity. Also, will the student body get behind the new tradition, formed mostly by the senior class council? Why are no seniors trying to attend the meetings to plan this new event? This is yet another reminder of our conspicuous collective apathy, and solving this problem requires better publicity of class council meeting times and places, and more student-at-large involvement. Class council meetings are open to all members of the class, the same way SGA meetings are open to all students.

Though I have left many questions unanswered, I hope that some loose ends have been tied, and that we can rally behind our class council and its formation of a new, incredible event. The Class of 2013’s legacy depends on it, and if we are anything like who we say we are, late April should bring about some new buzzwords that won’t fade after a week, or two weeks, or two years. One thing Dean Denard got right through this fiasco is that this is an opportunity for us to make more perfect the institution we have called home for four years and to begin a new tradition. I hope you all will join me in welcoming this change, for us and for Conn classes in the future.