May 6, 2004

Slope Day: Cornell Tradition Evolves

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Students usually spend only four years at Cornell and often do not recognize the changes and transformations behind Slope Day, one of the campus’ most popular traditions. Since 1902, the annual celebration has evolved through Spring Day and Spring Fest to reach its current version known as Slope Day.

The first celebration marking the end of the academic year came in the form of Spring Day in 1902. The primary intention was not to entertain students, but to raise funds for the Athletic Association. According to R.E. Bishop’s ’09 account of Spring Day, the revenue was necessary to compensate for the year’s ticket sales which had failed to cover boat house and club house repairs.

The actual activities of Spring Day also hold little resemblance to the current version of Slope Day. The early celebrations included tug-of-war games, marbles, whistles and toy balloons. The faculty’s view of Spring Day may, however, still resonate with current opinions. A member of the Cornell “faculty hinted that the chief purpose of the occasion was to furnish the students with another holiday,” Bishop wrote.

Over the years, Spring Day expanded to include mock bull fights, parades, clowns and circus tents. There is “evidence that [Spring Day] continued on into the 1950s,” said Tim Marchell ’82, director of alcohol policy initiatives.

During the following decade after the end of Spring Day, it is unclear whether there were any annual celebrations.

“There is no acknowledgement [of any celebration] in the yearbook during the 1960s … [if there was], it didn’t seem to be getting mentioned,” said Catherine Holmes M.S. ’85, associate dean of students for student activities.

The atmosphere and tension during that decade serves as a possible explanation for the lack of an organized celebration. According to Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, there were no classes held on the last day of school in 1969 and 1970 because of the political climate.

“When I graduated in ’73, there was no such thing as Slope Day,” she said.

The next incarnation of Slope Day, known as SpringFest, reappeared in the late 1970s.

“Cornell Dining chose to hold a barbeque on the slope on the last day of classes in thanks to the community for putting up with some renovations [in Willard Straight Hall],” Murphy said.

She noted that the origins of Spring Day and SpringFest are unrelated; both simply happened to celebrate the final day of classes.

Murphy described SpringFest as a “mellow afternoon on the slope with some entertainment,” where the University served alcohol to students.

At the time, SpringFest was held later in the day, and not associated with students skipping classes.

Advertisements that appeared in The Sun in 1979 depicted SpringFest as a weekend event. SpringFest, which lasted from Thursday until Sunday, included a concert, square dance, art show, carnival, cinema showings and a bagel eating contest. The exact time and reason for the transition of the name SpringFest to Slope Day is not clear. According to Holmes, the two have “always seemed to be interchangeable.”

More changes regarding Slope Day came about in 1985 when the legal drinking age changed from 18 to 21. With the prior age of 18, nearly all college students had been able to legally consume alcohol. Furthermore, the “attitudes about alcohol use were different then,” with less focus on risk and liability, Holmes noted. After the drinking age changed, the University stopped serving alcohol but “students decided that something would happen and they showed up [with their own alcohol],” Holmes said.

It is likely that drinking early in the day and skipping classes became popular at this point.

“I think [skipping classes] corresponded with the early 1990s when it became an informal student gathering,” Marchell said. However, these changes posed new problems.

“In the years that followed … a number of students were treated for alcohol related emergencies [usually pertaining to hard alcohol],” Marchell added.

In response to the accidents and emergencies, the University attempted to stop Slope Day in the early 1990s. As an alternative, a University-organized event was offered on North Campus, where Court and Mews Hall are now located.

According to Murphy, the event was generally ignored and students decided to “[take] back the slope.”

In an attempt to limit activity on the Slope, the University decided to stop inviting bands and musical performances in the mid 90s. Yet, “even in the absence of the formal event with a concert, students essentially started their own gathering,” Marchell said. With students always returning to the Slope, the administration recognized the need for an “evolutionary process to migrate Slope Day towards an end of the year healthy celebration,” Murphy said.

According to Marchell, aspects from earlier versions of Slope Day were gradually reintroduced, such as a concert and the sale of alcohol.

Continual attempts to improve Slope Day have since been made.

In 1999, SlopeFest was “initiated by students as an alcohol free alternative,” Holmes said. This year SlopeFest will offer karaoke, carnival games, cotton candy and a dunk tank. The intention is to “manage an event that is appropriate for our community … [and not to have] the same free for all atmosphere of the ’90s. For years, it was just students kind of showing up and drinking,” Holmes added.

Aside from the fence and increased security, tomorrow’s Slope Day will be “very similar to the original model [of the early 1980s]” with a concert, barbeque and service of alcohol, Marchell said. Although Slope Day has gone through many changes and versions since 1902, the need for a celebration remains constant. “The University recognizes the value of having a celebration in which the whole student body can gather at the end of the year to relax … our goal is to have an event that both provides an opportunity for celebrating and ensures everyone’s safety,” Marchell said.

Archived article by Diana Lo
Sun Senior Editor