As Commencement Weekend approaches for the Class of 2018, the current status of the Torchlight tradition has been questioned and debated by members of the extensive Colgate community. At the current moment, a decision has not been made on the exact form this ceremony will take in May.
Recognizing the opportunity to facilitate an open, transparent exchange of opinions and ideas as conversations on the topic persist, the Editorial Staff of The Colgate Maroon-News hosted an informational discussion featuring President Brian Casey on Monday, February 12, in Love Auditorium. Although the event was geared specifically toward graduating seniors, the discussion was open to all members of the community. Approximately 50 students attended.
As mentioned by discussion co-hosts and Maroon-News Editors-in-Chief seniors Jackie Dowling and Megan Leo in their opening statements, the focus of the discussion included the role of Artist-in-Residence Barnaby Evans and the involvement of alumni and students in discussions about the status of the Torchlight tradition. The hope in planning and executing this event was to provide a model for future respectful dialogue and to communicate the opportunity for the community to design a Commencement Weekend that feels meaningful, inclusive and representative for students and the community at large.
The conversation began on the topic of Artist-in-Residence Barnaby Evans. Casey shared his motivation to appoint Evans to that position for the 2017-2018 academic year, and what role he envisioned for Evans as Colgate felt the aftermath of the Charlottesville protests that occurred in August 2017. His decision to bring in a scholarly, outside voice was aided by the disjointed form in which debate about the status of Torchlight took for the Class of 2017.
Casey described witnessing verbal attacks he now describes as “vitriolic” in the spring of 2017, when concerns and opinions surrounding Torchlight came to the fore. Although those discussions were especially impassioned, it is important to note that this concern was raised several years ago.
“As a president of a university, I was watching this debate unfold, and it was unfolding in ways that I thought were remarkably destructive… there were ad hominem attacks, there were personal attacks,” Casey said. “You could see a campus screaming at each other and a class really tearing itself apart. I remember going through that and I had in the back of my mind, ‘How do we have this conversation not like that?’ And then of course the events [of Charlottesville] happened.”
Turning to his own memories of the Charlottesville protests, Casey quickly recognized, after witnessing violent protests erupt on a college campus, the need for the Colgate community to separate itself from dialogues grounded in hatred and to repair the divisiveness with an opportunity to gain perspective. For Casey, Evans would aid in this effort.
In 2001, Casey served as assistant provost at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island for four years. During that time, he became aware of Evans’ work WaterFire, which exemplified how art and symbolism can unite a community in conflict.
“I knew [Evans] from my time in Providence – not very well – so I called him and said, ‘Colgate’s in a bad place. I’ve watched this community rip itself apart, yelling at each other, not acting like a university. Can you help us think through this situation? Can you do at Colgate what you did at Providence, which is use ritual to connect us?’” Casey recalled.
Accepting Casey’s invitation, Evans has since explored the origins and intentions of Colgate’s many traditions, hoping to provide the community with a historical foundation in which to ground these conversations. Casey, however, did address reservations he had about bringing an outside artist to campus, mentioning race and the contemporary stigma accompanying experts.
“I was worried about it; I remain worried about it, but I think the answer is, ‘Well then, let’s bring more voices in,’” Casey said. He then suggested inviting more outside artists with varying perspectives to aid the community in its discussion of ceremony and tradition.
Dowling then turned the discussion to the torch specifically. Many who have historically placed the symbol of the torch in the context of higher education understand the torch to represent knowledge and teaching. Evans, in his informational compilation found on the Colgate News website, grounds the “Torch of Knowledge” within Renaissance and Enlightenment history and gives the example of the Jefferson Library of Congress as a national monument that adorns such a symbol. Within Colgate’s history, Evans points to the university’s seal, created in 1846, in which the torch suggests active engagement with light that is “passed from one person to another.” When asked about this symbolism and its place in Colgate’s history, Casey communicated the complexity of the narrative, a complexity he had never before seen in his 25 years in higher education.
“What struck me about last year and this year is whenever an institution gets stuck in a binary, it’s either this or that, and this must win at the expense of that, on either side. Whenever you see these zero-sum conversations emerge, you have to say to yourself, first, is that binary true? And second, is there a way to free the institution of this binary that will only rip it apart? How can I allow students to be freed from the choice that was handed to them, which is you can only choose between tradition and social justice and should you choose one you are overtly rejecting the other. Is there a way you can say both things at the same time? I do think there are ways to do that,” he said.
The echo of dialogue focused on Colgate’s traditions has naturally reverberated beyond the hill, reaching Colgate’s robust body of alumni. When asked what the Torchlight ceremony means to alumni and how they have gone about expressing their opinions, Casey gave background on both the Alumni Council and the Torchlight Working Group. The Alumni Council, formed nearly a century ago, is a democratically elected body that operates independently of the university and represents Colgate’s 33,000 living alumni. Following the appointment of Artist-in-Residence Barnaby Evans, the Alumni Council formed the Alumni Council Torchlight Working Group, made up of seven members of the Alumni Council, to act both as an avenue for alumni to express their opinions to the university and for the on-campus community to relay progress and updates to alumni.
Having received thousands of responses from alumni, the Alumni Council Torchlight Working Group plans to read through every response and include the alumni voices in the conversation. According to Casey, the Working Group has expressed excitement and curiosity about proposed changes to the Torchlight ceremony that will allow the tradition to adapt and persevere.
Casey explained the significance the Torchlight tradition has for alumni, who replicate the ceremony every year at Alumni Reunion Weekend.
“When the Torchlight conversation emerged on campus, the alumni said, ‘Wait a minute; that’s one of the most important rituals of my life. This affects me.’ The [alumni] look at this as deeply connected, not only to their memories, but to their rituals,” Casey said.
In an attempt to bridge the gap between students and alumni, Casey challenged current students to see the similarities between themselves and alumni in order to unify rather than divide the discussion among generational lines.
“It’s so easy to think of alumni as these retro-grade forces of non-change. They’re you. They’re you in 100 days,” Casey said, speaking to the senior class, which will soon join Colgate’s expansive alumni network.
Approximately 20 minutes into the forum, Casey reached under his chair to pull out a tote bag, which held items he referred to as “props.” Walking toward the audience, Casey revealed an approximately 15-inch tall metal torch, modeled after the Colgate seal as well as a cord braiding Colgate’s maroon and silver colors, culminating in a 12-color tassel representing the LGBTQ flag as well as other colors to represent the diversity of students. Casey then explained the idea behind these prototypes, stressing that they serve as examples of potential solutions.
“I contacted someone who works in metal and said, if the way to connect us is to connect the ceremony back to its local roots, could we create a torch based on the university’s seal?” Casey said.
Passing the model to audience members, Casey mentioned the idea posed by the Alumni Council to gift the torch to students. With the possibility of personalizing it with your class year or other meaningful engravings, the torch could be a tangible memory students take from graduation and bring back to their respective reunions. The degree of flame could be collectively decided, suggesting the idea that, treating this year as a transition year, perhaps a candle-sized flame would be more appropriate.
Pointing to the cord designed by textile designer and President of Rhode Island School of Design Rosanne Somerson, Casey explained wanting to create something that says, “I care about justice, I care about something else. I understand that, through diversity, we make Colgate.” He explained the multicolored tassel as not just a rainbow flag, but as colors that unite to form the maroon and white.
“I want to free you guys up of a binary which I think is really stressing your class out. I don’t want you guys to tear each other apart. It’s your Commencement. I don’t want you to do that. Last year there were students so stressed out, they were near tears in the Quad, not knowing what to do. I just want to free you from that, because it’s such an important day,” Casey said.
Casey spent the final minutes of the conversation sharing some of the many ideas that have been presented to him by students, including the idea of passing the torch, an action that would integrate professors, community members and students’ role models into the ceremony. Additionally, the prospect of forming a student working group, modeled on the working group formed by the Alumni Council, was raised. The Colgate Maroon-News will report on how/if this group materializes in the coming weeks.
Casey reiterated his belief that the future of this ceremony has the potential to be dignified and solemn, yet celebratory at the same time. However, he fully acknowledged and respected the emotional nature of this conversation.
“In all seriousness, I’ve been at institutions that have rituals that are incredibly, incredibly uplifting. I was very proud of lighting Willow Path [this winter], and that proved that this place is hungry for more gestures of light and connection, of beauty and surprise and wit. I just want you guys to get there,” Casey said.
The Colgate Maroon-News sincerely thanks President Casey for his openness and dedication to this definitive time in Colgate’s history. As journalists, we look forward and remain committed to the opportunity to communicate updates and progress regarding Torchlight to the wider Colgate community.