As applications roll in and the annual WesFest ceremonies approach, Residential Life, with President Michael Roth's consent and the Admissions Office's encouragement, is threatening to cut funding for Zonker Harris Day unless the festival is renamed. The annual celebration references a perpetually-stoned character in Gary Trudeau's “Doonesbury” comic strip, inspiring University participants to emulate Zonker Harris's drug habits.
Also, according to WestCo's presidents, ResLife indicated that even if funds were raised independently in order to maintain the name “Zonker Harris Day,” the administrative committee in charge of approving any on-campus event would outright block the festival, which is set to happen during WesFest weekend.
Director of ResLife Fran Koerting said that she was directed by the Admissions Department to address the issue.
“There was a concern from Admissions about Zonker Harris Day because we have so many freshmen coming in and they said if it's going to be called Zonker Harris Day it cannot be held during WesFest,” Koerting said. “There's no value added to the program by calling it ’Zonker Harris.' If anything, it perpetuates the whole hippie-druggie stereotype that WestCo is trying to get away from.”
There are no serious alternative names being considered currently, although “The WestCo Music and Arts Festival” has been mentioned as a possible title, Koerting said. If WestCo leaders refuse to change the name, ResLife administrators have promised to pull the festival's $1000 annual guidance budget, ban Resident Advisors from contributing money to it and take Zonker Harris Day off the official WesFest calendar, said Donovan Larthen ’11, one of five WestCo presidents.
Holding the event in the face of such obstacles would involve a concerted fundraising effort, Larthen explained.
“Ballpark, it would cost a minimum of $2,000,” he said. “What that means is if we keep the name ’Zonker Harris Day,' we would be heavily relying on the SBC and fundraising.”
Even if WestCo raises enough money to hold the event, a ResLife e-mail sent to the WestCo presidents on Wednesday promised that the Student Activities and Leadership Development Board (SALD), which must approve any on-campus event, would block the festival regardless.
“In summary, the email said that if we keep the name ’Zonker Harris Day,' SALD would not approve our event, meaning it could not be held at all,” said WestCo President Sarah Leitson ’11.
The presidents have not yet arrived at a decision on whether to change the name. Some are not pleased, however. WestCo President Ezra Nachman ’11 thinks that the administration has caved to the will of prospective parents.
“I think parents of prefrosh have called up and said that they don't like to go to a place where there's drug use on 4/20 and Zonker Harris Day,” Nachman said. “I think the administration is trying to whitewash WesFest for the hoity-toity Upper East Side parents.”
In general, Koerting said, Admissions actually is planning a new direction for WesFest.
“Admissions has said that they have decided that if WesFest is on 4/20 they'll move it to a different week,” she said. “After two consecutive years of hazy smoke on Foss Hill, it gives the impression that anything goes on here. On any other day, though, you can't just smoke pot on the hill.”
Dean of Admissions Nancy Meislahn and Senior Associate Dean of Admissions Greg Pyke did not comment on the matter. The 4/20 festivities, which are on a Sunday this year, do not coincide with WesFest and therefore no decision was necessary on whether to move the weekend activities to a different date. WesFest's periodic overlap with the annual pot holiday has never been intentional, said Admissions Program and Events Coordinator Stephanie Pruitt.
“It really has to do with the calendar,” Pruitt said. “The letters go out April 1 and so we have a limited amount of time to choose from before the May 1 acceptance deadline.”
Koerting says that the effort to change the image of Zonker Harris Day is part of a larger emphasis on renovating the image of WestCo itself, an issue that ResLife has been discussing with WestCo residents for the last few semesters. There has been discussion of downsizing the dorm in order to free up space for sophomores looking for non-WestCo housing on Foss Hill.
“There's a problem with the stereotype of WestCo“the hippie-druggie stereotype that goes back for years,” Koerting said. “The number of continuing students that have applied to live in WestCo has been declining over the last couple of years. Last year we didn't have enough to fill the spots for continuing students. What is it that WestCo could do to maximize their potential?”
Ben Seretan ’10, a former WestCo president, agrees that there is an unfortunate stigma when it comes to relations between WestCo and the outside student body. He stressed, however, that the declining resident numbers may have to do with last year's closure of the WestCo Café, an important communal gathering area. Overall, however, Seretan thinks that ResLife has mixed two separate issues.
“It's two different problems,” he said. “The number of applicants has to do with WestCo as a desirable living space while Zonker Harris Day has to do with people wanting to go to Wesleyan because of a festival.”
The administration, however, including Roth, who has made a point of criticizing the “Keep Wes Weird” culture-for-culture's sake ethic, does not seem to be budging.
“Zonker Harris day should not be on the calendar next year, and it won't be,” Roth said. “The institution should make it clear that it's not supporting things that are stupid.”
In the face of the administrative coalition against the festival's title, the Wesleyan Student Assembly has taken up the issue. Mike Pernick ’10, chair of the WSA Student Affairs Committee, thinks that the fundamental point of WestCo as a student community has been undermined.
“I think, in this situation, ResLife handled it very inappropriately,” he said. “The problem with this is that for years WestCo has had a self-governing system. As long as they don't violate the University's policies or the law, WestCo can self-govern. That has been brought into question this year and that is troubling.”
Ultimately, though Pernick sees a problematic chipping away at student culture, he is not beholden to anything too conspiratorial.
“I don't think there is an evil master plan to take everything Wesleyan out of Wesleyan,” he said. “I do think a lot of decisions that have been made undermine student traditions and the students' best interest, however.”