Campus / Featured / Flunk Day / News / Special Topics / May 15, 2013

Playing ring around the mud pit

Students and administration have found themselves in a head-to-head argument regarding the status of the mud pit, one of Knox College’s oldest traditions.

Campus Safety officers stand by the Conger-Neal halls as students play in the mudpit on Flunk Day, May 1. (Jason Deschamps/TKS)

Campus Safety officers stand by the Conger-Neal halls as students play in the mudpit on Flunk Day, May 1. (Jason Deschamps/TKS)

Though the mud pit is collectively dug and enjoyed by Knox students on Flunk Day, the college has neither officially condoned nor condemned the tradition, putting “people involved in a difficult situation on all sides,” Director of Campus Safety John Schlaf said. The reason for this, according to Schlaf, is liability.

The dilemma came to a peak on April 30 when students found the mud pit in front of Conger-Neal covered in sand and mulch by Campus Safety.

Word of the mud pit circulated  on campus and the Internet. Students came out that evening, shovels in hand, to “Occupy the Mud Pit,” in reference to the 2011 protests Occupy Wall Street.

“It turned into a spectacle,” junior Tom Courtright said. He was vocal in the initial building and “occupation” of the mud pit. “Everybody passing just wanted to know what was going on.”

When Campus Safety arrived and attempted to take down ID numbers in an effort to fine students, Courtright and other outraged students wrote down 128 names and ID numbers themselves. There was also an online petition.

“There were people not even on campus showing support for this Mud Pit. We were trying to prove to them that there was full student support behind this,” Courtright said. “Frankly, the administration were the greatest assets to us on that last day, because by [messing] with the mud pit like that É that got everybody pissed off. We got nearly 400 people on a Facebook Group saying ‘Save the Mud Pit.’”

The mulch and sand was an approach by Campus Safety to quell the building of the Mud Pit, and many students were angered by the attempt.

“Even if we hadn’t fixed it, students would have run around and tried to make it a mud pit,” sophomore Stephen Ford said. He spent weeks prior building the mud pit. “If it were handled in a more logical and tactful way, I wouldn’t have been as upset by it and felt the need to do everything I could to make the mud pit happen.”

This is not the first year that the mud pit has been an issue.

“It seems like it’s always this cat and mouse game with the mud pit where students go and dig it and [the administration] does everything it can to stop it,” Ford said. He and Courtright have been speaking with various school officials about the Mud Pit and its role on campus.

“Most of the people we talked to didn’t have strong rules about the mud pit. They just seemed to be following people that were higher up…No one was actually against the mud pit.”

For Schlaf, the general issue with the mud pit is liability.

“It has to do with the damage to college property, and that affects a lot of people-from grounds to facilities. Our goal is to try to maintain order,” Schlaf said. “We don’t see ourselves in a position to necessarily be against what the students want. We just want it done in such a way that it doesn’t violate the law and it’s done safely….It’s a role that seeks to resolve and we feel that for all practical purposes, [filling the mud pit] was necessary that night.”

Schlaf noted that the college has not officially institutionalized the mud pit because if the college took a supportive stance, it would appear that the mud pit was being sanctioned, which would welcome “insurance liability issues,” Schlaf said.

“That, I believe, is what discouraged either positive or negative things to be officially done by the college. The unfortunate aspect of the mud pit as currently designed is that any effort that’s done is unofficial, and if it’s unofficial, it involves altering property,” Schlaf said.

Because the school has neither officially sanctioned nor denounced the Mud Pit, there has been a level of misunderstanding on campus.

“I think there’s a lack of empathy on both sides. We need to understand that there’s legitimate safety concerns, and they need to understand that there is something inherent about it that is a student tradition, and that’s the real dialogue we need and it’s totally doable. That’s what we found out this year,” Courtright said.

“We just need to keep the conversation going. I feel that it’s really too big of a dichotomy here and there needs to be a middle ground,” Ford said.

Schlaf discussed the idea of a “roundtable discussion” and welcomes student perspective.

“Anything that can be done to enhance the student safety and improve the overall experience and letting what students consider to be a long tradition remain…would undoubtedly be part of that discussion. Personally, I look forward to it,” he said.

The evening of April 30, Schlaf ultimately sent the Campus Safety officers home and allowed students to continue digging the mulch and sand out of the mud pit.

“I was impressed…the students were determined to be heard but were respectful and they got their points across. The proposals they made up to sit around the table and discuss it further made a great deal of sense. I see a good thing coming from this. When people feel strongly about something, I have to respect their interpretation and it’s especially rewarding to see the way our students dealt with that,” Schlaf said.

According to Ford, who has done extensive research about the mud pit, it has been a tradition for years.

“They used to have little makeshift mud pits all around, and I believe they’d use bales of hay and put plastic over it,” Ford said. “I think it was in 1985 that [the Union Board schedule] said 10:30-noon mud pit, South Gizmo lawn. It was definitely sanctioned, and there’d be mud wrestling.”

Ford noted the importance of the mud pit as a student-run tradition.

“A lot of the traditions here like Pumphandle and ringing of the Old Main bell are put on by the college by a whole, but students switch out every four years, so if something disappears for a year or two, it’s likely that it won’t stay a tradition,” he said. “The mud pit has been a part of Flunk Day before it was even Flunk Day, when it was like Rough Neck Week and Hobo Day when everybody got super dirty and stuff, and there’s a tradition of Flunk Day being mud and filth…I [felt] like I [had] to do this. It’s a tradition. We were basically accepting that we were going to get fined.”

Though the initial encounter between the administration and students may have seemed antagonistic, both parties expressed positivity and hopefulness.

“The mud pit brings out really good traits in students. It makes them fight for something and do something that they feel is for Knox and for campus….It’s hard to tell students not to have a mud pit when you see how much they care. You’ve got to be a little impressed,” Ford said.

Schlaf also expressed positivity on behalf of the administration and emphasized the prosperity that has come from the mud pit.

“Sometimes what’s important is to not just accept what’s been said…and for our students that’s a life lesson,” Schlaf said. “We see it as just a mud pit, but it’s sort of a lesson for life. It’s something bigger than that. It’s a good exercise that we can all partake in, and I hope something good can come from it.”


Kate Mishkin
Kate Mishkin is a senior majoring in English literature and minoring in journalism. She started working for TKS as a freshman and subsequently served as managing editor, co-news editor and co-mosaic editor. Kate is the recipient of four awards from the Illinois College Press Association for news and feature stories and one award from the Associated Collegiate Press. She won the Theodore Hazen Kimble Prize in 2015 and 2014 and the Ida M. Tarbell Prize in Investigate Journalism in 2014. She has interned at FILTER Magazine, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and WGIL radio and the Virginian-Pilot.

Twitter: @KateMishkin

Tags:  Campus Safety flunk day John Schlaf mud pit mulch occupy the mud pit sand stephen ford Tom Courtright

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