“Rugby Road” revisited

Thanks to the horrific article in Rolling Stone detailing the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student at Phi Kappa Psi, I’ve been thinking a lot about my alma mater this week. As part of that, I’ve revisited a piece I wrote in 2011 about the song used as a framing device for the article, “From Rugby Road to Vinegar Hill.” I spent some more time thinking about the piece last night after my Virginia Glee Club Wiki article about the song was linked from the New York Times yesterday.

Late last week, the current president of the Virginia Glee Club announced that he had taken an executive action to ban the performance of the song during his presidency. Left unreported in the Cavalier Daily article was the fact that he had also called for a vote of the membership to consider a permanent ban on the song; the ban was instead reported as “temporary,” prompting a storm of comments accusing the president of disingenuity or worse.

I wrote a letter to the president of Club and to other Club alumni last night about the issue and my thoughts regarding the prospect of a permanent. On reflection, I’m opening up the letter to a broader audience. I welcome reasoned discussion in the comments or elsewhere.

I have long jokingly said that those who criticize “Rugby Road” for sexism miss the point, since the first stanza celebrates the sort of conflict between faculty and student that led to the murder of John A.G. Davis by a rioting student. But of course, Davis’s shooting in 1842 led to a very public examination of the issues of student behavior, lawlessness, and entitlement that led to the tragedy, and to major changes in the course of the University’s history. By contrast, the issues raised in the second stanza, to say nothing of the apocryphal subsequent stanzas, are just now being publicly examined by the entire University community. This may well be this generation’s equivalent of the John A. G. Davis moment.
My feelings as an alum? By the time I came along, “Rugby Road” was only performed after midnight at the Clubhouse – we knew it wasn’t made for daylight. While there is a case to be made for celebrating history and for songs of revelry, my personal belief is that times have changed and the time for this song has passed. I am usually one to argue for preserving tradition, but not now. I am glad you retired the song; as a Club alum and the brother of a Women’s Chorus alumna, I hope it stays retired.
That said, the thing that makes me most proud of you guys and that gives me most hope for the University is that fact that you acted as a student leader, and not on the orders of an administrator or faculty advisor, to retire the song. The culture of self governance that grew from the tragedy in 1842 can still act in positive ways. Indeed, it is the only possible force for long term changes to student behavior. Thanks for showing that it still works.
The whole University is struggling to understand how the events alleged at Phi Kappa Psi, and especially the lukewarm response of the administration, could have happened at Mr. Jefferson’s University. In the process of our self-reflection, I think many of us, myself included, are becoming aware of aspects of the culture long taken for granted that contribute to a culture that protects attackers and blunts justice. I think it’s important to support the University, and particularly its current student population, as they work with best intentions to address those aspects of the culture, and not to tear them down.

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