Task force recommends ending VEISHEA, creating new series of events

Iowa State University President Leath to decide in August

Ames city workers remove two light poles from the street that were knocked over early Wednesday morning of VEISHEA week, April 9, 2014 in Campustown after a large crowd filled the area. Beer cans and trash littered Welch Avenue once the people had left. (Courtesy photo)
Ames city workers remove two light poles from the street that were knocked over early Wednesday morning of VEISHEA week, April 9, 2014 in Campustown after a large crowd filled the area. Beer cans and trash littered Welch Avenue once the people had left. (Courtesy photo)

If Iowa State takes the advice of a task force charged with studying and recommending a way forward for its historic but troubled VEISHEA celebration, the annual springtime event will be canceled and possibly replaced by a series of smaller events held at a different time of year bearing a new name.

“Simply proposing to do more of the same will not satisfy a community beleaguered by the disturbances,” according to the task force’s final report, which Iowa State University President Steven Leath made public after receiving it Friday.

VEISHEA, which began in 1922 as a way to celebrate the university and its connections to the community, has been plagued since the 1980s by riots, violence, and other types of disturbances.

Since 1985, in fact, VEISHEA has incited some type of violence or crowd-involved disruptive behavior in at least 12 years — including this year, when thousands of revelers took to the streets on April 8, threatening police, toppling light poles, and critically injuring one student.

After many of the prior incidents, ISU leaders made changes to deter future VEISHEA-associated disruptions, including implementing keg ordinances, revising the Student Code of Conduct, moving VEISHEA programs away from Campustown, temporarily canceling the event, renaming it for one year, and changing its shape and structure.

Those efforts have failed to cause lasting change, and the task force said continued efforts to resolve the issues and keep the event clean have taken a toll on the university and community.

“Each year, the cost of trying to meet this challenge has increased in terms of operating expenses, staff overtime, and other university and community resources,” according to the report.

That’s why the task force is advising Leath discontinue the event and replace it with a new universitywide event or series of events that build community, serve the public, and display the university’s achievements.

“Any future universitywide event would need to look significantly different from VEISHEA to reduce the potential of the same problems from occurring,” according to the report.

Changing the name is important, the task force said, because VEISHEA has become synonymous with riots and binge drinking. Craig Anderson, an Iowa State psychology professor who served on a task force charged with reviewing VEISHEA in 2004 and who presented to this year’s group, said anything named VEISHEA “is going to bring about the notion of a riot.”

“The name is a risk factor,” he said.

The task force cited local and national television coverage. VEISHEA in 2013 received more than $59,000 worth of TV coverage viewed by 1.4 million people, all of which was local and about half of which was negative. This year, VEISHEA received nearly $8 million worth of TV coverage seen by 52 million viewers — $6.8 million of which was national and almost all of which was negative.

“It is impossible to calculate any lasting impact this negative coverage may have on Iowa State University,” according to the report. “However, it is fair to say these stories certainly have not bolstered the university’s brand.”

Changing the celebration from one weeklong event to a series of smaller events — and moving them from the spring — carries the best chance at success, according to the task force.

“A major springtime event at Iowa State, even if significantly retooled and identified by a different name, may still carry with it the baggage of unofficial VEISHEA,” according to the report.

Anderson said breaking up the celebration into smaller events could keep large crowds from gathering. And he inferred, according to the report, that “no matter how much thoughtful effort is invested in redesigning the event — and no matter how well those changes are communicated — if it is held in the spring, this decision will translate to: ‘All you did was change the name.’”

The new events should follow a series of “guiding principles,” according to the task force, including enhancing Iowa State’s reputation; engaging students, faculty and staff; emphasizing diversity; and providing student leadership opportunities.

The task force recommended discouraging events that promote a party atmosphere; ensuring activities are manageable in size; and avoiding alignment with party weekends or celebration holidays. It also suggested creating a class for students that addresses things like the Student Code of Conduct, sexual assault, bystander intervention, alcohol policies, and crowd control.

To further discourage disturbances, the group advised possibly increasing penalties in the Student Code of Conduct or at the city level and adding Campustown security measures, like better lighting and cameras.

Moving forward, the task force encouraged Leath to create a planning committee to conceptualize a “future event that would not take on the shape of VEISHEA.”

Many of the past VEISHEA disturbances share similarities — none were connected to a specific issue, all involved alcohol use and abuse, and all occurred in weather conditions better than the weeks leading up to the event.

But this year’s incident differed from its predecessors in that it occurred on a Tuesday instead of on a weekend, and it happened before out-of-town guests typically arrive — meaning it primarily involved students.

The other difference this year was the prevalence of social media, according to the report.

“Social media certainly contributed to the rapid assembly of crowds in a central area,” according to the report. “The immediacy of social media messages delivered via Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Vine, and the ubiquity of cellphones, is an incredibly powerful combination.”

The report listed several social media accounts dedicated to the unofficial aspects of VEISHEA, like @VEISHEAParties, @VEISHEA_Problems, and @Cyclonewasted.

“The social media activity most certainly drew attention to the events unfolding in Campustown,” the report said. “Students who were curious about what was happening could instantly identify locations on social media and join the crowds.”

President Leath, in a news release, said he’ll review the recommendations and decide how to proceed by early August.

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