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Risque race is too risky, Tufts decides

College head calls an end to traditional Naked Quad Run

By Peter Schworm and Jenna Duncan
Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent / March 15, 2011

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For decades, bright leaders of tomorrow at Tufts University have found respite from their high-minded pursuits in the noblest of college traditions: streaking around the quad in a madcap dash through a cold December night.

But to the chagrin of nudist revelers everywhere, college administrators have called a stop to the alcohol-fueled antics, saying the annual student celebration has gone too far.

In a sharply worded column published in yesterday’s Tufts Daily, university president Lawrence Bacow said the Naked Quad Run has become an increasingly unruly and dangerous event that puts students’ lives at risk.

“Given that we can no longer manage the run, we cannot allow this ‘tradition’ to continue,’’ Bacow wrote in the student newspaper. “Even if I did not act now, NQR would end some day. The only question is whether a student has to die first. We cannot allow this to happen.’’

But students expressed disappointment at the loss of a cherished tradition they said created many classic college moments, a burst of semester’s end bonding before the final exam crunch.

“There are not that many shared experiences for students,’’ said senior Ben Gittleson, who reported Bacow’s decision for the student newspaper. “This is one of them, and a quirky one at that.’’

Gittleson and other students said most participants, though certainly not all, are sober, and annoyed that inebriated students had ruined the fun.

But Bacow said “alcohol fuels’’ the run, and many students need to drink “to fortify themselves to shed their inhibitions and run in subfreezing conditions.’’

This December, the college said, was a particular nightmare. A dozen students were hospitalized after the event, two with blood alcohol levels over 0.3 percent, more than three times the legal limit for adult drivers (most undergraduates are below the legal drinking age). Drunk students who went to a local hospital to check on a friend disrupted the emergency room, Bacow said, and another student was arrested in a confrontation with police.

Over the years, the combination of heavy drinking and running has led to broken bones and a host of other injuries.

“Clearly this past December we once again only narrowly avoided a tragedy,’’ Bacow wrote.

As president, Bacow has frequently spoken out against the culture of binge drinking on college campuses, and he meets personally with students treated for alcohol-related problems. As far back as 2002, Bacow frowned on the Naked Quad Run, chiding students for drunken escapades that left the campus littered with broken bottles.

“The combination of consumption of alcohol with a mad dash through an icy, hilly campus at night cannot continue,’’ he wrote students at the time. “I also heard reports of students being groped while running, and other examples of poor and disrespectful behavior. Tufts is better than this.’’

Bacow had wanted to end the event at the time, but students and alumni persuaded him otherwise. Instead, the college wound up sanctioning the run in an effort to make it safer, erecting barriers between spectators and runners, salting and sanding the course, and providing police details.

Participants were urged to wear shoes for better traction, and the student government provided food so that participants wouldn’t drink on an empty stomach.

By lending the run its support, however, the school brought a fringe event to the mainstream, drawing upwards of 1,000 spectators in recent years and gaining a measure of national fame.

“Ironically, their management of the event only made it more popular,’’ Gittleson said. “It wasn’t just crazy students running around the quad anymore.’’

A university spokeswoman, Kim Thurler, said the widespread troubles caused by the most recent quad run convinced administrators the event could not be justified.

“We tried to make it safer,’’ she said, “but finally concluded it just wasn’t possible.’’

The tradition started in the 1970s, as a protest by men who opposed coed housing. Sometime in the 1980s, women joined in. In recent years, residents of Medford and Somerville have also participated.

Ben Ross, a sophomore from Connecticut, said the tradition is too special to surrender: a thrilling whirl of liberation, whether one drinks or not.

“It’s definitely a release,’’ he said.

Kaitlin Zack, a senior who described the event as “mass chaos,’’ said that relatively sober students can negotiate the run without difficulty. It’s the drunk runners who struggle, often careening into each other, she said.

Students are sad to see the run go, she said, but generally understand the administration’s decision.

“I think it’s a really fun tradition and can be great, but I do understand,’’ Zack said.

Still, students have griped about the decision on Facebook, and are already discussing plans for a secretive streak next time around. A protest, of sorts, just the way it started.

“It means a lot to a lot of people,’’ said senior John Atsalis. “A few bad apples, so to speak, ruined it for the rest.’’

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.