Harvard is ending a traditional goat roast. Here’s why.

“The goat roast is dead. Long live the goat roast!”

Pedestrians cross the Harvard University campus during the change of classes
–Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe, File

An annual goat roast at Harvard University is dead. Sort of.

After about 30 years of slaughtering a goat and then skinning it with “paleolithic tools” in the main Dunster House residence hall courtyard, the hall’s faculty deans recently emailed students to say that the tradition will carry on in some fashion, just without the actual goat roast itself, according to the email obtained by Boston.com. The email went out Friday, The Harvard Crimson reported.

“Last year, when Cheryl and I saw our first goat roast, we were struck by the people who were very uncomfortable with the ritual practice of slaughtering, transporting, and then publicly skinning a goat in our courtyard,” the email from faculty deans Sean Kelly and Cheryl Chen said. “But we also saw that there were at least some who enjoyed it enormously.”


The tradition isn’t new — in fact, it’s been going on since the mid-1980s, the deans wrote. While the two were prepared to carry on with the tradition this year, a meeting with a health inspector from the university’s Department of Environmental Health and Safety was the final straw. Notably, the inspector said the activity “could introduce disease of various kinds into our community,” they wrote, adding that no one has gotten sick “that we know of in the last decades.”

The inspector’s “big concern” was that the goat was being roasted by “rank amateurs engaged in this practice without any real, knowledgeable oversight,” as the deans put it in their email. New equipment would have needed to be purchased to lessen the risk of disease, though the chances of it wouldn’t have been completely eliminated, they said.

“If you just grabbed a goat from someone’s farm that was sick and carrying an illness that’s transmissible to humans, some of those might be leptospirosis, cryptosporidium, Q fever,” Valerie Nelson, Harvard’s associate director of environmental public health, told the Crimson.

To substitute for the ritualistic roasting, the deans invited the students of the residence hall to help come up with “a new and better goat roast festival,” according to the email. One suggestion was a petting zoo, another a Tom Brady theme — the Patriots’ quarterback is sometimes referred to as the “G.O.A.T.,” or “Greatest Of All Time.”


“The goat roast is dead. Long live the goat roast!” the deans wrote in conclusion.

The genesis of the goat roast harkens back to “a primitive survival course” that Daniel Lieberman, a human and evolutionary biology professor, and formerly a resident tutor, taught, according to the Crimson. After the slaying followed by the courtyard skinning, house staff and students would use a marinade consisting of lime, salt, pepper, garlic, herbs, and curry.

“It had an educational purpose, which is to teach students how our ancestors survived for millions of years,” he told the Crimson.