Iowa State does not learn quickly

Monday, December 5, 2005

When I was an undergrad at Iowa State, the thing for any sane human being to do during VEISHEA was to get the heck out of dodge. It was almost like a hurricane warning - board up the windows, bring anything that could be flammable inside, lock the doors, load up your best girlfriend in the old Camaro and try to beat the bumper-to-bumper traffic as you matriculate pedal-to-the-metal back home until it all blows over.

I remember VEISHEA when they finally had to drag venerable old coach Johnny Orr out of bed about 2 a.m. to plead with the drunken crowds to stop burning furniture in the street, quit climbing the light poles, and to shut up and go home.

Things only got uglier from there. There were riots in 1988, 1992, 1994, and a man was fatally stabbed during the 1997 celebration. The 2004 edition riot caused $250,000 in damage and led to 37 arrests after a mod clashed with police, which caused Iowa State to cancel VEISHEA for 2005.

This week comes the announcement that VEISHEA will be resumed for 2006 - and incredibly - that the alcohol policy will actually be relaxed from those in place for previous years.

In fact, there will be no ISU alcohol rules for VEISHEA at all - at least none that aren't in place every other weekend of the year. That includes open drinking in dorm rooms.

No doubt VEISHEA brings in a good deal of money and good will for the university, and long ago, it was a nice celebration full of visiting families, parades and showcases of academic achievement.

It has become something else, an afterhours magnet for barflies and thugs looking to make a reckless powderkeg of Campustown. Faceoffs with outmanned and nervous police are the norm. Rather than attracting positive interest for the university, the name now stands for images of stupid behavior and violence.

Iowa State officials are being foolish to rekindle it.

To be fair, Iowa State itself has little to do with the riots, which have generally started in the bar areas rather than on campus. And a whole lot of the troublemakers are not even students, but besotten losers flocking to the opportunity like moths to a light bulb. Whether the campus is "wet" or "dry," there will be prodigious drinking, and the opportunity for tragedy that comes with it. Next time someone dies, who is ISU going to blame?

Frankly, VEISHEA has probably outlived it usefulness. There are simply too many black marks upon it.

Did alumni miss it that much this year? Did it prevent families from seeing the lovely campus? Not in our case.

VEISHEA - many don't even know what it stands for, an awkward acronym for the various schools that used to make up the university circa 1920s. It has little focused purpose today.

This is not to say that Iowa State could not have a campus parade, a Little Sibs week, an alumni festival, campus tours, a family weekend or academic achievements public conference. Those kind of activities aren't likely to be interesting enough to attract a rioting element.

BVU hosts many events, and prevents trouble by providing concerts or other campus activities as alternatives to the bars. Where alcohol is allowed, areas are carefully controlled and policed to assure those under 21 are not served. Students appreciate their celebrations, and largely police themselves to make sure they don't get out of hand. And having such events on campus tends to keep the outside troublemakers away.

As a last resort, hold it in mid-winter. Even tough guys don't stand around in parking lots and drink when its 5 degrees out.

I'm not sure what kind of message ISU President Gregory Geoffroy is trying to send here. Perhaps that the university is not to be cowed by violence and alcohol abuse? Or that "dry" policies only cause trouble? Or that whatever ISU gains financially is more important than the image is stands to lose?

I hope VEISHEA '06 is a great experience, and that Geoffroy - who hasn't been there long enough to see too much of the legacy of trouble first hand - is right.

But four years of riot or bloodshed in the past 12 are not great odds to play around with.

The university has had a year to come up with something better, or to scrap a deeply-scarred event and find some more positive alternative. What we get is basically a symbolic throwing of the hands in the air.

I love Iowa State, but on VEISHEA weekend, my policy will be the same as it was way back when. Stay far away from Ames.

The State of Iowa doesn't have the death penalty.

But we have Veishea.

And now Iowa State University officials say the annual celebration ˜ which

has been plagued by binge-drinking-fueled riots and criminal behavior over

the last two decades ˜ will not only be reinstated for 2006, but continue in

a „wet‰ environment with no curtailment of the school's normal alcohol


Iowa State University president Gregory Geoffroy's reinstatement of Veishea

is one of the more reckless decisions ever made by a public official in this


And on Monday, when he formally announced his decision to allow drinking on

campus during Veishea, Geoffroy added some kick to the death march that is

Veishea, a celebration destined to result in student deaths and destroy the

school's reputation.

Geoffroy suspended Veishea 2005 following a Campustown riot in the early

morning hours of April 18, 2004. The disturbance south of the Iowa State

campus resulted in 37 arrests and $250,000 in damages and recovery costs to

public and private property.

There were riots in 1988, 1992 and 1994 as well. Additionally, a man was

fatally stabbed in Ames during the 1997 Veishea.

But the spring celebration, an acronym of the colleges that were part of ISU

when the festival started in 1922 (Veterinary, Engineering, Industrial

Science, Home Economics and Agriculture), has been resurrected for 2006.

„It's mainly because there is so much good to Veishea,‰ Geoffroy told the

Daily Times Herald in a recent interview. „There is so much value that comes

from Veishea for the institution and for our students.‰

To be sure there are two Veisheas.

There's the daytime one with moms pushing strollers and proud dads showing

off their patent-producing alma mater to sons at a parade.

But then there's the nocturnal Veishea.

As the sun recedes and families head home, the frat rats and dorm drunkards

˜ and their out-of-town visitors/victims ˜ wake from their Thursday/Friday

benders ready for a staggering display of hooliganism usually reserved for

seriously sauced soccer fanatics in Europe.

To say Veishea's Disney moments outweigh the violent acts is akin to a date

rapist claiming a victim's evening wasn't a total horror because, well, he

bought her a nice dinner before drugging and assaulting her.

I've seen a Veishea riot first hand.

It's worse than you think.

A decade ago, as a reporter for The Daily Tribune in Ames, I covered the

Franklin Avenue riot in which about 2,000 drunken revelers went wilding on

the west side of Ames, just blocks from campus.

They showered police with rocks and bottles, terrorized area residents,

damaged local businesses and ripped down a large fence on Lincoln Way with

ferocity one would expect from aggrieved parties in the Third World, not a

bunch of generally middle-class kids from Iowa.

In the early morning hours of that riot, I quickly interviewed then Ames

police chief Dennis Ballantine at the corner of Lincoln Way and Franklin.

There were bottles and rocks landing at our feet. He offered me a helmet.

When I reminded ISU president Geoffroy of that episode (which occurred

before his time as university chief) he cited recent fires at the University

of Northern Iowa and disruptions at the University of Wisconsin around

Halloween as if to say it is all just inevitable.

„These things just happen around university communities,‰ Geoffroy said.

„Our role is to try and create an environment that will make it less likely

that those kinds of occurrences will occur.‰

So if it's not problems with Veishea, will it be something else?

„I would hope not, but it has been at other places,‰ Geoffroy said.

Is Veishea so vital to the school that it's worth risking lives? And with

the festival's track record no reasonable person can maintain that there's

no risk of injuries to people or damage to property with Veishea.

„Nothing is ever worth the risk of life,‰ Geoffroy said. „Hopefully we'll

never have a situation like that again. You always have those kinds of risks

you take. We'll do everything we can to minimize the probability of


But for many of us who spent time on Franklin Avenue that weekend in 1994,

there's no doubt that Veishea is nothing but trouble.

Yes, a riot can conceivably happen any time in Ames ˜ just as families can

exchange Christmas gifts any day of the year.

They don't, though.

Certain days are for certain things.

Veishea has an ugly reputation, a self-fulfilling one that school officials

can't shake. The mere mention of Veishea clearly inspires a mob mentality.

Fortunately, at this point Veishea problems aren't seriously undermining the

reputation of an otherwise outstanding university.

But if the body bags pile up at a burning dorm, or tricked-out kids pull a

deadly stunt, or a group of visiting high school girls gets sexually

assaulted in a mosh pit of debauchery at an off-campus Veishea party, ISU

officials will look incomprehensibly naive for dreamily putting the future

of parades ahead of prudence.

have two children, my wife assures me so. Same genetics, same environment, same education, but day and night could only wish to be so different.

They are the living embodiment of the "left brain/right brain" theory, which says that the two different sides of the brain control two different "modes" of thinking. It also suggests that each of us prefers one mode over the other.

The left-brainers are said to be logical, rational and analytical. The right-brainers are intuitive, subjective and creative.

I suspect that personally, there is a third category for we special few. It was first defined for me by a junior high football coach who used to scream, "Where were you throwing that you idiot?? No-Brainer! No-Brainer!"

I still send him cards in the insane asylum at Christmas.

Miraculously, my offspring do seem to have brains. One would be a left brainer - he's systematic and does his math in his head and has about half the world's geography committed to memory. The other would be right-brain, she is drawn to music, art, writing. Her mind paints colors, it doesn't memorize.

The eldest child hit algebra this month, which is cue for the No-Brainer to officially retire from the homework assistance business. Good luck, Mom.

All this gets me thinking about the way we use our minds. The Very Important People Who We Think Ought to Know tell us that we only use a tiny fraction of the potential of our brains.

Makes sense. You may lean on left-brain or right, but you have the other side too, and you could be using it if you really wanted to dig in there, I suppose.

I'm fascinated by the idea of the savant - or a person that through some strange phenomena really connects with a particular function of the brain and finds superability there - usually in return for some disability elsewhere.

You may have seen a recent 60 minutes report on a child musical supergenius. It seems that such musical ability usually goes along with a particular form of blindness.

The movie "Rain Man" introduced us to the rare autistic savant condition, and "Good Will Hunting" explores a math genius who struggles to live up to his potential. So does "A Beautiful Mind."

I recently read a journal by Daniel Tammet, a 26-year-old honest-to-goodness savant with the same condition as in "Rain Man" - one of less than 50 known to be currently living.

He can instantly calculate a sum like 82 to the fourth power or recite for you pi out to 22,514 decimal places, skills that this No-Brainer cannot imagine. His friends will never play poker with him. And yet, he struggles desperately to ride a bicycle. For one part of the brain that is super-attuned, another just doesn't connect. There's no free lunch, it seems, even for a genius.

When asked to compute a sum, he doesn't "do" math, he tries to explain. Instead, he sees two shapes in his mind, fuzzy at first, then melting into a third shape that eventually becomes clear - the answer. "I just sort of see it," he says.

Despite his brilliance, he struggled in math as a child. It seemed all wrong, he said, sheets with little black numbers all the same size and color. In his mind, for example, nines are always big and blue, while sixes appear as small black holes. The number 89 "is a soft, falling movement in my mind's eye, like a drifting snow shower." The number 351 is thick and lumpy, like porridge. He speaks more languages than you may ever hear, and is creating one of his own. The word "Wednesday" is deep blue to him; to me it is just one that gets involuntarily sounded out in my head just as I learned it in kindergarten. "Wed-nessss-day."

Scientists theorize that a series of epileptic seizures as a child may have changed the way he thinks, connecting him to an inner landscape of the mind full of colors, shapes, motion and textures.

If so, it is a place we all have, and never touch.

The interesting thing is not that there are a few geniuses out there, but that each of us has the same brains, the same resources inside of us, which we never find and learn to draw upon - or perhaps our physical beings are not willing to make the seemingly necessary sacrificial trade-off to achieve it.

With all we have learned, the mind still seems to be a treasure chest of secrets we can barely fathom. The real last great frontier. Inside of each of us, is there the potential for a genius mathematician, linguist, writer, musician, artist, athlete?

And, if we think a little harder, try a little harder, exercise our brains, can we stimulate a certain area of our minds to become smarter at something, or to feel the world in a new way?

Why are we so simple, when we have the means to be so complex? It is a survival mechanism, or some cosmic need-to-know basis? Will our great-grandchildren learn to tap into areas of their minds that we can't even imagine exist?

And yet, perhaps the greatest element of the beautiful mystery that is our minds is this - we all use ours in a slightly different way. How boring would life be, otherwise?

We each think, feel, care and act in our own way, as utterly individual as snowflakes. We can all be endlessly tickled to explore the way another's mind works. That may be the true gift.

I wouldn't want my daughter or son to think any differently - or wish for them to be alike. I'm fascinated by their individuality.

But darn it, for the second time in my life, I wish my brain did algebra just a little bit better.