Iowa State president halts Veishea celebration after student hurt

Crowds gathered on Welch Avenue on Tuesday night, April 8, 2014, in the Campustown area of Ames, Iowa. A student was seriously injured after a rowdy crowd overturned cars and toppled light poles near the Iowa State University campus during the annual Veishea celebration.

After 92 years of celebration – and a growing number of destructive incidents, including one this April – at Iowa State University's Veishea festival is no more.

On Wednesday morning, ISU president Steven Leath announced in absolute terms the university’s plans to scrap the campus’ largest annual celebration, though leaving open the door for other traditions from the event to continue.

“Veishea is ended,” he said, “and the name Veishea is retired.”

Citing student safety as the main cause for his decision, Leath said he never “wanted to call a student’s parents in the middle of the night to say the student has been critically injured,” as happened on April 8.

A student was injured when a light pole, pulled down by an unruly mob, fell on him. The festival was suspended immediately following the incident.

“I’m not going to put students at risk so we can observe what, for many, has become a week-long party,” he said.

Leath’s announcement disappointed countless current and former students who took part in the annual festivities, though many said they understood the rationale.

“It’s sad the tradition is ending,” said Evan Summy, a 2011 ISU graduate. “It’s something my parents had when they were in college, and there’s a tremendous amount of history.”

VEISHEA was founded in 1922 as a celebration of the university’s five colleges at the time: veterinary, engineering, industrial science, home economics and agriculture. Over the years, it grew to become the nation’s largest event run fully by students, and it brought big names to perform in Ames.

With that came major leadership and fundraising opportunities for students.

However, those were overshadowed by several riots broke out that caused injuries and property damage in 1988 and again in 1992.

In 1997, an eastern Iowa man was stabbed and killed outside of a fraternity house by two Veishea visitors. After an ultimatum that would only allow Veishea to carry on as a dry event was issued by university leaders, it remained alcohol-free for four years despite student protests.

“We’ve seen events surrounding Veishea that amount to a week-long, alcohol-fueled party,” Leath said. “The true purpose of the true university celebration has been overshadowed by this culture.”

Additional riots in 2004 canceled the event in 2005. More than 200 people were arrested at this year’s event.

“It’s a difficult topic for a lot of us,” Leath said. “Veishea this year was not what we hoped or expected it would be.”

By the end of Veishea’s run, many students said they stayed away from the crowded bars on Welch Avenue where the outbursts generally happened. Instead, they preferred smaller house parties near the campus.

Others, including Mike Harrington, a former ISU student now living in Omaha, remained inside as underclassmen. As a freshman in 2009, he said he stayed in his fraternity house when police downtown deployed tear gas on a small group of unruly people. He said that year's event was considered a “nonviolent” Veishea.

“It’s disappointing, but I get it,” he said. “No one was complaining about the parties; it was a couple bad apples.

“Most people causing the problems were adults; they need to start acting like it.”

And without Veishea, Summy and others expressed concern about the loss of student leadership and involvement opportunities.

From the parade to the blood drive to the tent village, he said the event offered ways for college students to learn life skills that would benefit them long after they left Ames.

“It’s going to take away a lot of opportunity, organizational skills, ways to get involved in college,” he said. “Every club has something going on at Veishea.”

However, some believe Veishea will live on in Ames in another form – possibly under a different name, a suggestion made by the university task force formed in response to this year’s riots and referenced in Leath’s announcement.

“My guess is that they bring it back down the road,” Harrington said. “I know there’s support from alumni. It’s not all just kids who want to party.”

Leath echoed those sentiments, pointing out the school’s unsuccessful attempts to end Veishea violence.

Past suspensions, cancellations and barring alcohol-toned down past issues, but he said to “have problems, have task forces and expect the same result is the definition of insanity.”

“We still want to showcase the wonderful things we do here in our college,” he said. “But we’re going to take a very thoughtful approach to this as we decide how to move forward.”

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