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Lesson for today: the riot act

Students at the University of New Hampshire in Durham might be up for a good poli sci course, in which the instructor might explain that the "right to party" is not in the Constitution. What taxpayers owe UNH students are the following: education, sports, extracurricular activities, guidance. When it and the rest of the land-grant colleges were created during Abe Lincoln's administration, there was no mention of that "right to party."

Yet a fair number of those students insist they have such a right, which might be OK if the pursuit of said right over the years did not turn into what some people call incidents, what others call disturbances, and what most certainly on occasion are riots. In a state that seems to pride itself on law-and-order values and getting the most out of a buck, student behavior often is lawless, disorderly, and costly.

The latest such incident, as of this writing, took place early in the morning of Oct. 17, after the Red Sox lost the playoffs to the Yankees. As usual, the children gathered in downtown Durham, where weekend arrests for drunken behavior are fairly common and where previous riots occurred, including one on April 12, when cops arrested 87 people, 53 of whom were students "celebrating" UNH's hockey loss to the University of Minnesota. The April riot prompted intelligent students to organize a national summit to discuss rioting, but this was not the first angst-produced session. There were meetings in 1997 on the same subject. This columnist counts at least eight major disturbances over the last seven years, and that doesn't include smaller skirmishes.

Mark Rubinstein, vice president for student and academic services, recounts, "Students say to me, `Hey, it's just fun; no one's getting hurt, so leave us alone.' The reality is there are potential dangers. A handful in any crowd throwing bottles and rocks or shooting fireworks could damage, injure, or even kill somebody. Rather than dispersing when police ask them to, they wait for the pepper spray and then stampede. Someone could be trampled or killed. And then everyone will look at each other, and they'll say, `Gee, everyone was just having fun.' "

The products of campus meetings -- introspection, concluding, for example, that booze and sports events are often triggers, and the provision of alternatives to trashing downtown Durham -- are all well and good. How about punishment? Deprive the troublemakers of money, as in stiff fines, and liberty, as in jail sabbaticals, and they and their families might get the message, as will the wannabes. The troublemakers are mostly middle class. Unlike tough urban gang members who might see jail time as an opportunity to hang with old friends, bulk up with weights, play a little basketball, get three meals a day, and return home with the warped, perverse badge of honor of having served time, college kids generally are not up for the slammer.

How many rioters have been suspended over the years? Nobody really knows. How many have paid heavy fines or done any serious jail time? Rubinstein says someone is researching that. Should law enforcement officials choose to impose tough fines and jail sentences, he says, "I think they would find that the university supports that action."

Did students misread the remarks of the UNH president, Ann Weaver Hart, when, in greeting the freshman class on Sept. 2, 2002, she said, "As you can see, there is no danger that you will be bored during your time at UNH"? What she was talking about, of course, was not boozing up, lighting cars on fire, and throwing hard objects at cops, but, rather, the discovery of both knowledge and one's self in and out of the classroom, that is to say, the purpose of education.

There's more to UNH than booze, parties, and riots. The place is getting a bad rap. As Hart noted Sept. 16 in her University Day address, "This is a university that is brimming with smart, talented, committed people who share the same aspirations: to educate our students to their highest potential of achievement; to push the boundaries of knowledge and understanding; and to extend what we teach and learn here for a better future for both the citizens of New Hampshire and the people of the world."

One of those many talented, committed faculty members, Andrew Merton, an English department professor, journalist, and self-described "diehard UNH hockey fan" since his student days in the 1960s, says, "a significant minority" of student fans "has used the team's success or lack of success as an excuse to riot. It is my hope that the team will be able to win a national championship without the risk of a bunch of idiots, calling themselves fans, tearing apart the town of Durham."

Alan Lupo can be reached at

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