When did the torchlight ceremony begin?
The Torchlight tradition was started by Frank M. Williams, Class of 1895 and president of the Alumni Corporation, and Bernard P. Taylor, Class of 1924 and secretary of the college on June 6, 1930. It was inspired by similar traditions at several northeastern colleges and has been a part of nearly every Colgate commencement to the present day.
What is most valued about torchlight?
The Colgate community values many things about torchlight. This is the moment when graduating seniors leave Colgate, carrying the light of knowledge out into the world. Second, torchlight is one of the few times that the entire class gathers together, meant to be a moment for unity; traveling down the hill is a shared experience. It is a celebration of everything a student has accomplished — a social, reflective, and culminating experience. Lastly, the symbolic element of fire as enlightenment is the essence of torchlight; the Colgate seal includes the torch of knowledge. The shared experience of torchlight also connects graduating students with alumni, and symbolizes their entry into the alumni community.
How has the ceremony changed over the years?
Although Colgate students and alumni often view torchlight as a timeless ceremony, the tradition has evolved considerably. For example, in 1974 the procession proceeded around Taylor Lake and was a more silent and solemn affair. Additionally, in each of the past several years, a variety of modifications have included a shortened route, safer torches, and increased security. It is a dynamic ceremony that has been continually refined to make it safer and memorable for graduates and their families.
Why have there been more conversations about Torchlight recently, and what has transpired?
Last year, the president’s staff was asked by a group of faculty and staff to find ways to modify the Torchlight ceremony given concerns related to physical safety and negative sentiments that the event can evoke for some students and families. A small ad hoc committee of students, faculty, staff, and alumni developed and shared recommendations to improve the ceremony. This past fall, the Konosioni senior honor society held an open meeting to discuss the tradition and its symbolism. All these conversations have led to thoughtful considerations about the meaning of the tradition and its place in Colgate’s past and present.
What are the specific concerns?
Although there is much that members of the community value about Torchlight, several concerns have been raised. First are matters of physical safety. There are obvious dangers in carrying fire: hair and clothes are flammable, and when groups stop to pose for photographs it can create dangerous bottlenecks. Finally, while academic gowns represent the ancient pursuit of knowledge and scholarship for some, for others, the sight of people wearing robes and carrying torches holds negative historical connotations; some students and families have therefore chosen not to participate in the ceremony.
What impact does this decision have on the torchlight tradition beyond May 2016?
None. The extended examination of this tradition and its meanings has been important for the community. People with differing, strongly held views have been in conversation with each other; difficult discussions are one of the hallmarks of a liberal arts community. This process has revealed that there are no simple answers that can address all concerns. We are trying a new approach to torchlight this year with the hope that this form of the ceremony can preserve what is valuable and offer a more inclusive experience to participants. What we do moving forward will largely depend on how torchlight functions next year and how next year’s Colgate seniors feel.