University of Virginia officials will soon decide the fate of Easters, the raucous spring weekend here that Playboy magazine once called "the best party in America."
In a memo to university Vice President Earnest E. Ern, 11 university administrators said the two-day festival of beer, bands, and fraternity parties, which has attracted up to 25,000 students, alumni and outsiders in years past, has created a "public relations problem with the city; and health, safety and legal consequences" for the university.
"It's a time bomb waiting to go off," said Robert T. Canevari, dean of students and one of the authors of the memo.
The memo also calls for dropping the school's two other annual bashes, Openings and Midwinters. It has been endorsed by the university faculty, the City Council and the police chief.
The action by the administrators follows a trend among colleges and universities all over the country, including the University of Georgia, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Dartmouth University. These institutions have become concerned about alcohol abuse and safety hazards that the huge parties promote.
Since Nov. 4, when the U-Va. memo was sent, reactions by the 16,000 students here to the possible death of the university's 60-year-old tradition has been widespread and vehement.
Editorials in the student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily, have offered compromise solutions, as have the Intra-Fraternity Council and a coalition of student-run groups. In a Student Council poll, 82 percent of more than 1,200 students said they were against the proposal, and in just two days, the IFC collected 3,000 student signatures on petitions against the action.
And in a well-publicized protest, The Purple Shadows, a secret society of students, broke into Canevari's office and left a purple-inked message that said, in part, that the society "regrets deeply that you . . . chose not to consult with student leaders in making such an important proposal concerning student life."
Ending Virginia's three biggest social weekends would, opponents of the ban argue, alter the character of the university, where students have traditionally smiled inwardly about their school's high academic standards and bragged outwardly that Albemarle County had the highest liquor consumption of any county in the country.
In the past, U-Va. seemed to foster the image of the Gentleman Prankster, the urbane hell-raiser who was as much at home wearing a tuxedo as he was drinking Purple Passion Punch mixed in a toilet bowl. Weekdays were for lofty ideals like the student-run honor system. Weekends were for trashing Philadelphia's Warwick Hotel after U-Va.'s football Cavaliers beat the University of Pennsylvania in the forties.
And Easters, Midwinters and Openings were the biggest of all the weekends at the all-male school, a time when dates were imported to Charlottesville and pints of Canadian whiskey were tucked into coat pockets. Dedicated to partying and committed to legend, the weekends even found their way into books like "Lie Down in Darkness" by William Styron.
"In the KA house at noon there was an air of intense gaiety . . . ," Styron wrote of a World War II party weekend. "Although it was too early to drink or dance, everybody casually did both, to the noise of horns and saxophones . . . there was something in the air which demanded noise and companionship."
"Those were the good old days of Easters," said David Mahone, president of the Cavalier Football Club. "In those days, the school was a lot smaller, 5,000 students instead of 16,000."
As years passed and the reputation of party weekends grew and spread like the student ranks, formal dances and roguish pranksterism gave way to sheer numbers. There were still parties in the frat houses, but now, thousands of uninvited outsiders began to gather in the streets, drinking booze and smoking marijuana and getting into fights.
Dances gave way to rock concerts, and Easters, the biggest of the big weekends, became to Virginia what Mardi Gras is to Louisiana. More and more outraged Charlottesville residents began complaining to university and city officials.
"We agree there has been a problem for some time," said IFC President David Trinkle, 21. "But to abolish Easters outright, without even trying to compromise, is crazy."
While Canevari said there was no one incident that precipitated the memo, several factors are seen as having contributed:
* The passage of the Virginia Torts Claim Act, which took effect July 1. The law puts in question the university's privilege to ask courts for immunity from liability claims on the basis of being a state agency. Though the new law has yet to have been tested in the courts, Caneveri said that "part of the reason for the proposal was liability."
* Three drinking-related incidents since the school year began in which students have fallen off a balcony, out a window and off a roof. Also on the minds of university officials was the crash in early October of a rental van transporting students to a party at Randolph-Macon Woman's College. Two students were killed and 14 were injured in the accident.
* The June award, by a Charlottesville jury, of $125,000 to a former student who suffered a serious eye injury when he was hit by a partially filled beer can thrown during a December 1979 fraternity party. The defendants in the case were the fraternity and the student who threw the beer can.
* The complaints from residents who live in and around the fraternities, particularly on Rugby Road, the tree-lined street where fraternity houses are interspersed with private homes. "Last year we counted 161 people urinating on our lawn," said John Herring, a Rugby Road resident who is director of Newcomb Hall, the university's student union. "The people who live below us had $4,700 damage done to their place last year."
Charlottesville Police Chief John deK. Bowen said the major problem with Easters was the huge influx of people who flocked to the university from all over the East Coast for the party.
"They're not the guests of anyone. They just hang around and look for something to happen," Bowen said. "They spill into the streets, get into fights. It wouldn't take too much to trigger a kind of mob response, and we could be in for a high degree of property destruction and people getting hurt."
Charlottesville Mayor Frank Buck said, "I think the community attitude is that Easters has gotten to a size where it's unmanageable, beyond the control of the university and of the police. The only way to avoid disaster is to abolish it altogether."
But Student Council President Bob McCarthy, 20, said the university's big weekends, and particularly Easters, are "part of the unique balance here between academic and social life . . . . Four years from now, if Easters is banned students will graduate from a different school than the one we . . . graduated from."
Countered Dean Caneveri, "In the short range, people will be upset. But in the long range, people will be a heck of a lot better off for it."