Campus community weighs in on re-evaluation of tradition

Pledges of Beta Theta Pi guard the chapel as members of the Sphinx Club attempt to break through their ranks on September 21, 2o23 in front of Pioneer Chapel. | Photo by Elijah Greene ’25

Students gathered on the Mall in front of the Chapel once again this year to participate in the time-honored tradition of Chapel Sing; however, things did not go according to plan. During this year’s Chapel Sing, Beta Theta Pi pledges locked arms to guard the Chapel while Sphinx Club members rush them, as they do every year. But this year, that tradition went awry, ending with the injury and subsequent hospitalization of a freshman Beta pledge. While the student in question is making a healthy recovery, questions still remain regarding campus safety and both the Sphinx Club’s and school administration’s role in regulating campus traditions.

“We’ve talked in recent years with Sphinx Club members, and students in general, about wanting to stay out of their business, but there’s a couple of times when we need to get involved,” said Greg Redding ’88, Dean of Students.  “Those are if someone gets hurt, if an activity seems to suggest that someone might get hurt, if there’s property damage or damage to Wabash itself. If we can avoid those things, then we’re going to stay out of student business and let them regulate their own lives.” 

As an all-male institution, especially one so dominated by fraternity life, the administration acknowledges that Wabash student life can often get physical. 

“Dean Welch, I and others on our team recognize that horseplay is one way that guys show affection for each other,” said Dean Redding. “Clowning around and knocking each other around a little bit is actually an expression of affection for guys much of the time.” 

“At what point are we holding on to traditions so tightly that we forget about what it means to be a community and a brotherhood?”

Kim Johnson

In the past, Chapel Sing had straddled the line of student physicality and safety to an extent that the majority of the administration was comfortable with.

“This tradition has been tolerated for now, because it stayed at the right level. We understood that it was kind of an expression of bonding,” said Dean Redding. “I think it probably started with good intent but somehow escalated beyond that in this particular case. I think that the rapid escalation is what made it difficult this time. Suddenly it was beyond a level where you could step in and say, ‘Hey, guys, let’s bring it down a few notches.’” 

Though this incident is an example of a consequence of Chapel Sing that has been widely scrutinized this year, historically Chapel Sing has never been the picture-perfect event that many consider it to be.

“It’s not the first time that I have seen guys brought to the ground.  It’s not the first time that I have seen behavior that gives me pause at Chapel Sing; whether that’s blowing smoke in guys’ faces or pushing and shoving,” said Kim Johnson, Honorary Sphinx Club Member and Director of Communications. “I know that it was worse 10 years before I got here and it’s gotten better in some ways but, in many ways, I’ve also seen it become worse in terms of pushing and shoving.”

Evan Neukam ’25 helps keep Beta Theta Pi pledges hydrated as they guard the Chapel | Photo by Elijah Greene ’25

The tradition began as usual, with Sphinx Club members playfully bouncing off of Beta pledges; however, it quickly escalated into something more. 

“It started as just a little bit of a push for show, but then I saw the Sphinx Club members  line up and so I started heading in that direction,” said Johnson. “I saw four or five Sphinx Club members and then as I saw the last person line up, I was thinking ‘Okay, he’s going to hold them back. He’s not going to let it happen.’ And then they took off and just went right into the middle. 

I just kept thinking, ‘somebody let go, somebody let go, somebody let go’ and finally the young man went to the ground. I knew that he was on the ground. I knew that he didn’t appear to be moving.” 

Others posit that this year’s Chapel incident was a one-off and not indicative of any safety risks regarding Chapel Sing tradition.

“What happened at the Chapel that day was just an unfortunate combination of accidental factors, and things got out of hand too quickly,” said Matt Lepper, a Sphinx Club member directly involved in the accident. “It unfortunately resulted in the accident that we saw on display. From my perspective, what went down was too much physicality than that in previous years.” 

“In this scenario, emotions ran too high, which led to a severely disappointing accident, which is by no means the intended purpose of the prized tradition that is Chapel Sing,” said Cooper Jacks, Sphinx Club President. 

 Both the administration and the Sphinx Club members have stressed that the outcome was unintentional and was not the result of ill will between fraternity members or specific students.

  “The incident that occurred is absolutely not the outcome we had intended. Traditionally, Sphinx Club members jump into the Beta freshmen to test their ability to guard the Chapel,” said Jacks. “To my understanding of the tradition, there is never meant to be any harmful or malicious intent. It is supposed to play out in the Sphinx Club members bouncing off the Beta freshmen, showing that they guarded the Chapel sufficiently.” 

  “After talking with the members of the Sphinx Club, there was never any malice or ill will in what they did,” said Cody Bevelhimer, Sphinx Club Vice President. “That’s not to say that they are off the hook. The members involved in the incident have since had sit down conversations with the administration and the Beta freshman involved in the incident, and things are being handled internally.” 

“In this scenario, emotions ran too high, which led to a severely disappointing accident, which is by no means the intended purpose of the prized tradition that is Chapel Sing.”

Cooper Jacks ’24

While it’s clear that there was no malicious intent behind the actions, the outcome still reflects poorly both on the Sphinx Club and the College as a whole.

“I was so incredibly disappointed with what I saw,” said Johnson. “I kept thinking: if I had stepped in between would it have happened? And could I have done something differently? For me there was no greater honor than being asked to be an honorary member of the Sphinx Club nearly eight years ago. That was a really big deal, but now I’m not sure that I want to keep my pot. Because if this is what it means to be a member of  the Sphinx Club, I don’t want to be a part of it.”

While attempts to reign in the chaos of Chapel Sing had been made during this year’s Homecoming buildup, they weren’t enough to prevent the injury that took place.

“We had conversations on the Wednesday prior with Sphinx Club leadership and with the current Beta Sphinx Club members as a group,” said Dean Redding. “I thought we were all on the same page that this needed to be at the right level of intensity.”

Despite attempts to communicate expectations regarding Chapel Sing, some standards were lost in translation and the messaging didn’t make it to every member of the Sphinx Club.

 “There needs to be a clear outline regarding what is expected and what is unacceptable for that kind of thing,” said Lepper. “Personally, I would like to see Club members just be out of it and just have Betas guarding the Chapel. There are ways we can preserve the tradition and not squander Beta’s legacy, while also eliminating any chance of some sort of physicality.” 

The notion of Wabash students and the school administration working together to shift the traditions of Chapel Sing is in and of itself deeply rooted in Wabash, as Chapel Sing has looked very different at times through Wabash’s history.

“I think we throw around the term tradition pretty loosely,” said Dean Welch. “It says in our mission statement to think ‘critically.’ So yes, we have these traditions that we want to honor but we need to think critically about what they stand for. Should they continue? How do we continue them? How do we evolve tradition in 2023?” 

Peter Leithauser ’24 attempts to throw off a Chapel Sing participant as he sings the Fight Song | Photo by Elijah Greene ’25

While Wabash traditions are malleable, the evolution of the traditions surrounding Chapel Sing is contentious among faculty and within the Sphinx Club.

“When I attend Big Bash, it’s neat to see alumni from the 1940s to 2020s join in song—many with a different Chapel Sing experience and perhaps some without one at all. At the end of the day, we’re united by Wabash and song, that’s what’s important,” said Welch. “I would like the Club to take a more positive perspective and approach to Chapel Sing and other Wabash traditions, all while ensuring the safety of everyone.” 

“Changes are needed but I don’t think we need to get rid of the tradition. The minute we start getting rid of traditions, we get rid of Wabash,” said Lepper. “It’s all built on tradition and the minute we start to squander that, we have to ask ‘What is our purpose as a college? What separates us from any other institution at that point, if we don’t have our best traditions?’”

“Moving forward, I think it is appropriate for the tradition of Sphinx Club guys jumping into the Beta freshmen to come to an end,” said Jacks. “I think it’s had its time and ran its course. I would love to work with Beta to see ways in which we can agree on how to evolve the tradition, as I don’t think it’s fair to Beta to outright squash a tradition without their input.” 

Communication between the Sphinx Club and Beta has been strong following Chapel Sing with ongoing conversations about how the tradition will be treated in the future.

“I spoke to the individual who was injured personally. We’re both there to support each other because we’re both going through it in different ways. What happened with the individual was physically and mentally taxing,” said Lepper. “I expressed to the individual my want to support him in any way possible and he was very receptive. I haven’t been sleeping. This has been eating me up all week. It’s all I’ve been thinking about.” 

The incident has sparked questions about whose role it is to regulate traditional campus events and their safety.

  “It’s very easy to think that the Club is at fault here entirely and completely, but we were not the only party at fault. I think the blame falls equally amongst the three parties,” said Lepper. “The club facilitated it, the students participated in it and the faculty watched and let it happen.” 

While the incident has sparked a conversation on campus, questions remain about how to use this experience to analyze our traditions and prevent further injury. Members of the Sphinx Club and members of the administration have met to discuss what went wrong and have pledged to discuss further in an attempt to learn for the future.

  “I’ve had very supportive and encouraging conversations with Dean Redding,” said Lepper. “Now, I cannot say the same for other faculty. I won’t drop any names, but I have not been treated or reached out to in nearly the same regard or with the same respect.” 

“Sooner rather than later, the Club leadership will deliver to us various protocols or ways to change or evolve Chapel Sing to ensure the safety of all students,” said Welch. “I don’t want to wait until next September to say: ‘Let’s talk about what happened last year.’ We won’t forget, but over time you lose the details.” 

“There needs to be a clear outline regarding what is expected and what is unacceptable for that kind of thing.”

Matthew Lepper ’25

The goal illustrated by the Sphinx Club and the administration is one of cooperation where they work together to learn from what happened and implement productive changes for years to come.

“We’re all in it together because it’s a Wabash issue and I’m glad it’s coming into conversation,” said Lepper. “The conversation has to be together because the administration has the power, but students have all the say. If you try to run with one or the other, we’re not going to reach the accomplished goal.” 

The nature of being a student leader on campus and one that will soon graduate means that it will be difficult to ensure change is implemented after their tenure.

“Sadly, there isn’t a whole lot that Cooper [Jacks] and I can do to impact the future of Chapel Sing. Not only is our tenure coming to an end soon, but the next Chapel Sing will occur when we aren’t students here anymore,” said Bevelhimer. “Our goals are to inform and influence our junior members to make educated and informed decisions about the future of these events. With our time left as executives of the Sphinx Club, we will be using that fine-toothed comb to look over other things within our jurisdiction.” 

  “I am currently working on writing a critical analysis of everything that went well with Chapel Sing, as well as everything that didn’t go so well,” said Jacks. “This critical analysis will go directly to my successor when I hand off the torch, and it will be up to him to carry out my critiques how he deems fit.” 

While conversations have been had and will continue to take place, ultimately tangible rules put in place would have a more direct and long lasting effect.

  “I think there have been conversations before, but that’s all they are until something happens. It’s hard to be the one who says, ‘Look, do we have to go this far?’ but until somebody says, ‘don’t’, they’re still going to do it,” said Johnson. “Everybody is not going to make these traditions different until somebody stands up and says ‘something has to change’.

  I’d like to think that we are an intelligent enough place that we’re always open to changing anything that we see is putting people at risk for any sort of injury or abuse. At what point are we holding on to traditions so tightly that we forget about what it means to be a community and a brotherhood?” 

 In the aftermath of such a consequential event, campus unity seems strong. There’s a prevailing attitude that we should be learning from the experience in order to implement substantial changes in the future.

  “I would expect the Sphinx Club to be a beacon of hope in the time being,” said Lepper. “We represent this college, and we want to do everything we can to support this community because that’s why we’re in the Club in the first place. It’s because we love this place. We want to keep it going for years. Expect some positivity and good changes.” 

“Anyone can be the voice that makes a change,” said Johnson. “If you speak up, I will support you and I will do whatever I can because I believe that you can be that person. And I believe any one of us can be that person. It’s not going to be easy, but I think that if someone does think something needs to change, then I’m ready to help. Whoever wants to step up and say ‘I want to be that person. I want to help them leave things better than they found it.’”

Pledges of Beta Theta Pi stand with locked arms on the steps of Pioneer Chapel | Photo by Elijah Greene ’25