What's up with the nude youngsters in Bennington?
BENNINGTON, Vermont (Reuters) -- Students occasionally parading buck naked around Vermont's Bennington College campus has been a tolerated, if peculiar, part of the university's student culture here since the 1960s.
Now Robert Graves, hired this year as Bennington's dean of students, has embarked on a crusade against public nudity -- one that has run afoul of the school's free-spirited students.
Students have long enjoyed an informal policy allowing them to go naked on campus. Whether it was as a topless sunbather lounging on the lawn or students running naked at an annual bonfire party, college officials turned a blind eye.
But when a student strolled around campus naked this summer during an orientation session when parents were visiting campus, the new dean reprimanded him.
More than 200 students, a few of them naked, marched across campus in October to protest against what they saw as a crackdown by the administration on freedom of expression. While the impending onset of the New England winter has put a temporary pause to the dispute, students are preparing for a springtime assault.
Lindsey Gage, a Bennington senior leading the fight to preserve what she concedes is an unwritten policy, said she has grown accustomed to public nudity since enrolling here.
"It is never lewd but a natural sight," she said.
American liberal arts colleges do not get much more liberal than Bennington. Nestled in Vermont's Green Mountains, the school has a nontraditional approach to education in which students draw up their own curricula.
"Bennington does not expect students to conform, but to transform," the college's Web site proclaims.
A little respect?
But Graves has drawn the line at being naked.
"Bennington College is not a clothing-optional campus and we don't live in a clothing-optional society," Graves told Reuters, adding he realized he had "ruffled some feathers" by going after unclothed campus denizens.
"There is not a nudity policy and we don't condone this behavior. We are a public campus," he said. "There has to be a level of respect here."
Respect has nothing to do with it, countered sophomore Allison Zoll. As someone who has taken part in events with the college's nude activities club, which hosts clothing-optional picnics and outdoor games, Zoll was adamant that there was nothing wrong with going bare.
"It's not hurting anyone," she said.
Bennington students are not alone in their undress. Streaking -- that is, running naked -- has long been a staple of American campus life.
Recently, students at Hamilton College in New York turned the pastime into a sport by forming a varsity streaking team and traveling to rival schools to cavort in the buff.
The Hamilton team streaked a dozen colleges in the Northeast earlier this fall and posted results on its Web site.
Despite being banned from Wellesley College, an all-women's school near Boston, and escorted off the grounds of Connecticut College, team members declared the tour a "massive success."
Back across the border in Vermont, there's nothing competitive about nudity at Bennington. Students are too busy trying to preserve what they think is a right, and that suits some local residents just fine.
"Oh to be in college again," sniffed Stuart Hurd, Bennington's town manager. "More power to them. We are too uptight about public nudity in this country."