Deans’ Council Decides to Preserve Ban on Burning of the “A” Despite Student Efforts for Reinstatement

The burning of the “A,” an Andover tradition since the 1940s, will not be resurrected at the fall pep rally next week, despite the efforts of Student Council Secretary Yoni Gruskin ’07. Phillips Academy discontinued the burning of the “A” in 2001 due to safety concerns and feelings that the burning letter “A” was reminiscent of cross burnings in the South by the Ku Klux Klan. According to Dean of Studies Margarita Curtis, the issue was “discussed briefly” at a Deans’ Council meeting on Monday, October 31 and then decided without a vote. Associate Head of School Rebecca Sykes said, “We were really confirming a decision made previously about this issue.” The council reviewed a report by Dean of Students and Residential Life Marlys Edwards outlining the pros and cons of reviving the tradition and then reached a consensus to continue the existing policy. Ms. Edwards met with Gruskin on Monday afternoon and informed him of the decision. She reiterated that the decision by the Deans’ Council was final, a fact confirmed by Dr. Curtis. Gruskin circulated a petition to bring back the burning of the “A,” eventually collecting over 800 signatures. He also sold t-shirts, with the proceeds going to charity, in an effort to persuade the administration to reinstate the tradition. In an all-school vote conducted three weeks ago by the Student Council, the student body voted overwhelmingly in favor of restoring the burning of the “A.” However, the administration believes the problems that led to the cessation of this ritual have not been adequately resolved. In past years, new students were roused from their dorms after sign-in by prefects and blue key heads and led to the Pine Knoll, where Seniors brought a fake Exeter Student out of the Sanctuary. A huge wooden letter “A” was then ignited. According to a student from the class of 2003, the burning of the “A” was a “spirit-building experience [that] set the tone for the intensity of the Andover-Exeter rivalry.” Gruskin said, “We’re not encouraging anything that contains the least bit of bigotry or hate or racism. To say we’re doing that is to misrepresent our intentions. The point of burning the ‘A’ is to encourage unity.” He continued, “PA has a rich tradition of diversity. During the Civil War, Andover was a center for abolitionists. There’s even a dorm named after Harriet Beecher Stowe, who is buried in the cemetery. To say we’re acting like Klansmen is ridiculous because Andover is a haven for acceptance, tolerance, and progressiveness.” Regarding the negative connotations of a flaming letter “A,” Dean of Faculty Temba Maqubela said, “I think there are better ways for the Andover community to build spirit. If even one student out of a thousand is negatively affected, if it conjures up negative imagery of something from the student’s background, it’s not worth it.” Ms. Sykes echoed this sentiment, saying, “If eight percent [of students] are uncomfortable, that’s enough of a majority not to do it. To me, the burning of the “A” is not essential because there are other ways the school can celebrate school spirit.” Gruskin proposed that the “A” be burned at the fall term pep rally rather than at orientation. This would make attendance optional and consequently any student uncomfortable with the practice would not be forced to participate. Gruskin said, “One main concern is that certain students would be uncomfortable. That was one downside to having it during orientation. Some new students didn’t know what was going on. They were pulled out of their dorms in the middle of the night and to these kids it was confusing and scary.” Ms. Sykes countered, “It’s not only by witnessing an event firsthand that you can be offended. If the act itself reminds people [of cross burnings], that’s enough.”