The Evolution of the Slope Day Tradition at Cornell
For most of the year, the steep hike from West Campus to Central is considered a nuisance on the way to class. Yet at the end of the school year, Libe Slope is transformed into the venue for Slope Day, Cornell’s beloved end of the year celebration.
Each year, the Slope Day Planning Board works hard to select the entertainers, whose identities are kept a closely guarded secret until about a month before the big day. For this reason, trying to guess the performers has become a favorite activity for many Cornellians waiting for classes to end.
The tradition traces its roots back to 1901, when it was known as Spring Day.
The celebration morphed to Spring Fest before coming to its current incarnation: Slope Day.
Unlike the festivities students have enjoyed in recent years, Spring Day hosted attractions like fire-eaters, snake-charmers, cowboys, Indians and sailors on the Arts Quad. Spring Day was known as one of Cornell’s first excuses to cancel class in the name of mass debauchery.
The original springtime carnival originated because of financial strains to the University Athletic Association. To save the Big Red’s sports teams, drama clubs and musical groups organized a benefit concert. The event struggled at the box office, but managed to inspire an impromptu parade to draw attention to the concert.
The performance was so well-attended that both the concert and the parade were repeated the following year, and the celebration before the show raised more money than the production. From then on, Spring Day became a campus-wide custom.
At the brink of the first World War, many Cornellians believed that they had celebrated their last Spring Day. However, after World War II, the celebration returned with the moniker “Spring Weekend.”
Due to protests and unrest that plagued the University in the early 1960s, the celebration was canceled in 1963.
The next incarnation of Slope Day, known as Springfest, appeared in the late 1970s.
More changes to Slope Day occurred in 1985 when the legal drinking age changed from 18 to 21.
After the drinking age changed, the University stopped serving alcohol at the event, though students showed up with their own.
“In the years that followed … a number of students were treated for alcohol related emergencies,” said Tim Marchell ’82, director of mental health initiatives at Cornell Health Services.
In response to the emergencies, the University attempted to end Slope Day in the early 1990s. As an alternative, a University-organized event was offered on North Campus.
Since 2003, Slope Day has maintained a new format that includes live entertainment.
For years, Slope Day was held on the last day of classes. But beginning in 2014, Slope Day was held the day after the last day of classes due to changes in the academic calendar.