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By Sean Pendergast
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Legend has it that in 1972 Rice students at Wiess College emptied all their alcohol into a tub and stirred it with an oar. The resulting punch was so potent it removed the varnish, says Wiess past president Ethan Schultz. The students brought their mattresses to The Commons to party all night (and do what drunk people do on mattresses when they aren't sleeping).
And the Night of Decadence was born.
Today NOD is the largest on-campus party thrown by a Rice residential college. Coming at the end of October, it's a Halloween costume gala with higher hormones and dirtier decorations. Last year's centerpiece was a 20-foot papier-mâché penis with a huge moving mechanical hand.
"It was an engineering marvel," Schultz says.
So are the costumes that cover less skin than they show.
"The old-school NOD costume for men was a sport sock," Schultz says. Every year has a various themes, like "Lust in Space" and "Scamtasia." The minimal costume has to match -- guys have come wearing just a purple Crown Royal bag or a pizza box. Girls mostly arrive in bras and boxers.
"Last year I wore drawers and a wife-beater [tank top], and I felt overdressed," says Vineet Dubey, a 19-year-old sophomore.
Only Rice students and their guests can attend. About 1,400 people were there last year, estimates Wiess president Robert Lundin. To get in the door, they have to comply with Texas decency laws, but Schultz did see a guy one year wearing a vest and nothing else. He must have had pants on at some point.
"It's a hell of a party," says Pratap Penumalli, a 20-year-old senior. He talks while sipping a beer with a couple of friends outside his dorm room on a Friday afternoon, with NOD days away.
"Everybody's naked, and there's lots of sex," says his friend Dubey. "It's a lot of fun." He left his dorm-room door unlocked last year and had to kick out four couples (he'd never met any of them).
The 1999 version, to be held Friday, October 29, is going to be a lot tamer, says Dubey's friend Moira Gillis, 19, a sophomore. Tamer because some university officials don't like the party's Playboy-style Animal House antics. In January, Dale and Elise Sawyer, the masters (which are similar to residential faculty advisers) of Will Rice College, wrote a letter that NOD is a hazard that "endangers and demeans" students.
The letter noted the high incidence of binge drinking, the fact that EMTs have been called to examine multiple sick-drunk students and that one freshman was jailed as a result of drunken behavior. They also believe that the risk of sexual assault is "exceedingly high" on the evening of NOD. "We have heard reasonable female students complain to peers about being groped and grabbed, even after having said no at NOD. The response from other, normally reasonable female students is to say that that is the character of NOD and if you don't like it, then don't go."
Ten of the 16 college masters added their names to the Sawyers' letter, but Wiess master John Hutchinson (and the only master who regularly attends NOD) didn't sign it. Nor was he asked to. He doesn't think NOD is any more dangerous than a football game or any other party.
"Anytime there's a large group of people, somebody will misbehave," he says. "I believe that the party is safe and secure."
But under the university's sexual harassment policy, the letter's allegations of a hostile sexual environment constituted a complaint. So a NOD task force was formed, and students feared that the event was going to die. Flyers went up protesting NOD's potential demise, and partygoers panicked.
"It shouldn't have been such a huge uproar," says Lyn Lee, an 18-year-old junior. "People overreact."
It's just like most parties at most colleges where people get a little extra amorous as the night goes on.
"Every girl I talk to is like, 'Oh, yeah, I got felt up,' " Penumalli says.
But that happens at college parties.
"It's not like everybody is molesting everybody," Gillis says. "There's just a higher likelihood at NOD."
"Yeah," Penumalli says. "You're playing the odds."
Students and the presidents of colleges at Rice had meetings. The vice president for student affairs, Zenaido Camacho, formed an ad hoc advisory committee to investigate the party. Its report concluded there are "serious problems" with the NOD party. "Problems that are not peculiar to this event but that are most conspicuously associated with it." In March the committee issued its recommendation: that more committees be formed on the subject.
In the end, the committee couldn't find hard data to support the statements in the Sawyers' letter that NOD was more problem-plagued than other parties.
University President Malcolm Gillis recommended that security be increased and sexually explicit decorations be eliminated so the party doesn't violate the university's sexual harassment policy. He and other university officials did not return phone calls or written requests for comment.
Not wanting tradition to die, the Backpage section of The Rice Thresher offered "Decorating Tips Not Seen On Martha Stewart Living." As a "public service," they printed a step-by-step guide to re-creating the "characteristics key to the debauchery": a papier-mâché penis made out of chicken wire, flour, water and The Rice Thresher.