On and Off the Shadow Campus
Albert Louis Zambone

The night of November 12, 1840 was much like the preceding five November 12ths at the University of Virginia: there was a riot. University of Virginia students liked to riot, prized their “uprisings.” This riot was actually an annual celebration of an 1836 riot that the students regarded as a victory over university professors.

At Virginia, students and professors lived directly next to each other, around the central Lawn. Thomas Jefferson had designed buildings, landscape, and curriculum to represent the apex of rationalism and enlightenment. The Lawn was not fully enclosed but open at one end, facing out to the horizon—an architectural manifestation of the creed of the unfettered reach of reason. Yet Virginia’s students refused to get with Mr. Jefferson’s enlightened program. Rather than proving young Southern gentlemen to be genteel aspirants to the mantle of learning, they exemplified the worst aspects of tyrannical young slave masters, accustomed to their whims being gratified and apt to be violent when they were not. “They drank, gambled, rioted and vandalized property”—and that while Jefferson was alive.

The November 12, 1840 riot was too much for John A. G. Davis, professor of law at Virginia since 1830, and he stalked outside to put an end to the nonsense. He saw at least two students wearing masks and firing guns. When he approached one of them, reaching out to unmask him, the student shot him in the belly. Davis died two days later. The student was tracked down by stunned and chastened classmates; later, he jumped bail and committed suicide.



The university—in any recognizable form—is an invention of the Middle Ages, and therefore so is the university riot. Medieval riots were often more akin to insurrections and uprisings, usually by students, sometimes even by the “masters” of a university’s colleges, and directed, depending upon the group, at either the ruling power of the university or the town in which the university was located. The university in Bologna was founded by the collections of students who grouped themselves vaguely by origin, called “nations” in Bologna and other medieval universities. These student unions were created to secure favorable legal and financial treatment from the government of the city and to hire teachers to educate them. By creating this joint corporation, students suddenly gained power. In the medieval university, threatening a riot established a bargaining position.

Since most student-run organizations are at best chaotic works in progress, numerous groups of students tired of the Bologna experience and left for another city to found their own university. Teachers grown tired of obeying the diktat of students also abandoned Bologna and founded universities run by what they considered a more sophisticated management: themselves.

Even these teacher-led universities were marked by student uprisings and occasionally by a faculty revolt. In 1209, a dispute between the masters running the University of Oxford and the town government over the punishment of students provoked the masters to pick up and leave town—some for Reading just down the River Thames, others for Paris, and others eventually to East Anglia to found the University of Cambridge. In 1229, a Fat Tuesday dispute between students and citizens of Paris led to an Ash Wednesday riot so spectacular that the university was subsequently shut for two years.

Violence was common in the medieval university. Rules at Oxford laid down that students should not have swords or longbows, indicating that, of course, many did. The different “nations” of each university were often literally at each other’s throats. Town-and-gown violence was common, but murder of fellow students seems to have been even more common.



Violence, uprisings, and riots, then and now, are a manifestation of the shadow campus that has always existed, below and behind the professional campus visible to the professorial and professional eye. To that contented, benign gaze, the modern campus consists of classrooms, offices, seminar rooms, libraries, and perhaps a college center. To professors, the existence of dormitories, clubs, video consoles, clubs, drugs, and fraternities is known, of course, and accepted, in much the same way that we might accept the existence of Pluto. It exists, but it is not so very important to what is really going on in the warm and bright part of the solar system.

When a professor notes that many of his students seem tired, he often does not realize that it is because it is pledge week. Another professor, helping an advisee keep a time diary, is stunned to discover how much time is spent playing immersive online video games and binge-watching Netflix. As historian and educator Mark Carnes observes in Minds on Fire (2014), the shadow campus is focused upon play and competition. Play is not something undergraduates often find in the classroom, unless they are the few and unusual destined to become professional academics. Yet competition and challenge have often been there in abundance. Given however that only about 50 percent of undergraduates in the most recent National Survey of Student Engagement self-report that they have been challenged by classwork, it is only inevitable that undergraduates spend ever more time in play and competition in the shadow campus than in the professional, visible campus.

Not all parts of the shadow campus are as benign as a Netflix binge. The shadow campus is most visible—becomes the official campus—when millions of Americans watch the most visible representation of higher education: football and basketball. This shadow campus becomes both visible and destructive when the university wins, or loses, a championship, or a coach is fired, and suddenly thousands of students appear from nowhere to burn cars and weep and curse. As tourists pick their way gingerly between pools of vomit on a Sunday morning, as one can do on High Street in Columbus, Ohio, or The Corner, near the University of Virginia, they can smell the shadow campus, if not see it. In an age of alumni payments to students, coaches securing prostitutes for players, administrators resigning or going on trial, few can doubt the power of the shadow campus or the depth of its darkest places.

As Carnes shows, the shadow campus has always existed and, throughout its existence, has assumed numerous guises in response to the stimulus of college authorities. When Jefferson founded his university, the student organization into which students could escape from the panoptic gaze of their professors was the “Literary Society.” The College of New Jersey had two on the eve of the Revolution, the Cliosophic and the Whig. These societies served both as what their sobriquet indicated (some soon had larger libraries than the colleges where they were located) and also as drinking groups. When colleges began to lean upon or suppress literary societies, the American fraternity emerged. Some places—among them the University of Virginia—soon had both. Nineteenth-century Princeton added its own variation, its quintessentially Princetonian eating clubs, which soon became an evermore visible shadow campus that existed apart from the professional and public campus.

Nearly every attempt, as Carnes demonstrates, to destroy the shadow campus has failed. When Woodrow Wilson tried to eliminate Princeton’s eating clubs, undergraduates and alumni so frustrated his plans he found it easier to be elected Governor of New Jersey. Attempts to end ­intercollegiate football have, since shortly after the sport began, encountered the unstoppable triumvirate of enthusiastic undergraduates, nostalgic alumni, and unsentimental gamblers. In the modern age, any member of the administrative nomenklatura who actually wants to do something about drinking on campus has to face not only the deeply engrained culture of the shadow campus, but also the combined marketing firepower of the American alcohol industry (in the 1980s Anheuser-Busch launched a forty-seven-city marketing campaign by distributing beer pong to fraternities and college bars) and the possibility of a spectacular riot (such as when Washington State banned on-campus drinking in 1998, resulting in a riot involving about five hundred students; a block party gone badly wrong at Kent State in 2012 had a thousand more protesters than the more famous protest at Kent State in 1970). A Dean of Students launching a sobriety initiative is bringing a knife to a gunfight. In the story of American higher education, it is the exceptions—such as the University of Chicago ending its football program in 1939—that prove the rule.



Yet the shadow campus has proven, over the centuries, to be an unintentional incubator of reform. Alumni and professorial discontent has, not only in the Middle Ages, led to the creation of competing institutions; Jefferson’s university was his alternative to his own alma mater, William and Mary. Yet his utopian visions of a rational learning community proved to be fanciful dreams. When a chastened student body at the University of Virginia finally came to its senses, following the murder of Professor Davis, they and the university’s overseers sought the consolations of evangelical religion. This resulted in the 1845 hiring of William Holmes McGuffey, the strict Calvinist author of the eponymous McGuffey Readers, as professor of moral philosophy. Mr. Jefferson would not have been amused, but McGuffey seems to have been a man of considerable presence, the kind of teacher who simply by that presence (and that of just a few others) alter the course of an institution. The future Confederate guerrilla Col. John Singleton Mosby had been one of UVa’s failures, expelled for shooting a town tough-guy in the neck in 1853 (violence did not exactly disappear at UVa after 1840). But when he was on the run from Federal authorities after the end of the Civil War, having refused to surrender, the atheist Mosby took the chance to ride into Charlottesville to visit with the Reverend McGuffey. That is a fair indication of professorial charisma.

One or two professors like McGuffey can change an institution, but they are rare. The normal procedure has been, as in the Middle Ages or in Jefferson’s Virginia, to found a new institution. The Revolutionary era in the South saw the creation of numerous colleges, or if not colleges, than the academies that were colleges in embryo, like Liberty Hall in Lexington, Virginia (now Washington and Lee) and Hampden-Sydney Academy, soon to replace the last word with “College.” Jefferson undoubtedly scorned their religious passions, but they proved to be as creative and certainly more reproducible than his own intellectual child.

Discontent with the riotous state of higher education in the first half of the nineteenth century led to a further burst of institution building. Given the troubles at Jefferson’s university and other southern schools, it is surely no accident that the 1830s and 40s saw the creation of both the Virginia Military Institute and the South Carolina Military Academy. Like helpless parents before and since, southerners in the 1830s seem to have thought that military discipline might make men of their little demons.

Nor were these problems and solutions limited to the South. Numerous New England colleges were established to deal with what their founders saw as the rot in established colleges. As Kenneth Nivison has shown (2000, 283), Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Waterville, and Amherst were founded as answers to the problems and needs of the developing liberal society of the United States. Their founders’ solution was to offer a classical liberal education, which they saw as important not first for its intellectual content, but for its ability to transform students’ characters.

This transformation led to further rebellions, as students rejected what they were taught and rebelled against the molds intended to form them. Yet other students accepted and adapted, in the process creating a model of what it meant to be a scholar and a gentleman—and should one not like the emphasis on gentlemen, one could always found a co-educational Oberlin, or Olivet, or Knox, or Wheaton.

Whatever aspect they adopted—a transformed University of Virginia (complete with a new chapel); New England liberal arts colleges; Presbyterian academies; or coeducational colleges in the Midwest—all of these reform movements took the shadow campus seriously. Arguably, so did some of those research institutions founded in the late nineteenth century, if only by eliminating undergraduate education altogether.



Arguably, today—even after generations of reform movements, and the hiring of numerous staff and administrators to deal with its problems—the shadow campus remains as visible and as destructive as ever. Sexual assault has seemingly become an ever more serious problem. Binge drinking continues, and it is complemented by ever more creatively-designed drugs. Some fraternities survive on campuses even when they are known to endanger the lives of their members, usually propped up by national networks and proud, slightly addled alumni. And intercollegiate sports continue to dominate many NCAA member-school campuses. In fact, most of the large college riots since 2000 have erupted over victories or losses by sports teams or occasionally for no particular reason at all (viz., the blackout riot at the University of Washington in 2010), rather than over racism, wars, or any concern of conscience, as Boomer historians of the 1960s have noted with some regret. At times, it seems that even professors might begin to take notice of what is going on outside the classroom.

What then—as Vladimir Lenin would have said were he a provost—is to be done?

Mark Carnes suggests adapting new pedagogies that draw upon play. The creation of new pedagogies that actually recognize the existence of the shadow campus is a start, a very important one, but it is not sufficient. What is now needed is what has always been done since the very beginning of the university: start a new campus. Problems of one type of university model have always led to the creation of new models, and nowhere has this crisis-driven creativity flourished with greater vigor than in the United States. Only rarely have universities been able to reform themselves completely without a great incentive—like, say, the murder of a professor. But creating new types of universities—building new colleges—has often proven easier than reforming an existing institution. It is curious that despite many cyber-enthusiasms that have so far turned out to be little more than vaporware, there have been few well-funded or supported attempts to create new physical institutions that will simultaneously address the pressing question of higher education’s costs and the problems of the shadow campus. We have all the institutional and cultural problems that have always created new models of higher education, and yet as far as the eye can see across the landscape there are no great entrepreneurial alternatives. If there was ever a moment when we needed those entrepreneurs, and those reformers, that have been so seminal in past centuries, it is now. A culture in great need awaits not only its McGuffeys but its Jeffersons.


Albert Louis Zambone is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.


Works Cited

Bowman, Rex and Carlos Santos. Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: My Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University that Changed America. Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 2013.

Carnes, Mark C. Minds on Fire: How Role-Immersion Games Transform College. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Dabney, Virginius. Mr. Jefferson’s University: A History. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981.

Nivison, Kenneth. Proving Grounds: New England Colleges and the Emergence of Liberal America, 1790–1870. Unpublished PhD dissertation, The Catholic University of America, 2000.

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