Wesleyan University's administration will probably think twice before tussling with any fictional characters in the future.
Since the late 1970s, students at the liberal arts school have celebrated two arts and music festivals, one in the fall and one in the spring, named after iconic Doonesbury characters Uncle Duke and Zonker Harris, both of whom are known for their prodigious drug use. The names were not coincidental; it is safe to assume that for many Wesleyan kids through the years, drugs have been a central focus at both festivals—tie-dye, too.
But times have changed, and so has Wesleyan. Zonker Harris Day in particular seemed to rile the current administration, since it has coincided in recent years with WesFest, the April weekend during which prospective students and their parents visit the Middletown, Connecticut, campus. In 2008, the school's Office of Residential Life, whose director said that the name Zonker Day perpetuated a "hippie-druggie stereotype," told West College (known as WestCo), the dorm that sponsors the festivals, that if they weren't renamed, they would lose their funding.
"Zonker Harris Day should not be on the calendar next year, and it won't be," Wesleyan president Michael Roth said at the time."The institution should make it clear that it's not supporting things that are stupid."
Pulitzer Prize-winning Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau said he considered those to be "fighting words." After the dust-up, Duke Day was eventually renamed the 8th Day of the Week, while Zonker Harris Day was rechristened Ze-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named Day (a reference to Harry Potter).
But students have continued to protest what they see as censorship and have occasionally appealed to Trudeau for help. This time, their call was answered.
"A few weeks ago, I received a request to get involved from the WestCo presidents," Trudeau recalled in an e-mail interview. "I was impressed. Any student dorm that has multiple presidents either really has its act together or is deeply goofy. Either way, I'm in."
"At first, I considered reaching out to President Roth privately, but finally decided it'd be better to blindside him," Trudeau said.
The cartoonist's response was to skewer President Roth in a week's worth of Doonesbury strips that ran from Monday to Saturday. "At first, I considered reaching out to President Roth privately, but finally decided it'd be better to blindside him," Trudeau said. "I was worried he might actually cave, and then I'd have to abandon a perfectly good idea for the strip."
That perfectly good idea has Zonker being told about Zonker Harris Day by a Wesleyan student, who rapturously describes it as "a day filled with music and psychedelia! A return to the Garden of Eden!" The student warns Zonker that the celebration is imperiled because "President Roth thinks you're bad for Wesleyan's image." In the final strip, Zonker says, "Just for fun, I thought I'd break the ol' fourth wall and call Wesleyan's prez." It concludes with Zonker asking Roth, "Dude, you understand I'm a fictional character, right?" Roth, priggish to the end, responds, "I'm warning you—stay away from my kids!"
Jason Katzenstein, a 20-year-old sophomore from Los Angeles, is one of five WestCo presidents and is the student who contacted Trudeau asking for his help. He said he quickly heard back from the cartoonist's people, who wanted more information on the controversy, but then heard nothing.
"Then last weekend, I get an e-mail from Garry: 'Here's next week's strips. I hope they're to your liking,' " Katzenstein said in an interview. "We didn't anticipate a weeklong story arc. He got behind it and it was a shock. And giving us his work beforehand—there was so much trust. We couldn't believe it. We're overwhelmingly appreciative. WestCo is elated right now."
Judging by the comments on Wesleyan's student-run blog and the Doonesbury site, nostalgic alumni are also thrilled. While Trudeau said that he's "amazed the tradition had endured as long as it had," he notes that "Zonker Day has been around for 32 years, and many alums have apparently pieced together fond memories of it." (Indeed, one alumna, a student 20 years ago, said she still remembers watching a student lovingly cradle a stalk of broccoli "for a really, really long time." And disclosure: I went to Wesleyan, lived in WestCo, and have my own fond memories of both Duke Day and Zonker Harris Day.)
It's unclear how Roth feels about his starring role in the acclaimed strip. The administration would respond only with a statement, which reads, "Wesleyan is flattered to be satirized in the Doonesbury strip by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Mr. Trudeau. It's not the first time Wesleyan has been mentioned in one of his comics, and we are sure it won't be the last." Katzenstein, who happens to be enrolled in a course, the Modern and the Postmodern, taught by Roth, said, "I've been a little nervous sitting in class, but he hasn't brought anything up."
But if the foremost goal of a liberal arts education is critical thinking, perhaps Roth should be proud of the students who are fighting to preserve a legacy from a period that predates their birth.
"Doonesbury is emblematic of a theme we have for Duke Day and Zonker Day: counterculture," Katzenstein said. "Uncle Duke and Zonker became stand-ins for a lot of stuff going on in the '60s, so the tradition is connected to the characters in the strip but also to what they represent. And to the administration, that's what becomes a dangerous thing—'hippie-druggie'—but those aren't the only values we attribute to the day. We're trying to protect a tradition that extends way beyond us. WestCo is great, and I know that we can attribute a lot of that greatness to its history, so to whitewash that history is upsetting."
Students are meeting with the university's vice president and other administration officials to discuss the matter further on Friday.
As far as Trudeau goes, the charges themselves didn't exactly sting. He agrees with Roth that Zonker Harris Day is stupid, but that's as far as their common ground goes. "Isn't that exactly what smart people are looking for in a break?" Trudeau asked rhetorically.
Barbara Spindel is a writer and editor who covers books and culture. She has contributed to Time Out New York, Details, Spin, the Barnes & Noble Review, Newsweek.com, and other publications. She has a Ph.D. in American studies and lives in Brooklyn.