Vice President of Student Affairs Addresses Controversy Over Discontinuing Rotation Events

There has been a lot of buzz about the vague spectre of “admin” banning undergraduate house events, both during and outside Rotation this year. In continuing this discussion between tradition and inclusivity, the Tech interviewed Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, Vice President for Student Affairs, to get his perspective on the matter. Our conversation focused on two specific issues: Blacker Hovse’s Potato Cannon, and Ricketts Hovse’s Rotation Dinner Skits.

Blacker’s Potato Cannon, built for a Ditch Day stack in 2002, is a compressed air tank attached to a ~10ft pipe which fires whole potatoes into a wall at point-blank range in the Blacker Hovse courtyard. The showers of potato fragments and loud firing sounds have delighted and entertained two decades’ worth of prefrosh – but not everyone. According to Dr. Gilmartin, multiple students have come to him to express concerns about the violent, weapon-like nature of the cannon.

“We live in a country where shootings associated specifically with schools are an ongoing trauma,” Dr. Gilmartin told us. He emphasized Student Affairs’ consistent philosophy of supporting students and fostering safe spaces, especially relevant when wars start, in light of the recent outbreak of violence in the Middle East.

With this in mind, for this year’s Rotation, Dr. Gilmartin personally instructed Blacker Hovse leadership to discontinue firing their Potato Cannon. They complied, but not without backlash from hovse members, who felt like this has harmed student traditions and freedoms, and were unhappy with the fact that Dr. Gilmartin’s instructions were given on very short notice.

“This change was super unexpected as we found out the Friday before rotation,” said Jade Millan (ME ‘25), a Blacker Social Team Chair. “We had to submit NEW event proposals for a backup event, but it was the weekend so admin wouldn’t even see it until Monday at the earliest.” (Rotation started the following Wednesday.)

Regarding the short notice of the cancellation of these events, Dr. Gilmartin apologized and said that “In the future we will give more advanced notice for what is approved for rotation.”

Of course, the Fleming Cannon still fired at the end of Rotation, as is tradition. Given that the Fleming Cannon is significantly louder when fired, members of Blacker felt that they were being subjected to a double standard.

“I feel that if the concern really was that students will be traumatized to see something that resembles a weapon, then the same treatment should be applied to the literal war instrument every student walks past on the Olive Walk every day,” Blacker Hovse President Aditee Prabhutendolkar (CNS ‘24) told the Tech.

In response, Dr. Gilmartin explained during our interview that the Fleming Cannon is an exemption. He said it is an “institute-wide tradition [and] legacy activity,” so he is unable to hold it to the same standard as individual house traditions, despite confirming that it also receives similar complaints to the Potato Cannon.

Ricketts Hovse also faced restrictions on their Dinner Skits, which are short, chaotic performances put on by Skurves during Rotation Dinners. According to Dr. Gilmartin, students have also complained to him about some of these skits, which is the reason they have come under scrutiny in the first place.

For example, during “Joyous Celebration”, a piñata full of spaghetti is whacked open and a cake is dropped on the floor. Dr. Gilmartin described this skit to the Tech as an “irresponsible performance of privilege in a world where food insecurity is real.” He added, “A ritual exercise of house culture that ostentatiously takes advantage of this shows our privilege and is extremely inappropriate.”

He also mentioned that he expressed disapproval for this skit during previous Rotations. “A few years ago, I expressed concerns to the IHC about food waste… I made it very clear to the IHC that this needed to stop. So this year I did what I told them I was going to do.” (Regarding rejecting Ricketts’ event proposal.)

However, Ricketts Hovse President Meg Robertson (GeoCh 24’) told the Tech that she had no knowledge of these previous talks with the IHC. “This was definitely portrayed [to me] as a new policy,” she said.

Also canceled was the Mama Bird Baby Bird part of the “Nature is Beautiful” skit, in which a Skurve would chew up food, then spit the half-chewed food into another consenting Skurve’s mouth. Dr. Gilmartin asserted that this concept is “disgusting”.

“Spitting food in one anothers’ mouths – this is not the first time I’ve had to sit in a room and articulate why that’s unacceptable,” he told us. “If this is a pivotal activity to a house[’s personality], then that is the real issue.”

Many students fear these encroaching restrictions will continue the pattern of further limiting house freedoms.

“It’s infuriating,” says David Melisso (EE ‘23), who helped organize much of Blacker’s Rotation. “When I was a freshman many years ago, the seniors told stories about how more and more events were being prohibited. Now, having seen this trend continue, I can’t imagine what will be left four years from now.“

However, Dr. Gilmartin emphasized the difference between Student Affairs’ views of and intentions toward Rotation events and everyday house activities.

“As VPSA, it’s my responsibility to ensure that the traditions are consistent with Caltech values, particularly during Rotation, because it’s expected for all students to be involved. There must be a higher threshold for what’s appropriate to welcome new community members. It might be a little different from the normal house community… I know, individual houses feel strongly about their traditions, but these are institute facilities. Anything that represents Caltech faculty and students needs to have some sense of social responsibility.”

In response to a previous article in the Tech about the Blacker Potato Cannon, we received messages from Caltech alumni expressing disappointment with its discontinuation. “I’m just gonna passive aggressively send this article in response next time I get an email asking me to donate,” wrote Alejandro López (BS ‘21, Ricketts).

But, as Dr. Gilmartin pointed out, the same thing happened in 1960 when Caltech started admitting women for the first time. That upset a lot of alumni too; it was an established 70-year-strong tradition to only admit men. That change was forced on the students whether they liked it or not. But looking back, it was obviously the right thing to do.

Dr. Gilmartin believes that changes in tradition come naturally with a changing world. “Traditions are part of the present. They evolve and change over time as communities do.”

Correction: This article incorrectly stated that undergraduate women were first admitted to Caltech in 1960. The correct year is 1970. In fact, Caltech first hired a woman (Professor Emeritus Jenijoy La Belle) as part of the tenure track faculty in 1969, who subsequently had to fight for ten years to obtain tenure. Additionally, admitting undergraduate women was not a change “forced on students whether they like it or not,” as stated in the article. Rather, it came about as a result of very strong student advocacy as well as support from the faculty and administration in 1967 and a special push by Caltech president Harold Brown in 1970, despite opposition by some alumni. Thanks to Richard Wright (BS ‘68, Fleming) for this info.