MEDFORD, Mass. – As the semester comes to a close at Tufts University and students get ready to take off for winter break, they may first find themselves taking off something else: their clothing.
Every student — even the purest, most innocent freshman — has heard of the Naked Quad Run, known by university officials as the Nighttime Quad Reception.
But the origins of this unique event are less ubiquitous, full of rumor and often disputed among students.
One common story is that the event began as a protest against co-ed dormitories.
“I’ve heard different rumors. One was that it started when West Hall was all single sex and was becoming coed, but I don’t know if that’s just a myth that’s been created,” senior Katie Winter said.
But according to alumni and officials who were at Tufts when the tradition began, its origins are far less concrete. TUPD Sergeant Robert McCarthy, who has worked at Tufts for 35 years, said that the first Naked Quad Run had nothing to do with dorm policy.
“How that came out, I have no idea. It started a long time before West Hall even thought of becoming coed,” he said.
Alumnus Seth Ammerman remembered participating in an early Naked Quad Run in 1973.
“Streaking had been going on sporadically for a number of years at colleges around the country but with individuals or small groups,” he said. “This was the first one at Tufts that was organized with hundreds and hundreds of people and coed, which was great, of course.”
Ammerman said that although some of the runners were motivated by various causes, the primary reason for organizing the run was to provide an entertaining outlet for various forms of stress.
“To tweak authority, some people said that they were protesting different things, and that was picked up by the media or the [campus media] or the administration — for peace, or against war or changes going on at the university; things like dorm changes … but really those were not the main reasons why people were doing it,” he said. “It was just to get together and do something fun and bond.”
McCarthy remembered various groups streaking in the ’70s, but said that the Naked Quad Run in its current form as a release from exam nerves began in the early ’80s.
“In 1980, [students] made a thing about the loud hour [during 23-hour quiet hours], to make as much noise as you can. I was up on the quad and come 10, people were opening windows and putting speakers out,” McCarthy said. “They weren’t doing anything wrong, but the noise travels on top of that hill, and we got complaints all over Medford and Somerville.”
The following year, to contain the symphonic noise, the administration encouraged students to run around the quad during the one-hour reprieve from silence. A group of students had a unique interpretation of the instructions.
“Fifteen or 20 guys from West Hall came out naked, ran once, went back in the dorm, and that was it. They did it on the night of the 1981 reading period. After that, every year it was the same thing,” McCarthy said.
When West Hall became coed in 1987, the event grew in popularity.
“That year, the quad was packed with people, and 10 comes,” McCarthy said. “At first, all you could hear was people booing, and there were probably 50 guys running. Then, right after, here comes 25 or 30 girls, and everyone starts cheering. Since then, it got bigger and bigger every year.”
But bigger didn’t always mean better. Naked Quad Run’s existence was in jeopardy in 2002 after several students were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning and other injuries.
“There were a lot of problems,” McCarthy said. “It was kind of out of control.”
Students that year received a now-famous email from University President Lawrence Bacow, which said that “the combination of consumption of alcohol with a mad dash through an icy, hilly campus at night cannot continue.”
However, popular support for the run prompted various university organizations to examine how it could continue more safely. Police involvement and the Nighttime Quad Reception have proven to be successful additions.
“A lot of people got involved, like the Senate and the Dean’s Office to make it a controlled event, and it’s gotten better since then,” McCarthy said.
Ammerman said that the presence of alcohol is the biggest change to the event over the years.
“[At first, NQR] was more of a festival atmosphere with people going out and having fun; it wasn’t a big drunken free-for-all,” he said. “It was fairly well-organized and people just sort of running naked quickly. We grew up with our childhoods in the ’60s and it was fine to be comfortable with your bodies and what you looked like — big, small, thin or fat.”
Sophomore Ben Strauss said that today, comfort levels vary from person to person, and that being naked in front of a crowd can be intimidating.
“Part of our society is that people drink alcohol to feel comfortable in situations where they feel awkward,” he said. “That is a problem, but I don’t think that’s any worse for Naked Quad Run.
“It’s funny because I was sober last year for NQR and I had a very fun experience anyway,” he added.
Another new chapter in NQR history comes with new technology and the ability to post pictures or videos on the Internet.
“[In the 1970s], there weren’t people around watching, or staring. Everyone who came out was really involved,” Ammerman said. “These days, with cell phones and everything else, you’ve got to be a little more wary.”
Administrators and students alike share concerns about revealing NQR footage.
“I get worried as years pass; with YouTube and Facebook, you’re never quite certain how much you control the coverage or if something will show up many years after the fact,” Winter said. “I make sure to run where there are lots of people running around, too.”
“Be careful, just think about what you’re doing,” McCarthy said. “There are people that can end up on the Internet; it can happen.”
Even with these new drawbacks, history has shown that NQR probably won’t be vanishing anytime soon.
“It’s just evolved over the years,” McCarthy said. “I don’t think it’s going to [disappear]. It’s hard to stop it, and if it’s going to happen anyhow, we try to do it as safely as possible.”
Ammerman said that during his college years, he wouldn’t have expected NQR to still be going on now.
“I’m pleased to hear that it still is. I thought maybe it would come and go like many fads do, but I think the moral of the story is that college kids like to run naked,” he said.