The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
The assumption must be that those who can see value only in tradition, or versions of it, deny man's ability to adapt to changing circumstances....  ...Steven Bayley, Commerce and Culture (1989).
Commentary of the Day - May 4, 2000: "Tradition" Leads to Tragedy at Texas A&M.
The Special Commission on the 1999 Texas A&M Bonfire tragedy has filed its final report.  The proximate cause of the collapse of the bonfire stack, which killed 12 students, was determined to be a loss of "hoop strength".  In other words, the containment forces were not high enough to contain lateral outward forces caused by a slight slope in the ground upon which the bonfire stack was constructed, and by excessive wedging of second layer logs into the first layer of the stack.

As the Irascible Professor noted in our first article on this tragedy, the design of the bonfire stack was flawed because of its inherent structural instability.  Relatively small changes in the design of the stack, which were introduced in the past two years, caused the initial containment failure.  However, from reading the final report it is easy to deduce that the poor design of the stack caused rapid failure of the entire structure once the initial failure occurred.

The most important part of the report, however, is not the description of the structural problems that were the immediate cause of the collapse.  Rather, it is the description of the behavioral factors at Texas A&M that allowed an inherently unsafe structure to be built in the first place.  The report documents a number of administrative shortcomings that created a situation in which untrained and unqualified students were entrusted with the construction of a structure that was over five stories high and that weighed more than 2,000,000 pounds.  For example, by 1998 the injury rate for students working on the bonfire had reached 59 per 200,000 hours worked.  This was more than seven times higher than average injury rate for workers in heavy construction in the United States according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration figures.  In addition, the report noted that there were no written design plans for the structure, and that the structure was never built the same way twice.

While the university did have a "bonfire advisor" who supervised the cutting of logs for the stack and the construction of the stack, this person was not experienced in structural safety.  We have noted previously that members of the engineering faculty at Texas A&M had raised questions about the safety of the bonfire structure.  Given the high rate of injuries, the partial failure of earlier bonfire stacks, a notoriously fast burn rate for recent bonfires, and the warnings of their own engineering faculty, it is absolutely amazing to the Irascible Professor that this project was allowed to continue year after year.  In just about any city in this country it would not be possible to build such a structure without filing appropriate building plans, and without having the construction supervised by an appropriately licensed contractor.  The fact that the Texas A&M administration allowed this tradition to develop and continue over the decades in the manner that it did verges on criminal irresponsibility in the view of the Irascible Professor.  This was clearly a case of "tradition" trumping common sense.

As far as the Irascible Professor is concerned, the stubborn and stupid adherence to "tradition" at Texas A&M is the underlying cause of this tragedy.  It's time to replace the top administrators at A&M with people who have the courage to place reason ahead of tradition!

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