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Why doesn't Duke have bench burning permits for away games at UNC?

Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek poses for photo with students atop the bench.
Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek poses for photo with students atop the bench.

After Duke's miraculous comeback win in Chapel Hill, hundreds of students swarmed the quad to burn benches. But Duke didn't have a fire permit for the game, so Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek had to plant herself on a bench Saturday night to prevent it from being burned. 

For the past several years, the University has obtained four permits from the Durham fire marshal to burn benches on campus, yet none of those are for away games at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The permits limit burning to the men's and women's basketball home games against UNC, along with the men's and women's National Championships. Wasiolek cited the complicated logistics and behind-the-scenes personnel work as reasons to limit the number of burnings.

"In light of this complex and demanding infrastructure, we have been very mindful and intentional in requesting permits for bonfires," she wrote in an email to The Chronicle Sunday night. "We have worked closely with [Duke Student Government] to determine which games to consider for bonfires, monitoring student interest." 

She explained that Duke has never obtained permits for away games at UNC, but that the administration would be "happy and willing" to discuss other options. The University used to have a permit for the ACC tournament championship, but stopped applying for it due to lack of student interest. 

Wasiolek added that the logistics behind bench burning are complicated, requiring the presence of 40-50 individuals among members of A-Team, university communications and enforcement officials.

"All of these individuals are on campus by halftime of the game and prepared to respond, waiting to see if they will be needed, as we only 'burn' if we win!" she wrote. "As you can imagine, this all takes enormous planning and scheduling." 

On Saturday night, Wasiolek had to stand on the bench for nearly 45 minutes as students surrounded the bench and serenaded her with chants. 

Some approached her with a handle of vodka and cans of White Claw, but she chose not to consume them. One individual even approached the bench with a small blowtorch, but Wasiolek said she wasn't afraid.

"The good news is that the collective levelheadedness of the crowd, other students made sure that didn't happen," she told The Chronicle Saturday night. "I was greatly appreciative of that." 

Wasiolek noted that her opposition to the bench burning was rooted in a desire for safety and her goal to protect students from committing crimes.

"What I didn't want to have happen is any students get in trouble by burning the bench," she said. "It's not a matter of whether we could have controlled it and tried as best we could to make it safe, but it's illegal. It's against the law. I'm not sure students understand that. I don't mean that in a condescending way, but the law is very clear." 

Bench burning is a Duke tradition that began gaining popularity after the 1986 national semifinal win against Kansas and the Blue Devils' championship runs in the early 1990s. After several clashes between Duke Public Safety and students, Duke chose to institutionalize the process by applying for fire permits starting in 1998 and restricting bench burning duties to A-Team.

In 2001, the Durham fire marshal temporarily rescinded a fire permit after benches were illegally burned following Duke's comeback run to beat Maryland. It was reinstated after negotiations with administrators.

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