It has been three years since Bacchus, a student-led shuttle service on campus, took its last drive, generating questions over whether or not Sewanee will ever see it return. As the last generation of students who experienced Bacchus are preparing to graduate, it is imperative that we keep telling the story of Bacchus, and continue to push for its revitalization.
In the fall semester of my freshman year in 2019, many of my weekends ended by riding a Bacchus van back to my dorm. Generally speaking, this was one of the highlights of the night. I would always find a friend, or make a new one, on the ride wherein we got to swap stories and catch each other up on what we had been up to. Upon returning to campus for my sophomore year amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, I planned to apply as a Bacchus driver. I lived in Emory, a residential building located off-campus right near Morgan’s Steep, and I knew I would be relying on the Bacchus service for transportation back home due to the location of my residence.
However, soon after the semester started, I realized that Bacchus was not in operation due to COVID-related safety protocols. As I am now finishing up my senior year I have yet to step foot in a Bacchus van since the onset of COVID-19. I, alongside many students, have been left wondering what happened to Bacchus, why it went away, and if it will ever drive down University Avenue again.
For those who did not have the opportunity to experience Bacchus, it was a student-led organization that provided student shuttles that ran on Thursday nights from 9 p.m. – 12 a.m. and on Friday and Saturday nights from 9 p.m. – 2 a.m. The service even provided additional vans on weekends such as Homecoming and Family Weekend that would run during the day. The goal of these student shuttles was to ensure a safe campus by preventing drunk driving and sexual assault.
On a typical weekend, two vans would make rounds around campus, staffed by a sober driver and a trained bystander, and shuttle students wherever they needed to go. The service was free to all students, and working as a driver or bystander of Bacchus was a paid position. As Sewanee exists within an isolated area, services like Uber and Lyft aren’t available for students. Thus, Bacchus served as the only option for students to receive safe and sober rides around Sewanee’s campus.
During the 2021-2022 school year as COVID restrictions began to dwindle, I began to ask the question of what the future was, if it even had one, of Bacchus? Sam Young, the Student Organization and Leadership Coordinator, provides resources for student organizations and student leaders to ensure their success. Young began as a Student Activities Coordinator in August of 2019 and helped clarify why exactly this shuttle service went away. “It initially ended because of COVID,” Young said, “and there were a lot of risks around having people gather in a manner that was not conducive to how we were managing COVID at the time.”
Young went on to recall the retirement of Barbara Banks, who was the Director of Student Life and the advisor for Bacchus, during the summer of 2021. “Barbara had left her current position,” he said, “and I think a lot of history and infrastructure and knowledge was taken from that. In a lot of ways I think that with Barbara leaving the program went kind of dormant.” Due to these factors, Bacchus ceased to exist for the past three years. I fear that after the class of 2023 graduates, there will not be any students left on campus to remember Bacchus’ existence.
Bringing Bacchus back to campus has been a rather challenging task. I believe that there were several misconceptions regarding Bacchus as well as flaws in the actual operation of the service, problems that could potentially prevent this service from ever returning to Sewanee students.
Kyle Gallagher, the Assistant Dean for Campus Activities, oversees student organizations on campus and programs that make up the student involvement experience and began his time at Sewanee in August of 2021. When I initially asked about the potential of bringing Bacchus back to campus, Gallagher responded, “There were some overarching concerns regarding liability, particularly from the student drivers of Bacchus. There were some expressed concerns regarding potential sexual assault on the shuttles. There were some equity concerns where you had to know the person’s cell phone number to get picked up.”
Through a meeting with Chris Smith, the Director of Risk Management at the University, he helped clarify that as long as the driver of Bacchus has an F (For-Hire) endorsement and was willing to assume responsibility if a significant event occurs, there is potential for Bacchus to return to Sewanee’s campus.
With regards to sexual assault, in a 2019 article in The Purple, members of Bacchus management describe Bacchus drivers as a front line of defense against sexual assault. I believe that a high threshold of reports relating to sexual misconduct on a Bacchus shuttle is correlated directly with the increased availability of resources that the bystander within the vehicle could provide for a report to be made.
As for the concern over students struggling to catch a Bacchus shuttle, adjustments to the way students access rides can be made for a future Bacchus service. Generally speaking, more work can and should be done to ensure that the future of this service is equitable in a multitude of ways.
The other major issue with bringing Bacchus back is finding someone to run it. Young explained the support that Bacchus would need upon its return, saying, “There needs to be a lot of infrastructure for this service to be successful and to not be a burden on somebody.”
Talking about Bacchus, or the lack thereof, also sheds light on a larger lack of transportation services provided for Sewanee students. Any student on campus without a car has likely experienced difficulty getting to a grocery store to buy food, to a pharmacy to pick up a prescription, or getting a ride to and from the airport.
As it currently stands, the Sewanee Police Department has received a grant to create a trolley system that would run during the weekdays until 8 p.m. The program, however, has struggled to get on its feet. In order to solve this issue, Gallagher presented a solution. “There seems to be a broader need for a full-time staff member,” he said. “Running Bacchus, at the time, was evolving into a full-time position. Maybe we look into creating a job description for a transportation and parking coordinator to fix a lot of the concerns and needs that students have. This staff member would be able to guide Bacchus, and in addition, take steps to improve safety all around.” I, alongside Gallagher and Young, have been working on doing just this.
As my time as a Sewanee student comes to an end, I hope that future generations of Sewanee students have the opportunity to know the inherently unique Sewanee experience that Bacchus was. Lauren Wilson (C ’23) recalled when she initially heard about Bacchus, and how her Sewanee experience has changed without the presence of Bacchus on campus. “When I heard about Bacchus as a prospective student there was a very positive narrative,” she said. “It was comforting to know if you are going home alone you have this school-run service to be a safe opportunity to get there. I feel like the campus has changed a lot without Bacchus, and it feels more unsafe.”
It is imperative that we don’t let the memory of Bacchus die with the graduating seniors, and that we continue to have conversations about ways in which Sewanee can better provide for its students. Hopefully, one day a Bacchus shuttle will once again drive down University Avenue. Until then, let’s keep those conversations going.
Bacchus was such an important role for Sewanee night life! I can recall a time when i was worried about someone with me in the van, it was clear i didn’t want to go home with them, the Bacchus driver and bystander were there to help me get to the door of my residential building on campus, keeping me safe. They even called to make sure that i was 100%okay after I had gotten inside.
I drove it.
I rode it!
It is needed.
Bring back Bacchus.