The Bells that Used to Ring
by Claire Fleming | published Oct. 16th, 2016
If you went to RIT before 2014, you may have heard the sound of bells on campus. For those students who weren't around when the bells chimed on the hour, Christmas tunes played in December or Beatles songs played on your way down the quarter mile, some say you're missing out.
The bells that some students used to hear were called carillon bells. First installed and dedicated in May 1985, the carillon bells were run by RIT's Center for Religious Life. They chimed for nearly 30 years before the electronics failed in 2014.
The carillon bells were an electronic version of what many universities have had on campus for years. UC Berkeley houses carillon bells that are over 100 years old and Duke University has a single bell housed in a tower on campus that is nearly the same age. While RIT doesn't have digital bells, the carillon bells are founded in tradition.
Jeff Hering, director of the Center for Religious Life noted, "Historically, this was a musical instrument housed in the church tower or belfry and consisted of a series of bronze bells manually played from a keyboard." While RIT does not have physical bells that are played manually, the Center for Religious Life held a digital version in the back of the chapel. Speakers that played the music were (and still are, though not currently working) housed in the chapel tower and on top of James E. Booth Hall.
When the bells worked, they chimed each hour beginning at 7 a.m. and ending at midnight. Hering mentioned, "Some students with a sense of humor have complained that the tolling of the bells only reminds them of how late they are to class!"
In addition to tolling on the hour, the bells were also programmed to play music only three times per day, as not to overwhelm those who heard them.
"The music reflected the diversity of our campus," Hering said. "Sacred music in different traditions, the Beatles, Broadway musicals, Mexican folk music, eastern European music, not to mention having a carillon recording of the RIT alma mater for commencement reflects a commitment to various cultures and tastes."
Nine months ago, a user on Reddit (u/ghostofrit) brought up the bells, wondering what happened to them wondering, "Is it because I don't believe in Santa anymore?"
The petition is currently being reviewed and actively pursued by Student Government. The latest update on the petition was posed on Sept. 20, noting that Student Government has discussed replacing and/or fixing the bells with Facilities Management Services (FMS). An exact cost and who is responsible for that cost is unknown. The post promises updates as they come.
So if you're wondering what exactly happened to the bells and what might be in the works for them, the short answer is that FMS is working on it. John Moore, assistant vice president of FMS noted that "FMS would be responsible to make the repair or replacement. The finding of the work is a university decision."
Moore also noted that the speaker system used for the bells is currently intact and works, but the bell system itself failed electronically back in 2014. Replacing the carillon bell system has been discussed, but a new digital carillon bell system would not be compatible with the speakers, so the speakers would also have to be replaced.
To complicate the situation, the bells were installed at a time when campus was much smaller and the bells could not be heard in newer parts of campus like Global Village. There lies a question of whether or not the bells are important enough for the student population to spend the money on installing new speaker components in other areas or just sticking with the two locations the bells have rung out of for 30 years.
Getting a new carillon bell and speaker system would cost money, no doubt, but the exact cost is unknown currently because the decision relies heavily on who or what organization would fund the replacement or repair of the bells and what exactly would need to be done.
"The replacement bells would be another electronic system, cost to be determined," Moore said. "FMS is working on obtaining the cost associated with restoring the bells."
Because the bells were originally part of the Center for Religious Life, they could be responsible for conjuring up funds to fix the bells. Center for Religious Life most likely would not be able to raise funds enough to replace the entire system. However, crowdfunding is a possible option.
The University could also help to raise funds for the bells, but the question then becomes: What is more of a priority?
RIT does have some much-needed maintenance to take care of, including the air conditioning system in the SAU, installing racquetball courts in the gym and upgrading some of the outdated, small bathrooms on campus. Those projects would be even more expensive than replacing the bells, so the university must decide which projects it can pursue and which it cannot. The other side of the story holds the argument on tradition. 30 years of faculty, staff, and students have heard the bells ringing and remember them fondly.
"The bells certainly add to the university's community feeling," Moore said. "They have been part of the campus for 30 years. It is important to the entire RIT community including alumni."
Hannah Folby, a fifth year Mechanical Engineering major who works at the Center for Religious Life is one of the now relatively small number of students on campus who remember the bells. She remarked, "I liked hearing the bell when I would walk to class freshman and sophomore year. It made going to class a little less horrible. I liked the bell because a lot of the songs I knew and sang along with."
Dr. Sandra Johnson, senior vice president for student affairs, spoke a bit about the priorities of the university and where the bells fit into those priorities. She said, "As a university, we look at all of the things that we would like to do, you know, you can't do everything, so it would come down to 'what's the priority' and right now it's not in there."
That's not to say the university doesn't see the tradition of the bells as a priority, but administration must weigh it with new priorities that the university is trying to move forward on and are more important to the student population
RIT is home to NTID, one of the largest schools of higher education for the Deaf and hard of hearing, so when it comes to the bells, Johnson says, "You would have 1200 students saying, 'Why are you spending money on this?' "
NTID and access services is one of RIT's top priorities.
"Since NTID was established, RIT said that this is a part of our community and our fabric, and so we are going to be the leader in degree completion, access to higher education, success in degree programs for Deaf and hard of hearing people," Johnson said. "So when you're a leader of a particular initiative, a lot of things you do will tie into that."
With students who can't hear the bells, there lies yet another question of priority. There is no finite number of students who would enjoy the bells if they were brought back, but there are other initiatives regarding access that the university feels is more important and relevant to the community as a whole. In a couple of years, there will no longer be students on campus who recall the chiming of the bells or miss them.
This exact argument is why Folby believes that the need to implement the new speaker system is now.
"The bell was a unique part of RIT I noticed when I first came here. I think students took it for granted when it was still working," she said.
"Now students who are freshmen and sophomores don't know the bell exists so they can't fight for it to be brought back."
All in all, there are no plans in place currently to fix the bells and speakers, but that doesn't mean they aren't getting looked into. The PawPrints petition was able to obtain enough signatures and Student Government will be looking into the issue until there can be a definitive answer.
FMS is looking into the cost of assessing and repairing the system and the speakers in a cost-effective way. If the bells can be replaced at a decent price (think $20,000), crowdfunding may be a viable option to restore the bells in some shape or form. If the cost is larger than that, though, priorities come into play.
The bells were a tradition at RIT for 30 years, and many students argue that they are still important.
"I think we need it back to boost student morale as they walk through the depths of winter or scorching hot summer to get to class," Folby said.
When an initiative like this is brought to Student Government and the administration, the questions of cost and priority are always going to be on the table. While this one is up for debate, the case isn't entirely closed yet. The PawPrints petition has not been closed or officially tended to and updates are anticipated in the future.