Stuffy deans downplay Iowa’s status as #1 party school

Hawkeye football fans celebrate with a wax effigy of John Kerry.

Hawkeye football fans celebrate with a wax effigy of John Kerry.

So it’s not just that I remember being 21: the Princeton Review has ranked my University of Iowa the #1 party school in the nation. The way they do it is they take some mice who have never partied before, and then they release them on campus and see how many of them have little stamps on their feet the next morning. Mice who get pregnant have to leave the study and go to community college. The University has basically been running the same experiment for years, but now that it’s achieved scientific results they’re being dicks about it. I quote spokesman Tom Moore:

In each of the last four years, alcohol harm to our students has decreased. It is, frankly, still too high. We are heartened, though, by the steady progress we have made, and are committed to continuing this progress.

Moore then ignited his hair with a flaming shot and fell backwards through the window.

It probably sucks to be a student life administrator at the #1 party school, even if you do get to spend hours complaining about it in the Foxhead. The University of Iowa is wonderful. Everybody loves it there, in part because it is an inexpensive state school that still conducts significant research and offers several quality programs. But mostly it is very fun. As a school of 30,000 students in a city of 70,000, it puts the town/gown ratio very high, and the natural emptiness of Iowa intensifies the feeling of being in a kind of cultural biosphere. The culture is bohemian; it is intellectual and eccentric, and it is rural and hearty, but mostly it is fun.

That puts the school’s administrators in a tough position, since almost everything bad that can happen to a college happens in the context of fun. On football Saturdays in Iowa City, the black prairie night runs gold with vomit. Wisdom holds that there are 99 liquor licenses within a one mile radius of the Pentacrest. The frats are enormous and know where to get Rohypnol. The cops are incredibly aggro, and it is not unusual for the occasional freshman to die of alcohol poisoning.

It is university policy to disapprove of all that, even though it is as much a part of Iowa’s identity as the teaching hospital and the crazy laser building. That’s why they responded to the #1 ranking not by mentioning what a vibrant campus community UI enjoys but by reminding us all that alcohol is harmful. That’s why everyone who graduates from college looks back on the parties ruefully.

I believe there are two problems with this approach. First of all, the university’s go-to statistic about decreased drinking at Iowa is not so inspiring. “The percentage of Iowa students who reported drinking in the last 30 days (75 percent) was the lowest in 20 years,” virtually every article on the rankings reports, “even if it was above the national average.” That is what we call damning with faint praise: even at their 20-year low, Hawkeyes still drink more than most.

But second, and more importantly, responding to “#1 party school” by saying how harmful drinking is invites other people to regard the ranking as a condemnation, too. The Princeton Review did not declare Iowa the #1 drinking school. Certainly, drinking is a huge part of Iowa’s social culture, but so is a vibrant downtown, a rental market that allows students to live in the kind of big Victorian houses where you can throw parties, and a surprisingly diverse and welcoming student body.

I was a hardcore nerd when I arrived at the University of Iowa, and I didn’t drink until I was 21. In the meantime I made lots of good friends, along with the kind of superficial friends that help a young person learn to navigate social life with confidence and decency. As an adult, this information has been at least as useful to me as what I learned in Quest for Human Destiny. Yet the university treats Iowa City’s famous nightlife culture as an embarrassment, even a threat.

I think that’s a bad strategy. Parents may tell colleges that they want their children to engage in maximal reading and minimal yell-talking, but mostly they are participating in a mutual falsehood. A college education is important. But part of being educated is the experience of attending college, of living on your own and making increasingly important decisions about who you are and what you associate with.

Often, who you are is drunk, and you associate with other drunk half-educated people. I think that is good for you, in the same way that periodically chasing people is better than walking all the time. You wouldn’t want to chase as your sole means of locomotion, and probably any governing entity would have to treat chasing as a problem to be squelched, but that doesn’t make it bad.

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