The U. of I. is grappling with a party school label. Is it time for offense or defense? The university should be doing both.
On Monday I received an email with an attention-grabbing headline declaring the University of Illinois the number one party school in the country, courtesy of the Princeton Review’s college rankings. I’d say kudos but as the Chicago Tribune pointed out, the distinction seems pretty dubious. If anything, using the label “party school” is a less obvious way of saying something like “binge drinkers.” I’ve never known that to be a compliment.
Others apparently feel the same. U. of I.’s PR machine went into damage control not long after the college rankings were unveiled. School spokeswoman Robin Kaler was quoted by the Associated Press, saying U. of I. students “are serious, they are hard-working, and to try to present them as being somehow irresponsible is insulting.” U. of I.’s Chancellor Phyllis Wise said much of the same, telling USA Today, “This is not a scientifically based ranking. It’s a promotion for The Princeton Review.” Wise announced her resignation as chancellor yesterday afternoon.
Frankly, I was surprised to hear the U. of I. go all-out on offense.
Each year the Princeton Review unveils its annual rankings as broad sample sizes of the collegiate ecosystem. And each year, the party designation draws gratuitous attention to one lucky or unlucky school, depending on the perspective. The Review gathers information from tens of thousands of students to assemble its rankings, leaving tons of room for ambiguity and what most consider a flawed estimation of a school’s culture. I wouldn’t presume to think the U. of I., the University of Iowa, or the University of Wisconsin (top 3 in the rankings) are so-called “party” schools, but I also wouldn’t be quick to dismiss it as a reflection of a flawed system, however flawed it may be.
The U. of I. does not want a poll to pigeon hole its students, many of whom are more than likely hard-working and dedicated. Still, if perception is reality, a more objective approach might be to consider what students from around the country are apparently saying. This isn’t about having to admit to a suspect label; it’s about taking better control of the situation.
The subtext as it pertains to trial lawyers, especially firms that specialize in injury matters, is particularly troubling when it comes to safety. While school administrators are hard at work crafting carefully worded statements and ostensibly discrediting the Princeton Review’s methodology, a disgruntled parent or student may be thinking of how the ramifications may play out on campus. Should the parents’ worst nightmare come to fruition, they may also wonder how it plays out in a courtroom.
Imagine this hypothetical: A mother’s 18-year-old son dies of alcohol poisoning while pledging a fraternity. The mother claims negligence, citing that the school failed to protect her son even though the school knew of an exorbitant amount of injuries to students as a result of underage drinking and hazing. And here’s another: A young woman is the victim of a sexual assault on campus and the police report says that alcohol was a contributing factor, just days after the school’s been ranked the number one party school in the country. It doesn’t take a lawyer to draw certain conclusion for a jury; the media will take care of that.
The next annual ranking is less than 52 weeks away. The U. of I. and any other “party school” may want to acknowledge beforehand that, when it comes to party culture, the school is prepared to go on offense and a bit of defense.