hereby ask a question that to some is purely rhetorical:

Is Ohio University a party school?

The clear answer is “well, duh.” Now that school is back in session, all one needs to do is stroll down Court Street on a typical weekend evening to see the proof: Mobs of happy, boisterous, obviously tipsy OU students spinning down the sidewalks like hockey pucks. Actually, that’s a pretty fair assessment on many weeknights as well.

Much more helpful questions are these:

Is OU still a “top” party school?

Is OU a party school to the exclusion of all else?

Is OU becoming less of a party school?

Our cover story today answers these questions to varying degrees, though my own answers are, respectively, “beats me,” “no way” and “most likely.”

Whether Ohio University remains a leading party school is impossible to answer without buying into the fantasy that there’s some scientific, statistical way to confirm a subjectively amorphous term such as “top party school.” It’s like commissioning an Ivy League mathematics department to solve the eternal question “cats or dogs?”

Partying, mainly with alcohol but also with various legal and illegal drugs, takes place throughout society. So the fact that’s it’s a given at thousands of college campuses across the country, places inhabited by mostly single young people keen on socializing with one another, should be no surprise. The surprise would be if American colleges weren’t by and large “party schools.”

The silly factor enters the picture when various pseudo-authorities release surveys or studies that purport to show which colleges are bigger party schools than others, along with the “top 10” or “top 25.” Expert at creating and disseminating click-bait decades before the term entered popular jargon, Playboymagazine started the ball rolling on the whole party-school fraud back in the ’70s with its surveys of the country’s top party schools.

(Note:Snopes.com insists that Playboy never did “party school rankings” before 1987 and then only started annual rankings in 2009 (with OU placing first in 2015), but in this limited instance, I beg to differ with Snopes. I remember seeingthe surveys, and constantly hearing about them, during my mid-’70s tenure at OU. According to conventional wisdom at the time, Ohio University was a perennial winner or runner-up, and at one point, as legend had it, was disqualified “for going professional.” I am skeptical about that one, since I never saw the Playboyedition where it supposedly appeared.)

Just as we’re tempted to click on links to “See Beautiful Actresses at Their Worst” or “Guess Who These Ugly Children Grew Up Into,” Playboyand outlets such as “The Princeton Review” placed a solid bet that compiling “Top Party School” lists would snag the interest of every college kid or alum in America.

So, no, sorry, with regard to the first question – “Is OU still a top party school?”– it’s impossible to define or select a hierarchy of American colleges that go in for more partying than schools ranked lower on a party school list and less partying than schools ranked higher.

As for the second question – does being a party school preclude a college from standing out in more positive areas? – the answer is a firm no. However, what is true is that when a college doesn’t stand out in positive areas such as academics, research or student engagement, the party-school reputation will gain outsize attention.

That’s the difference between my four years at Ohio University (1973-77) and the university now. After the 1980s, OU made steady progress in its academic and all-round reputation, and its steadily climbing enrollment ever since has reflected those improvements (with the exception of the past year or two when demographics and other factors outside OU’s control have started to reverse enrollment growth).

When I photographed the Campus Involvement Fair on College Green on Sunday (see our photo gallery), the difference between, say, 1973, and 2019, struck home in a powerful way. Several thousand first-year students thronged onto the green on Sunday, window-shopping among more than 350 student organizations represented at the fair. Many of the 4,000 to 5,000 new students who attended could be seen writing their names on sign-up sheets for everything from the Society for Women Engineers to a club for professional wrestling fans.

Travel in time back to the fall of 1973 when I first arrived at OU, and I can’t recall any similar public event where student organizations solicited new members. During my four years here, I never joined anything, was never encouraged to join anything, and was too busy having fun with friends to care about joining anything. As in high school, I partied like crazy, not unlike most other students at the time. I made a lot of friends; got pretty good grades; benefited from some great professors and survived the lousy ones; and graduated after “the best four years of my life,” as the saying goes.

But without many inducements for productive activities at OU, either vocational (no internship requirement in journalism at the time, no active recruitment to do anything) or avocational, the party-school reputation had an easier time rising to “top of mind.” Even in high school when talking to former Bobcats in my hometown, I heard salacious tales of party-town Athens long before hearing anything about academics. And I was probably guilty of the same malfeasance when telling other people about OU and Athens in the years after graduating.

So the answer to the final question – “Is OU less of a party school now?” – is a qualified “most likely.” It’s relative to the fact that socializing and drinking and drugging apparently no longer dominate campus life the way they did when I was a student. Students still like to drink and party, of course, but now appear more likely to get involved in productive (or at least neutral) pursuits than they did during my years here.

The fact that many OU Bobcats like to party makes them no different than most other young adults across the country, whether in college or not. But OU students (as quoted in our cover article today) don’t want to be defined by their attendance at a “top party school,” and recoil when they are.

That’s a good thing, and is something I couldn’t say when I was a student here.

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