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Radio broadcast explores drinking culture of "#1 Party School"

May 19, 2010 11:49 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The NPR program This American Life (TAL) ran an entire hour show the weekend of December 18-20, 2009 on the drinking culture of America’s #1 party school — Penn State. According to The Princeton Review, Penn State has “won the crown” that rotates between schools from year to year; the University of Florida winning it last year and West Virginia University winning it the year before that.

The show starts off with the host, Ira Glass, sitting on the porch of one of the show’s producers, Sarah Koenig, in State College, PA at 1:00 am, and watching the students, many of whom have been drinking, walk through the neighborhood loudly talking and laughing, throwing trash on peoples’ lawns, urinating in their gardens and vandalizing public property all in the span of 34 minutes.

While the survey that is given by The Princeton Review is not actually a scientific survey, 120,000 students are asked questions regarding beer and alcohol consumption, as well as other drug usage, fraternity life, and hours spent studying.  Penn State, according to the radio show, has always placed very high; coming in at #3 last year and #6 the year before.

Penn State President Graham Spanier responded to the “honor” by saying

That doesn’t bother me at all, actually … it’s not like somebody came in here and did an assessment of the place. It’s a bit of a problem that we inherit, but we also have a cultural environment here or an atmosphere that fosters it.

He also belittles the survey, suggesting that Penn State will always win an “online, web-based thing” since there are such rapid fans, students, and alumni willing to vote for Penn. Almost in the same breath, he brags that Penn State is the “number one University on Facebook and Twitter.” So does he accept or deny the influence of the internet? Even through he mildly cringes at the title of number one party school (“Couldn’t we have gotten second, or third?” he jokingly complains,) the pride is also undeniable.

The reporters for This American Life spent a weekend in State College, PA (home of Penn State) and the rest of the show explores issues such as the college’s very popular tailgating parties, how businesses and residents deal with and adapt to the culture that surrounds them, frat parties, how police are trying to keep the area safe, and a surprisingly common crime for the town — namely, walking into  a strange house, uninvited, while drunk and falling asleep on a comfortable couch or bed.

It was reported on the show that Penn State’s administration’s tracking of their students’ drinking habits shows that every Friday and Saturday night 75% of the students drink with over half of the students regularly binge drinking at dangerous levels. According to TAL, Penn State’s student surveys have reported that 1/4 of the students state that drinking has caused them to miss class or fall behind in their school work, 15% report being hit or assaulted, 7% said that drinking led to an unwanted sexual experience, and 6% report getting into what they call “a real physical fight.”

Along the way, many related issues such as alcohol poisoning, adults’ perspectives on teen drinking (especially among the alumi of the school), and disorderly conduct and public drunkeness charges are explored as well, with mixed opinions. Sadly, many of the opinions offered are ones either in favor of the drinking culture of the school (such as with the alumni), or ones that feel that the problem is either something not to be that concerned about or the old, tired, “Well…they’re going to do it anyway”  way of thinking.

Even Ira Glass questions what the fuss is all about:

The whole time we were at Penn State, I found myself flipping back and forth about all the drinking I saw going on. Sometimes it seemed really extreme, other times it seemed like, ‘So what?’ Kids drink at college, most of them get through it.

He said that lots of the kids he talked to said something that “was hard to argue with– when else will they get a chance to do this?”

This is evidence of the typical throwing up of one’s hands in the face of supposed impossible-to-change norms. The president (and some alumni) invoke “inheritance” or “legacy” or “part of the experience” as an excuse not to change norms. For example, attendees at at the traditional tailgating event stated emphatically that “alumni will revolt” if the ritual were to cease at the college.

Adults are generally complicit in this play. Portrayed as tailgating alumi, gleefully getting a young woman drunk on her 21st birthday; as embittered civilians living in the same town as the college and fixating on the destruction the students wreak on their homes; as grin-and-bear-it merchants, making a buck off the University’s cachet; as hard-working and often amused law enforcement.

In a follow up online chat on Penn State’s radio station WPSU, Sarah Koenig and Penn State Vice President of Student Affairs Damon Sims answered questions about certain elements of the story and their thoughts on possible solutions to the school’s alcohol-related problems.

Sims offers an interesting comment:

The answer to this problem is not found in one magical solution. Beefed up enforcement will help, but it will not in itself get us where we need to be. Education is important, but without enforcement it will have little effect. New policies and practices must be part of the equation, but only part. Excessive tailgating must be stemmed, but doing so will affect behavior eight Saturdays each year. The bars should stop offering ridiculous drink specials, but doing so will not stop excessive drinking in other venues. Academic rigor should be the hallmark of the undergraduate experience at Penn State, but students must still enjoy free time, and we must ensure that they do so safely. This is a complicated issue, and it will change only if we decide to work in concert with one another. Students must be a key element in the solution. If we treat them as the problem, the problem will deepen.

Koenig is asked a number of questions, being a resident of the university town, regarding her thoughts on the area and what she has witnessed while living there. She relates that there were a number of things — both favorable and unfavorable — that didn’t make the final cut of the program.  One interesting problem that she was told of involves the police and how helpless they feel. Koening states:

One thing about the police (which also got cut for time): They do try, and they’re great here. But they don’t have the resources, or, frankly, the mandate to really crack down. First off, their fine structure is laughably low. [The] chief  told me they’ll issue a $300 fine for noise, the maximum, at a party, and then kids will pass a hat, on the spot, practically, and it’s over. For the students, these fines and such are simply the cost of doing business. Also, they only stop underage drinkers if they’re creating a disturbance or clearly breaking some other law. Mostly, they leave them be. Finally, there aren’t that many ordinances they can use to crack down. There’s the noise ordinance, and that’s about it. There’s one for nuisance houses, but that involves a point system and it’s more complicated.

A very insightful episode of this radio program and it can be heard here.