Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Party hard, drink hard ... I mean, party hard, study hard

Yesterday, in response to the Princeton Review's ranking of Penn State as the number two party school in the nation, PSU flack Bill Mahon took the "yeah, it's true, we've gotta problem, but it ain't our fault" approach with the CDT. Clearly denying that Penn State is a big party school wasn't going to work with the local paper; most reader have observed first hand either student drinking or its consequences , such as barf on the streets of State College on a Saturday or a Sunday mornings. Shifting the blame to bar owners was really Mahon's only recourse with this audience.

Today the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tackled the story. They spoke with Penn State's second string flack Tyson Kendig. Most readers of the Post-Gazette are not intimately familiar with life in Happy Valley, hence he didn't admit that Penn State's ranking as the #2 party school had even a kernel of truth to it. Rather, Kendig took the, "sure colleges and universities in general have alcohol problems, without addressing whether Penn State was any worse than average" approach. I guess he didn't think it was his job to needlessly confirm the truth to readers who are in the dark? He then took the offensive with a two prong attack. First he attacked the methodology used in the Princeton Review ranking and he then tried to shift attention to a ranking he considers more scientific-read more favorable.

"I don't know that being regarded as a top party school is flattering," said Tysen Kendig, university spokesman. "Certainly, we want our students to have a great experience at the university, both academically and socially. But I think we need to be careful at all colleges and universities because we are dealing with a climate of alcohol abuse. And that's definitely not something that any college or university would be proud of."

Mr. Kendig also questioned the legitimacy of the survey.

"It's really an insignificant ranking," he said, "and it discredits itself by not being scientifically based. It's essentially an online poll.

"I will give credit to the Princeton Review. They do a terrific job of marketing these surveys. There are a lot of other rankings out there that quantify other aspects of the college experience. Last week, Washington Monthly had a poll of the best universities in terms of service to the nation, and it was more scientific. Penn State ranked No. 3 in that poll.

"Personally, I think that's a much more significant poll, yet they've gotten relatively little attention compared to the party school ranking.

"It's unfortunate."

Kendig also echoed the comments of Mahon from yesterday. But where as Mahon acknowledged a problem and shifted the blame to bar owners, Kendig gives the impression that Penn State is winning the battle against excessive drink despite the efforts of bar owners.

Mr. Kendig said the university is doing what it can to keep partying under control.

"It's a constant battle, especially in an area where the alcohol climate is significant," he said, "where there are ads in the daily newspapers promoting drink specials at bars every day of the week."

Mr. Kendig said there are marketing campaigns aimed at raising students' awareness of the dangers of irresponsible drinking. There's also a partnership of university officials, government leaders, police and representatives from various bars and beer distributors "looking at this problem and trying to promote responsible drinking and get us away from situations where we end up with students in the hospital."

According to university officials, more than 350 Penn State students were taken to the emergency room for alcohol overdoses last year.

Since that last sentence is not attributed to Kendig, it likely came from the Penn State Live story to which I linked yesterday.
The Post-Gazette realized that Kendig was spinning them.

While the students who voted Penn State so high embrace the vibrant social life, university officials do their best to play it down.

And they had the common sense to talk with some students about the reality. First there was Kathryn Stetz a waitress from Sports Cafe & Grill whose observation accurately reflect my own.

"There's a lot of alcohol at Penn State campus," she said, "but it's more of a social thing you do with your friends.

"If you want to drink on a Monday night, you can find someone who will drink with you on a Monday night. But most people stick to Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It's crazy here on the weekends."

Ms. Stetz acknowledged "underage drinking is common."

"Freshmen, they come here, it's their first time away from home, and a lot of them have never drunk before," she said. "They know they can go to a fraternity and get a beer if they want to get a beer."

Fittingly, the paper gives a frat boy the last word.

Joel Gilchrist, 22, a fifth-year senior at Penn State, lives at the Zeta Psi fraternity house on East Foster Avenue just off campus. His reaction to the university's ranking is the opposite of that from the administration.

"I think it's awesome," he said. "It may be a little high, but we're definitely a Top 10 school.

"This is a good party house. We always have a lot of people. We have a motto here: Party hard, drink hard ... I mean, party hard, study hard. The week is for school work. But you can always find a good time here on the weekends."

Still, he said, it doesn't get out of control. Zeta Psi is part of the university's Interfraternity Council, which monitors the Greek organizations. They aren't allowed to have kegs on the premises and, yes, they do check IDs of people coming in, he said.

"Everyone in the house has a responsibility to keep things under control," he said.

Football weekends, Mr. Gilchrist said, are the best -- or the worst, depending on your perspective.

"Some of the older alumni come to town, we don't tend to be as wild, I guess," he said, "but the younger alumni who graduated maybe two, three, four years ago, they still have the frat guy in them."

As far as the ranking is concerned, he doesn't doubt its legitimacy.

"If you have that many people saying it, there must be something to it," he said. "They must be having a good time."

Thank you Gilchrist for making my point about football culture and drinking culture going hand -in-hand.

Update: The Philadelphia Inquire and most of the other Pennsylvania papers that I checked only carried the AP wire story on the Princeton Review Ranking. The exception was the Harrisburg Patriot-News. As can be seen from the lede,"Penn State University students have proved they don't need more reasons to party, but here's another one anyway," their story took the position that the ranking was obvious. Penn State flack Bill Mahon provided the Patriot-News with Penn State's take on the ranking. He wasn't as forthright as he had been with the CDT.

PSU spokesman Bill Mahon said that the study, because it relies on online voters, discredits itself as statistically irrelevant.

"If you conducted research that way in a class at Penn State, you'd fail the class," he said.[...]

"All the education we can do, it's still difficult to compete with 5-cent-beer ads," Mahon said

That sounds more like Kendig. So far, we see two different versions of Penn State's response to the ranking, one for the home audience and a second one for everyone else.

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