The Best Party Experience at a Drinking-Intensive University

Since the day oh so many years ago that Paul Davenport coined the phrase “the best student experience at a research intensive university,” the University of Western Ontario has been preoccupied with this idea of having the best student experience.  It has been a point of pride for the school’s administration, its student council, and even its daily student newspaper—who wrote a whole article solely about Western’s superiority in the Globe and Mail University student experience rankings, excluding all other categories such as quality of teaching or student-faculty interaction (both of which Western placed very well in).

The phrase “best student experience” is tossed around at Western as often as the phrase “I care about my constituents” during an election period, conveniently forgetting the second half of the statement—“at a research intensive university”—which is really the most important part.

When Dr. Davenport became President of The University of Western Ontario back in 1994 the school had a reputation as a bit of a party school.  Entrance averages back then paled in comparison to the 86% average of the 2011/2012 first year class and Western was not seen as one of Canada’s premier universities as it is now.  That reputation was something that Dr. Davenport’s administration sought to change.  The slogan “the best student experience at a research intensive university” was meant to show a balance between Western’s enjoyable student atmosphere (read: rowdy shenanigans) and its desire to become one of the nation’s outstanding academic institutions.

That Dr. Davenport served as President for fifteen years—a feat only exceeded by W. Sherwood Fox and George Hall who both served 20-year terms—is a testament to his success.

However, a recent survey of Western alumni shows that the school’s reputation has floundered.  The student experience has once again overtaken the academic excellence as the focal point of Western’s reputation.  Western is once again seen as a party school, and this is coming from the same people who attended this institution back when it was in its partying heyday.

These findings are the primary motivation for the push by the UWO administration to re-brand the university, to remove the reputation of a school that somehow managed to rank as #4 on Playboy’s rankings of American party schools despite not even being located in the United States.

One thing that jumps out as a cause for this plummeting reputation is the sheer amount of alcohol-related events that happen on or around campus that are endorsed by student organizations such as the University Students’ Council (USC).

This semester has already seen the likes of Avicii, Stars, Bedouin Soundclash, The Arkells, and Kardinal Offishal invited to perform by student groups in locations that are best known for serving alcohol.  This caters to the popular music-loving, Bros Icing Bros-playing, line-up-at-8pm-to-get-into-Jim Bob’s crowd and, further, these events are being put on in conjunction with promotions companies such as Premier Life—whose main goal is to make students buy overpriced alcohol at specific bars on Richmond Row.  In and of themselves these events are fine, but the culture that they are held in is something that is very easy to find concerning.

On top of that, throw in the one Western tradition that seems to still exist: Homecoming.  Let’s look at what goes into the stereotypical Homecoming weekend at Western.  Friday night is Friday night; Homecoming doesn’t change this.  You go out, have a few drinks, whatever.  Then you wake up early Saturday morning so you can tap that keg before you cook up some pancakes, which you then proceed to drown with beer instead of real, homegrown Canadian maple syrup.  When the parade rolls by you take your Dixie cups out on the front lawn with all your other friends that are covered in so much purple that they look like they’ve all been beaten head-to-toe and scream incoherently as the floats pass by.  You might even chug your drink in public.  After that you finish off that keg before heading over to the football game while trying to smuggle in a water bottle filled with rum and Coke.  It gets confiscated and by half time your buzz is starting to wear off, so you decide that you should probably head home, leaving TD Waterhouse stadium half full—it’s not the 13th man anymore, more like the 12.5th.

That all really might not be so bad, but when you go home it isn’t to go to bed or watch a movie.  You’re just grabbing a quick tipple before you catch that bus downtown.  The Ceeps’ line is waiting and it in itself is a Western tradition.  From there it’s a night of rowdy booze-fuelled shenanigans.

The kicker in all of this is that the USC indirectly promotes these happenings through the parade and the promotion of purple clothing and attending the football game.  They don’t say “go forth and imbibe copious amounts of spirits,” but the simple act of introducing students to the Homecoming culture is enough.  Once introduced, it doesn’t take long before they too are lining up to get into the Ceeps on Homecoming Saturday.

It also doesn’t help that the main holidays on the UWO calendar are St. Patrick’s Day, $2.50 drink night at Jack’s, Friday (yes, every Friday), and the previously aforementioned Homecoming.  On these days the booze goes down like water and comes back up hours later as vomit.

But the point is that the things that Western is known for is the drinking and partying culture.  Any prestigious university ranking of the world’s greatest schools sees this and ranks Western accordingly.  Because they take into account the school’s reputation and the first thing people see when they look at this school is a bunch of undergrads rioting around the city of London like their Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) money entitles them to ownership of it.

Now, I just want to make something clear: that students are having a good time isn’t the problem.  That in and of itself is fine.  But in order for the University to maintain alumni donations or government funding they need to show that the B.A. you earn in between trips to Richmond Row is of the highest quality possible.  They need to show Western as an academic institution first and foremost, instead of a school for the mildly inebriated that doubles as a way for Ph.D. graduates to make a living.

And it’s not like we don’t have other, non-alcohol related events going on.  It’s not like our students are coming out of this school without the skills they need.  Different student clubs throw events like Poetry Slams or Coffee Houses where students can get together solely for the purposes of having a good time and expressing themselves.  Western graduates go on to be successful and do great things, such as Roberta Bondar, Alan Thicke, or Galen Weston.  The positives are all there.

The reputation the school has is like a holographic façade: if you look at it from a distance you see the drunken shenanigans, but if you look at it up close you see all these positives.

Indeed, it is exactly these positives that the phrase “best student experience” is supposed to refer to.  It’s supposed to refer to good academic programming.  It’s supposed to refer to students having a positive educational experience that consists of a balance between studying and relaxing.  It’s supposed to refer to the fact that students are satisfied—nay, proud—of their choice to come to the University of Western Ontario.

But, like I mentioned in the very beginning, everyone gets caught up in the “best student experience” part and overlooks the “at a research intensive university” part.  That Western is a university, a research intensive one no less, that produces academically-strong graduates is what should be celebrated, not the student experience, no matter how good it may be.  Whatever the UWO administration comes up with for its re-branding, I sincerely hope that highlighting academic excellence is at the heart of it.

However, action on behalf of the university to change outside perception can only go so far.  Students have a role to play in changing the stigma that is attached to this university.  I’m not saying that Western needs to become the Mormon-influenced beacon of purity that is Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, but that the onus is on students to recognize that their actions influence the way this school is perceived.  A lot of students will say that they don’t care, that the reputation of the school doesn’t affect them one bit.

But it does.  A good reputation for the school means more money going into the university to provide top-quality education from alumni and the government.  On the other hand, it is hard to justify spending either my hard-earned money or the money of the taxpayers to subsidize the educations of degenerate booze-hounds whose primary concern is which bar on Richmond Row has cover.

Students should care about Western’s reputation: not caring got us the reputation we have now.

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