March 4, 2020

DERY | The Demise of Work Hard, Play Hard

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Work-hard, play-hard, blah blah blah, Cornellians know to have fun, blah blah blah. People party here — we get it, whether we like it or not. But, as a 17-year-old applicant a year ago, at a time when I thought I’d be partying instead of writing articles about partying on Friday nights, Cornell’s intellectual-partying bimorph was an intriguing appeal, as it is for each class’s prospective students. Admissions ambassadors are well aware that “work-hard, play-hard” is a very powerful pitch to all senioritis-ridden applicants seeking a prestigious degree.

So, if we look past the apparent tensions between administration and Greek Life —  the source of nearly all organized partying — maybe the two are on the same team after all. Even though Cornell, and most colleges for that matter, seemingly aim to suppress partying, that very culture is a positive PR-boost in the eyes of prospective applicants. In this regard, by suppressing party culture, colleges shoot themselves in the foot. Especially at a school hoping to increase its class size, Cornell knows the risks of playing bad-cop. Given this reality, I am proud of President Pollack’s suspension of Greek Life last semester in response to the death of a fellow freshman. To me, taking the high road is a promising indication of prioritizing student safety over a party image. But if only I could end the column on this note.

In reality, though Cornell can still rely on its Ivy League prestige as a selling point to its applicant pool, other universities may not be afforded a similar luxury. In such cases, perhaps the administration isn’t as willing to impose severe sanctions on a key reason why their school earns its name in the first place.

Enter the Princeton Review’s “Party School” Rankings. The yearly report factoring in drug and alcohol consumption, student study habits and Greek Life is anything but a list of shame for the 20 schools on it. Instead, the rankings are welcomed by mainstream pop culture outlets like Barstool that thrive on marketing wild party culture to youth. In turn, colleges on the list receive free publicity among a demographic at the age range of their applicant pool.

Naturally, university administrations on the list may not necessarily oppose this underground PR-boost when their academics don’t raise similar levels of interest. Though no generalization is perfect (heck, Cornell ranked 13th on Newsweek’s party rankings in 2011), the point stands that a renowned academics program offers a school immunity from depending on party status as a selling point for applicants.

The effect: administrations of party schools are turning a blind eye to excessive partying on their campus —  and the truth is beginning to show in numbers. A 2008 study found that smaller, private institutions tend to include more of the recommended national policies regarding substance abuse and student conduct compared to larger, public schools. And though no statistically significant difference was found in policy implementation between non-party and party schools (as ranked by the Princeton Review), schools that were on the list for 1-2 years or 3-4 years still implemented a lower average number of recommended policies than those who weren’t ranked at all.

If anything, we can see that larger, public schools are becoming more lenient with partying when compared to smaller, private colleges. This tendency corroborates the lack of disciplinary action in response to excessive partying as reported by West Virginia Professor Karen Weiss, whose school currently ranks fourth in the party rankings.

Though any university administration will claim to adamantly oppose any offense of campus conduct for the sake of partying, any inkling of complacency at the expense of student safety is already a very slippery slope. Whether or not we are willing to admit it, pop culture’s glorification of the wild and dangerous has made party status a relevant metric among teens in the college search. Time will tell whether schools known for their nightlife are willing to prostitute their code of conduct for the sake of an anything-goes reputation.

And if trend becomes reality, and schools self-segregate based on whether they attract interest through academic rigor or having fun, perhaps the two categories will become mutually exclusive. If certain schools continue to invest in an intellectual community and crack-down on nightlife while others boast a permissive environment through laissez-faire policies, then work-hard and play-hard will constitute two different categories altogether.

But perhaps the solution to this college pandemic lies within the most significant finding of the 2008 study: none of the 71 schools in it implemented all 15 nationally recommended underage drinking policies, and even the schools that included the most only had about half of them. Uniform implementation and enforcement of student conduct on a national level is necessary to prevent a discipline gap between schools. And though I believe President Pollack is keeping us on the right side of the rift, for the long-term feasibility of work-hard play-hard, colleges must reevaluate and standardize the policies by which they crack-down on excessive and dangerous partying.

Roei Dery is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at rdery@cornellsun.com. The Dery Bar runs every other Thursday this semester.