Overton: Drinking reputation hurts UI, needs fixing

BY JON OVERTON | JULY 17, 2014 5:00 AM

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Iowa City in the summertime is paradise. Traffic is lighter, the locals awaken from their apparent hibernation, and there’s a bunch of artsy festivals. It’s all very relaxing, unlike during the school year, when it’s impossible to actually have a pleasant evening on a Friday or Saturday downtown.

The University of Iowa has a real problem on its hands that may make its new campaign to recruit more in-state students a challenge.

When I was a high-school senior, living in the fairly typical Iowa town of Marshalltown, and I decided to attend the UI, I made that choice because the journalism program here is pretty swell, in-state tuition is relatively cheap, and I wanted to live in a somewhat urban area.

But none of that stuff mattered, because the instant the words “University of Iowa” escaped my mouth, 90 percent of the time, from Iowans young and old living across the state, the immediate response went something to the effect of “Whoa, party school.”

That is what Iowans think we’re about. What immediately comes to mind to a sizable chunk of (if not most) Iowans is not our top-notch med school, law school, writing program, or anything even remotely academic. It’s the UI’s reputation as a party school.

I felt embarrassed to tell anyone that I was going here because I knew how they would react. I’m a serious student. I want to go to grad school. I don’t want to be associated with binge drinking because the entire drinking culture here conflicts sharply with my identity.

Sure, some students here are very studious and hardworking throughout the week and choose to spend their weekends attending wild parties. I get that, but that’s not what people on the outside see.
And given the state of Iowa’s rather socially conservative temperament, getting students the UI actually wants, who by the way are going to be the serious students who actually care about school, is going to be tricky if everyone thinks all we do is get wasted.

It doesn’t matter if all colleges have a prominent drinking culture, and it doesn’t matter if either Iowa State University of the University of Northern Iowa has a bigger drinking problem than the UI does. What matters is that we are known throughout the state primarily for booze. The reality on the ground, in this case, is completely irrelevant.

The UI has an image problem that is positively toxic to serious in-state students who’d rather spend a Saturday afternoon not getting drunk at a football game. Who do you think is more likely to get better grades and graduate on time, nerds or perpetual drunks (not that you can’t be a drunk nerd). I know now that it’s actually very easy to avoid the drinking culture at the UI, but as a naïve little high-schooler, I had no idea.

So how does the UI get Iowans to recognize it as the excellent school that it is?

Admit that there’s a drinking problem. Maybe actually try to change it. For starters, the UI could actually put a little more effort into promoting the massive number of events going on virtually all the time during the school year that no one knows about.

Or the UI could be upfront with incoming students about the arguably unhealthy drinking culture, but emphasize that you can avoid it, that Iowa City and the university really do have a lot to offer besides constantly getting wasted. Otherwise, when UI reps visit high schools to recruit students and when prospective students see the upcoming ads bragging about the excellent academics here, they’re going to just assume it’s public-relations malarkey.

Who knows, if the UI markets itself just right and takes some major steps to discourage binge drinking, maybe it can actually change its image among Iowans and bring more in-staters to campus. It would take a while, but removing the stigma of being a party school would be well worth it.

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