Talks of the university’s party school reputation have resurfaced in the first few weeks of the semester, as a party attended by hundreds ended with police using tear gas in the street, and the chancellor insisted the image has affected enrollment.
SIUC has most likely had its party school image since the 1970s, when the town’s Halloween parties ended in drunken violence. Many people believe the school doesn’t live up to its reputation anymore, while some believe it never deserved it in the first place.
“Halloween was a big deal; it’s dead. It’s gone. It’s not here,” said Michael Harbin, undergraduate coordinator of recruitment and retention for the department of criminology and criminal justice.
Harbin, who attended SIUC from 1985-90, said while Halloween in Carbondale may have been notorious, he thinks it was the only outstanding party event the town had.
He said he attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from 1980-81 and thought U of I had much of the same party scene. He said he wouldn’t call SIUC a party school because all state schools have a party atmosphere.
Carbondale may have had 25,000 people on a typical Halloween night, Harbin said, and Champaign could have had 18,000 on the same night. He said 7,000 fewer or more people didn’t make that much of a difference when standing in the center of the crowd. Now, he said, the image is even less fitting.
“If anyone is telling someone this is still an unabashed party school, they haven’t been here to check it out,” he said. “They’re going off a 30- to 40-year-old reputation that I think has overblown since then.”
Todd Sigler, director of the SIU Department of Public Safety, said he always thought of Carbondale as a typical college town, even when the Halloween parties were at their peak in attendance.
“A lot of colleges have similar events,” he said “University of Wisconsin-Madison has a large Halloween … U of I has Unofficial St. Patrick’s Day. That’s just the Midwest.”
Chancellor Rita Cheng said in her State of the University Address Sept. 5 that interviews with prospective students have shown they have a false perception that the university has a bad reputation.
“If there’s no factual information out there, people will make up whatever they choose to fill the void,” she said in the speech.
However, as enrollment dropped for the eighth-straight year, some believe the party image is what the university needs to bring students back.
City Councilman Chris Wissmann, who attended SIUC from 1987-91, said he thinks the decline in parties at SIUC was a major cause of the enrollment decline. He said the university and city decided to do away with the party school reputation without really assessing what image to replace it with.
“We went from having an image — no matter how desirable or undesirable it was, it was an image that people related to and appreciated and came here for — to having no real reason to come here at all,” Wissmann said. “What image does SIU have now?”
SIUC reached its peak enrollment at 24,869 in 1991, according to Undergraduate Admissions official semester enrollment and Institutional Research fall enrollment reports.
In 1994, the City Council passed an ordinance that forced bars on the Strip to close at 10 p.m. on Halloween. The following year, enrollment fell to 22,418 and began its steady decrease.
Harbin, however, said the enrollment peak had more to do with a wave of demographic growth when there was a larger generation of college students.
“That peak in enrollment was a fluke,” he said. “It was a freak of nature.”
Still, Cheng said she agreed with Wissmann that the party image was never replaced with something positive.
“Because we have not been aggressive in our messaging and our marketing in recent years, those old perceptions linger,” she said.
There was a demographics downturn in the ’90s, and most campuses had an uptake in 2000, Cheng said, but SIUC didn’t because the university failed to market itself.
She said she hired marketing firm Lipman Hearne to help change prospective students’ perceptions of the institution.
“What we’ve done since I’ve become chancellor is to recraft our messaging to be an honest portrayal of what is going on on campus today,” Cheng said. “To emphasize strong academics, to showcase accomplishments of the students, to show the campus is a wonderful place to live and learn.”
In the Aug. 24-26 weekend after the first week of fall classes, Carbondale city police responded to 19 parties. Two of the reports were unfounded, 16 did not require enforcement action and one required enforcement action, according to police documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
There were also six reports of battery. One was unfounded, one did not require enforcement action and two were sent to prosecuting authorities. Two resulted in an arrest.
According to the report, there were 28 citations for underage consumption/possession of alcohol by a minor, and 15 citations for public possession of an open container of alcohol, while one person received a disorderly conduct citation.
Of the citations received, 22 were known to be SIUC students.
That same weekend, police broke up a party with an estimated 400 attendees and sprayed tear gas when a crowd formed in the street. When the Daily Egyptian ran a photo of the incident on the cover of the Aug. 27 edition, Cheng said it hindered the university’s efforts to squash the party image.
Eve Roosevelt, a senior from Albion studying forestry, said she had family who attended SIUC in the ‘90s, so she knew about the school’s reputation. She said she doesn’t think the image holds anymore.
“I feel like it’s pretty typical,” she said. “People think it’s still a huge party school. It is to an extent, but from what it used to be, it’s nothing.”
Roosevelt said she transferred to SIUC from a Kentucky university so she could be closer to home and because she heard good things about the university’s forestry program.
Sigler said he doesn’t think many students come to SIU for the parties anymore, but rather the academics. He said he sees students who take their degree seriously but still enjoy themselves on the weekends.
“I think many students come here for the programs, a value in the education,” he said. “They can find enjoyable things to do that fit what they
like in Carbondale. I don’t think we need a great big Halloween bash where 300 people are arrested and only because we ran out of police officers.”
Cheng said she agreed because the economy doesn’t allow people to go to school just to party; students take their degrees more seriously.
“People don’t go to school to party anymore,” she said. “It’s too expensive.”