Sucking down booze, sucking up to corporations

Anne Matthews paints a none-too-pretty picture of life on campus in "Bright College Years."

Published May 6, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

"take advantage of everything," was one Stanford student's advice to Chelsea Clinton after it was disclosed last week that the first daughter had chosen the prestigious West Coast campus over such Ivy League draws as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Brown. "She should do everything she can while she's here and not spend too much time on academic stuff."

That could result in a decidedly mixed experience for Chelsea, 17, and other members of the class of 2001. With corporate influence, violent crime and a fierce, market-driven approach to education seeping through academia's once impenetrable wall, the campus is increasingly becoming a reflection of the "real world," for better and worse.

In her new book, "Bright College Years" (Simon & Schuster), Anne Matthews explores the "remarkably unwatched industry" of higher education. A professor of history at New York University, Matthews conducted more than 400 interviews with students, administrators and faculty over four years. What she found on campuses of all shapes and sizes was astonishing -- and depressing: intellectual pursuits blurred by alcohol, students relegated to remedial classes, McDonald's everywhere.

Salon interviewed Matthews, by telephone and e-mail, about the changing face of education in America.

Chelsea Clinton is going to Stanford. Did she make a good choice?

I think she made a good choice. She's been raised in a world where new money and the politician-as-celebrity are the norm, and the Stanford/California culture accepts media celebrity with relative calm. The Ivy Leagues know how to deal with royalty and society, but not with people famous for being famous. Also, it's a pleasant campus with a fine pre-med track (Hillary Rodham Clinton has said her daughter is interested in medicine). The dance scene in San Francisco is noticeably more active than in, say, Princeton, N.J. And finally, it's 3,000 miles from Pennsylvania Avenue.

One wonders what the Clintons would have thought had they read this in your book: "After dark, the American campus splits into the reasonably civilized and the deliberately out-of-control."

Bad undergrad behavior is nothing new -- college kids have been drinking too much and not doing their reading assignments for 700 years. The American college campus is practically the last place in society where public drunkenness is not only accepted but expected. Still, the fact remains: 80 percent of campus crime is student-on-student; 90 percent involves drinking or, less often, drugs.

What kind of students are doing most of the drinking?

Your classic drinker is a fraternity or sorority member, an athlete and/or a white male in his first or second year. Students involved in the arts, community service or studying all drink less.

Is binge drinking still all the rage?

About 50 percent of all collegians are bingers (defined as five drinks in a row for men, four for women). Overall, according to a 1995 study by Harvard's School of Public Health, half the campus is drinking less, half is drinking a lot more. Given this level of intake, the night campus is a dangerous place. And drunken damage is one reason tuitions go up -- all those Coke machines body-slammed, exit signs shot out, paneling turned to kindling, lampposts head-butted and sinks and toilets torn out of the walls weekend after weekend.

What kind of serious crimes are most noticeable these days?

The intensity of campus crime is rising most: Harassment becomes assault, pilfering turns into auto theft. Hate crimes are way up.

It sounds like college is becoming a breeding ground for the criminal class.

Well, most students who commit crimes go on to be respectable adults. But the myth of college as a place of total freedom, a four-year timeout, is very strong. And when something goes really wrong -- a car wreck, a woman raped at a frat party -- the parents start to yell. "How dare you arrest my son?" "How dare you not safeguard my daughter?" And remember, these people are legally adults.

In your book, you point out that more than a quarter of college students must take remedial classes. Are we shipping people off to college who aren't ready?

Absolutely. Twenty-nine percent of today's first-time freshmen require remedial courses, usually in math, writing or both. Over one first-year student in four quits before sophomore year. Nearly half who enter college these days withdraw before finishing. America is not only the world's campus superpower but the great home of second- and third- and seventh-chance learning.

And only 28 percent of college students, according to your book, are interested in politics, which is an all-time low. What do students care about? What are they willing to fight for?

There's a lot of idealism on campus still, expressed often in practical action like tutoring or rehabbing local housing or environmental cleanup. But it's muted -- it has to be. Students are terrified they won't get jobs -- they've all read those ads for warehouse work at the Gap: "B.A. required, and the ability to lift 50 pounds." One college grad in five now holds a job that doesn't require a college degree.

You talk a lot about the corporatization of the American college campus -- how one school even has a Burger King Chair of American Enterprise.

Barnes & Noble already manages over 300 campus bookstores, including the venerable Harvard Co-op. Pizza Hut, Dunkin Donuts, McDonald's, Subway all love the college market. Faculty can be privatized as well; few eyebrows arch anymore at today's endowed chairs: the Mitsubishi Professor of Finance and the Toyota Professor of Material Science at MIT, the Federal Express Professor of Excellence in Communications Technology at the University of Memphis, the Burger King Chair in American Enterprise at the University of Miami, the Sears Roebuck Professorship in Economics at the University of Chicago.

Universities as shopping malls and industrial parks.

Campuses used to be detox zones, time away from the real world to figure out what you wanted from life and why. Now there's less of a sense of entering a different universe, what with all the Reebok outlets in the student union and HBO in the dorms. It used to be you could send a kid to college with a reading lamp and a record player; now a generation trained as mall consumers expects lots of entertainment and amenities, and campuses act like service industries -- the resort industry, actually -- to keep their paying customers happy.

In last week's New York Times, the president of Tulane University said in reference to merit scholarships, "Just because this (college) isn't a business doesn't mean you shouldn't use good business principles."

Maybe it's not such a bad thing, some administrators say quietly, to turn the student world commercial, the faculty cosmos entrepreneurial, and the administrative universe corporate. To let markets shape student life, faculty time and administrative style. Romantic inefficiency doesn't help the endowment grow. So let the line blur between public and private spheres; that's where the intellectual action is, the marketable lab findings. The president of New York's Queens College frankly says his school should train students to fill the hiring needs of the corporations that make campus donations.

A decade ago, the big news coming from campuses was the canon wars, with academics fighting for or against the inclusion of "third world" and minority contributions into core curriculums.

That's very old news on campuses now. At maybe a quarter of all schools, no one thinks twice anymore about including materials from all traditions. At other schools, the catalogs still look about like they did in 1969 -- or sometimes 1949.

What is the status of multicultural awareness and affirmative action on campus?

Much more of an issue at the graduate and professional school level, where real money and real careers are at stake. The hottest undergrad fights are mostly at selective public campuses in states with high minority populations -- Texas, California. Schools elsewhere are thrilled to get applications from students who are minorities; if you're academically talented and black, you get recruited in middle school now. The real minority in higher education is a student who's both smart and rich. They're incredibly rare.

For all the hype, has the Internet made much of a difference to college life?

At thoroughly wired campuses like Dartmouth or UC-Santa Cruz -- true fiber-optic villages -- up to 100,000 e-mails pass daily through the local system. Students can query professors around the clock. Faculty, with a keystroke, can alert 400 members of a lecture course to a change in field-trip itinerary, courses and seminars can form newsgroups and home pages. Tiny Native American schools like Sinte Gleska University in rural South Dakota can form a teaching consortium with Stanford. Certainly students at different schools communicate much more readily with friends through e-mail. And writing home gets a new twist too, since mothers have modems now. Parents log on to campus course sites, then send e-mail reminders to their kids about term paper due dates.

President Clinton wants to provide loans and subsidies for every American who wants to go to college. Is this a good proposal?

On graduation day, over half of students walk away with loan debts that may take decades to repay. I think the idea of more education for all is splendid, but we need some serious discussion about who, what, where and why. Not all 18-year-olds should be in college. I think too many people end up on campus for the wrong reasons -- fear, boredom, conformity, status. Older women will be the big new market for the 21st century. Late developers are great to have in class; time-wasters aren't. All of us -- politicians, taxpayers, educators -- need to consider what a campus is for: to make you rich? Decent? Wise? Or a member of the educated working poor?

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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