Social whirl puts students in spin

October 26, 1995

"Can this be," mused an editorial in the Chicago Tribune, "the end of western civilisation as we know it?" The Tribune, the powerhouse newspaper of the Midwest, could not resist poking fun at the University of Chicago, the region's powerhouse campus. The source of the amusement was the university's attempt to improve the social life in a place that is generally reckoned not to have one.

Two years ago an irreverent Harvard-based student magazine, Inside Edge, published a survey of the social life of the nation's largest 300 co-ed universities and ranked Chicago 300th. The magazine rapidly went out of business, and the survey was totally unscientific, as a university spokesman pointed out. It mainly consisted of "a bunch of Harvard guys sitting around and deciding what they thought of universities they hadn't been at," he said, and rated universities on such criteria as "the attractiveness of the female student body". But somehow the cap fitted.

Inside Edge captured Chicago's reputation as the last ivory tower in America, where 3,500 undergraduates and 6,500 graduate students toil through biting winters at a learning machine that grinds out 300 PhDs a year. In the past six years the university has collected five Nobel prizes in economics. Recent efforts by university authorities to leaven the mix - with pub games at all hours in a revamped social centre and parties blasting alternative rock at freshmen arrivals - have unsettled and even angered some students, who say they were drawn to Chicago by its studious image.

So has a startling string of wins by the university's football team, in a place that has never set much store on sports. Chicago once abolished its football team as a distraction to the serious process of learning, and for many years games were regarded as little short of a joke.

The Chicago student body, said one female alumnus, was "a bunch of really intelligent, generally anti-social people collected together". Occasionally students went wild, she said - at the Lascivious Costume Ball, for example - but the fraternities common at other universities were virtually non-existent, and socialising was generally scheduled in study breaks.

Chicago's most famous president, Robert Hutchins, pioneered in the middle of this century the study of "great books" in a core curriculum. The university produced scientist Enrico Fermi, whose team achieved the first controlled nuclear reaction, and conservative economist Milton Friedman.

The current night life, by common consent, does not get much hotter than the cubicles in the Joseph Regenstein Library, which on Fridays and Saturdays are often jammed until midnight. Friendships are made and broken in "The Reg" and its smoky basement cafe.

Students like the monastic life. "I was not expecting much," said Duncan Brown, editor of the university newspaper, The Maroon, who is majoring in 17th-century British history. "I had heard all the stories. I was drawn to this place because I could just surround myself in my studies for four years."

So it came as a shock when pamphlets from the once-stuffy Reynolds Club, now remodelled as a new focus for the campus, showed The Reg with a slash through it. They urged readers to discover the "new centre" of student life, playing pool until 2am on the club's new tables, "sitting around the fireplace and reading", and "watching your favourite programmes with friends" on the new large-screen television.

There have been other more subtle changes, produced by a task force on the "quality of the student experience". Booksellers Barnes and Noble have taken over the university bookshop and livened it up, with the help of a gourmet coffee shop. Accommodation and computer link-ups have been improved. The university says it was responding to students' needs. "You come here, you expect to do some work," said spokesman Jeff Makos. "But you also expect to have enough stuff on the side to get you through."

But Brown says the Reynolds' ad was offensive. "Here academics drives student life," he said. Others have lamented the passing of old ways, and say it is totally inappropriate for the university to encourage them to leave the library and party.

"People don't come here for the social scene," 18-year-old Carla Brooke, told the Tribune. "I didn't come to be social."

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