You might have read about the furor at Florida State University last week. The 142-year-old institution of higher learning is up in arms because the Princeton Review declared it the nation's No. 1 party school. The review--a New York-based organization that has nothing to do with Princeton University--has now awarded this dubious honor to FSU for a second time, and the party-hearty image undercuts the school's attempts to bolster its academic credentials. How can Florida State tout faculty members such as Nobel laureate J. Robert Schrieffer, a world expert on superconductivity, when the school's reputation rests soundly on photos like the one in The Washington Post--of a couple of bare-chested, body-painted yahoos screaming their lungs out at a football game?
To the chagrined administrators and alumni of FSU, let me offer a bit of wisdom: Get over it. You know as well as I do that rankings are a scam. For the most part, newspapers and magazines use these lists--Washington's best and worst burritos! The 10 very worst places to bring a blind date!--to generate controversy.
I can speak about this phenomenon with special insight. I've worked on my share of "best and worst" features. As a science reporter, I got a sense of what it takes to come up with surveys that provide meaningful information. You can pour your heart and soul into a months-long analysis of documents released under the Freedom of Information Act and write a story that says something really new about the way government works. But you're far likelier to get attention and a bunch of letters if you pull together a list of the 10 dumbest members of Congress.
What's more, I've seen the rankings game from the other side, back when I had a hand in winning a special designation for my own school, the University of Texas.
It happened like this: I was sitting in my office at the UT student newspaper, the Daily Texan, one afternoon in 1981 when I got a call from Playboy magazine. This was a big deal for me. At the time, I needed all the evidence I could get that there really were people out there who could make a living in journalism, and I was desperate to learn how they did it; I actually had been reading Playboy for the articles.
The guy on the other end of the phone--he was probably just a few years older than I was--wanted to gather information for a Playboy feature about sex on campus. We talked for a while, and I entertained him with descriptions of the wonders of UT and Austin that I figured might appeal to a Playboy editor--places such as Hippie Hollow, the section of Austin lakefront frequented by skinny-dippers, and what seemed in those days to be a delightfully open, inquisitive attitude about sexuality on and around the campus. We had such a good time talking that the guy asked if I would mind helping the magazine by distributing the first-ever Playboy "sex on campus" survey.
It certainly was tempting. But I didn't think that, as editor of the paper, I should be handing out surveys for Playboy. And I wasn't sure how I'd explain the assignment to Jeanne, the redheaded girl I was dating. So even though there was a little money involved, I declined--and passed the offer along to one of my roommates, Scotty. He quickly agreed.
Scotty, who shared a big old turn-of-the-century house west of campus with me and half-a-dozen other students, soon hatched a plan. We were about to throw a party, and he figured he'd get the hundreds of surveys all filled out in a night. Easy money! In those days, our parties could easily bring together 700 people who would help us float the kegs and listen to mind-bending mixtures of Motown, the artist then known as Prince, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello and more.
The night of the party, the questionnaires were a hit. They asked the sort of silly questions you'd expect: how many sexual partners you'd had a) in your life, b) in the past year, c) in the past week; and variations on that theme. The whole thing turned into a kind of party game, with people trying to top each other's answers. A contingent of bikers turned up--who invited them?--and they, too, dutifully filled out forms. At some point in the evening another of our roommates, Stephen, grabbed a pile of surveys and took them to a local gay bar, where the game continued on an entirely different level.
Scotty shipped the whole packet of trampled, torn and highly entertaining surveys back to Playboy's home office in Chicago, got his check and paid his share of the rent. Life went on, our attention spans were short. Playboy was forgotten.
That is, until a few months later, when Playboy came out with its sex on campus issue and, there we were, No. 1! The University of Texas had beaten out the competition, even Arizona State, where the students were apparently so buff that walking across the campus was like entering some kind of genetic experiment. It was amazing. It was ridiculous.
Our school's administrators were appalled, naturally. Normally, any No. 1 ranking got big play on campus, with the famed Texas Tower illuminated in the school's trademark burnt orange and the lights inside the building turned on in a pattern that created an enormous, multi-story "1." Now, I'm not going to engage in some sort of highfalutin' Freudian analysis of this image, but I will say that firing up the light would have been, for once, perfectly appropriate.
I've kept pretty quiet about my part in the farce until now. But at this point the statute of limitations for embarrassing your alma mater has surely passed. (I'm not sure it is a crime to embarrass your school, but if my fellow Texans can make it illegal to disparage crops, well, anything goes.)
A lot of time has passed since then. Scotty is now an inventor, with patents in his name for unconventional aircraft. Jeanne and I have three kids. Stephen died of AIDS; it turns out that the delightfully open, inquisitive Austin attitude about sexuality harbored risks we never could have anticipated. And I think I'm one of the few people around who remember that UT was once voted the Sexiest University in America.
So Florida Staters, don't fret. The less you fuss, the quicker the embarrassment will pass. Get back to doing what you do best: educating the young, conducting world-class research, fielding strong athletic teams--and yes, occasionally throwing a great party. The college years should be memorable.
Anyway, what does the Princeton Review know? Just think, it didn't even put UT in the top 10.
John Schwartz, a reporter on the Financial staff of The Post, freely admits that when he was young and irresponsible he did irresponsible things.