As a student, he enjoyed the party culture and decided that he wanted to reside here to help curate future students’ college experiences.
“Gen Z (shows) a real sense of focus on success as a student ... (they) focus mostly on their education. They pay attention to the value of their degree in the long-term. They have a different attitude. They want to make the most out of their investment.”-Robin Oliver, vice president of University Communications and Marketing
OU is famous for being a party school.The university has attracted nationwide attention over the years for its Halloween Block Party, frat culture and spring Fest Season.
The college was ranked as the No. 1 party school in the country by the Princeton Review in 2011 as well as Playboy Magazine in 2015.
But OU hasn’t made the Review’s top 20 party school list in four years. With frats and sororities under hazing investigations and student enrollment down, the party culture that made OU famous is in decline.
Change from Within
The change is coming from the students, Robin Oliver, vice president of University Communications and Marketing, or UCM, said.
“Students make the difference clear. They shape the culture on campus” Oliver said.
To Oliver, the student body is a generation unlike any before. Generation Z, or Zoomers, are the generation after millennials, those born roughly between 1996-2010.
“Gen Z (shows) a real sense of focus on success as a student,” Oliver said. “(They) focus mostly on their education. They pay attention to the value of their degree in the long-term. They have a different attitude. They want to make the most out of their investment.”
Younger generations have pushed OU away from the party reputation over the past five to 10 years, Oliver said.
Most students nowadays are also juggling jobs and school work, Carly Leatherwood, senior director of communication services for UCM, said.
“Most students are employed or paying for part of their college, if not all of it,” Leatherwood said.
Oliver said OU has an institutional reputation for “having a good time,” but that just isn’t the case anymore.
“It might’ve been true 10 years ago, but now there is some tension between reality and reputation,” Oliver said. “We have great quality academic programming, but people still consider us a party school. We know that’s not a reality.”
Data, like the EverFi surveys students take for the university to gauge alcohol and drug consumption on campus, backs up this new reality, Leatherwood said. Most students are in what is considered “the healthy majority.”
Though the next generation of graduates may re-steer the party school narrative, it is up to the alumni to change Ohio University’s story, too, Oliver said.
“Students are our ambassadors,” Oliver said. “We have hundreds of thousands of alumni, and they are also our brand ambassadors.”
The university’s appearance in ranked lists like the Princeton Review reflect student experiences, Robert Franek, editor-in-chief of the Princeton Review, said.
The Princeton Review uses surveys to gather data to create the ranking lists.
“Students are the experts of their own experiences,” Franek said.
Students can take the survey once per academic year. The survey is comprehensive and covers topics from academic life to dining hall food.
“There is flux between year to year,” Franek said. “It’s not surprising that a school might move from one list to another. Schools are in constant change.”
Mayor Steve Patterson has noticed a change over the years, too.
“I’ve seen a definite shift in partying going on in the city as well in the Uptown area,” Patterson said.
Patterson thinks a possible reason for this is the cultural shift the country has experienced since the late 90s into the 2000s. He often wonders if national attention brought to gun violence has affected party attendance, he said. Parties like Palmer Fest are often crowded and full of strangers.
The university’s reputation as a party school has negative effects on the university, and therefore the city, too, Patterson said. Patterson said people looking to attend OU are sometimes discouraged by the city’s party reputation.
“There’s going to be fewer people and fewer students,” Patterson said. “Fewer students could mean a lot of businesses in the city that would have to cut back on staffing and possibly close. That’s one of these things that does impact communities.”
The city’s residents also are affected by student partying. The nuisance party ordinance is a city order that helps regulate and maintain parties. If parties do not follow the ordinance, they are shut down. Otherwise, parties can continue.
The ordinance was passed in 2009 and has been well-received by most residents, including those who throw parties, Patterson said. Sometimes people even ask for help shutting down.
“Usually, (people at fests) are being responsible, and they’re self-policing,” Patterson said. “Sometimes the tenants will say, ‘Will you help me shut this down?’ and the police department will do that.”
Patterson also said that he personally has been asked to help shut down parties. He’s noticed that while not always smaller, fests have definitely changed over the years.
A New Era
Patterson thinks that perhaps the shift is caused by a change in the academic calendar. In 2012, Ohio mandated colleges and universities to convert to a semester system, rather than a quarter or trimester system.
The statewide academic change drastically affected OU’s party culture, Thompson said.
“The switch to semesters hurt us the most,” Thompson said.
The semester system changed the academic year, Thompson said. Students on the quarter system had longer breaks and got to enjoy late spring weather.
“Fests went into late May,” Thompson said. “The weather was crazy warm. You would see people at Numbers Fest in shorts. It was warm enough to do that. Sometimes they get lucky with weather now, but it’s never super warm.”
Thompson has noticed that the semester system also affected bar attendance.
“There are significantly deader days at the bars,” Thompson said. “Nobody had Friday classes. If you were a junior or a senior with a Friday class, you were either an engineering student or were just unlucky and took a Friday class. (Students got) their classes done on Thursday and (went) out after.”
Sports jerseys as party attire is something that comes to mind for a lot of college students, but they weren’t always a staple of wild weekends, Thompson said.
“(Jersey apparel) naturally grew out of party scene,” Thompson said, “Probably because it’s been colder and people can layer.”
Something Thompson has also noticed is the rise of wristband parties – parties that require a pre-purchased wristband for entrance. Wristband parties are an indicator for exclusivity, Thompson said.
So What’s Next?
OU’s future as a party school is up in the air. For Michael Oettinger, who performs as DJ Hex, parties are getting a little too exclusive for comfort.
“(Parties growing more exclusive) could possibly continue the trend of inappropriate things happening,” DJ Hex said. “Parties get shut down, but they’ll just move inside. (Parties are) moving into unregulated areas.”
On the bright side of this, for DJ Hex, new party spaces are being born. Smaller and more curated scenes are being created and managed by students, such as the DIY scene, where its goal is to provide an inclusive, self-ran environment for student artists. The DIY scene is a safer, more communal space, DJ Hex said.
DJ Hex predicts that the one thing Athens will finally that it has historically lacked as a party school: a nightclub. DJ Hex thinks EDM shows and DJ nights at bars are somewhat of a substitute for a club and have a similar atmosphere, but only that.
“There isn’t really a club in Athens,” DJ Hex said. “We have Red Brick, but that’s about it.”
DJ Hex thinks that the direction of the university will either go one of two directions.
“What I think we will see is either a continuation in OU’s investment in sports and its image as a school versus (the university) as a part of Athens,” DJ Hex said. “(The university) needs to embrace the bricks and maintain (party culture) at a safe level.”
Whatever the next decade brings, the 2010s were an unforgettable era of transformation and partying. The decade was full of impromptu-fests, couch fires and change. What the 2020s bring will be up to the students.