Remember When College Was Fun?

There was a time when heading off to school meant freedom, self-discovery and parties. Today, Philly-area students are stressed out, freaked out, and crippled with anxiety — while their schools are cracking down on everything that once made campus life a blast.

Photography by Clint Blowers

Cami Potter first spotted a professional party pooper in September.

She’d just finished another excruciatingly long week at the University of Pennsylvania. The 21-year-old senior, who writes for the school’s 34th Street magazine on top of studying English and cinema, needed to unwind. So she went to a party off campus — actually, “party” is too strong a word for it, she says: “I don’t even think we had music.” Potter threw back a couple of drinks and mingled with some fellow students. Then, as she stepped outside to leave, the enforcers arrived.

These university employees, technically known as “event observers,” told the college students to scram. But they didn’t tell the students why they were being reprimanded, according to Potter: “That’s where it gets blurry.” After all, she and her friends weren’t on campus. Potter also says the workers were wearing bulletproof vests and arrived with police officers: “People were very scared. To have anybody show up in a bulletproof vest anywhere you are can be a little bit alarming.” On top of their apparently sub-par communication skills and SWAT-team getup, there’s something else unusual about Penn’s event observers: They don’t just bust frat parties. They monitor students at all social gatherings. Last year, the university announced a new policy requiring that even off-campus student organizations register events with the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives at least 10 days in advance. That makes it easier for event observers, charged with roaming the campus and vicinity (and paid $35 per hour), to check up on those events — and dime out any unregistered ones they happen upon.

Potter sees the rules as infantilizing, not to mention voyeuristic: “It’s a college campus. We’re on the edge of being adults, and it kind of felt like having a watchful eye on you all the time.” More eerily, she wonders if she’ll unknowingly bump into an event observer at some future party — in other words, if these employees ever go undercover. “You don’t want to go up and try to make friends with somebody and find out they’re a paid employee,” says Potter.

Hiring event observers isn’t all the university is doing to put the kibosh on good times. Penn has created something of a party-pooper industrial complex. Last year, the university unveiled new rules aimed at controlling social events even as it beefed up enforcement of old ones. If your student organization throws a party, on campus or off, regardless of size, you need to register it. If your student group holds a gathering with alcohol, you must pay for two security guards (each $32.50 an hour) and one university-approved bartender ($25 an hour). (Penn has just agreed to help subsidize these costs.) If students are to be believed, more and more parties are getting shut down now, sometimes for reasons that are unclear. “I had a friend who had a fire pit outside their house, and there was no alcohol, and the police came and shut it down,” says Potter. “They were like, ‘You can’t be here. There are more than five of you here who aren’t on the lease.’ It was like, whoa, we’ve never heard that rule before.”

Maureen Rush, Penn’s VP for public safety, says the university met with student groups, held open office hours, and created a website to help undergrads understand the rules. “We believe we have made amazing progress and are very proud of our students for their cooperation,” she says. “Student groups are registering their parties, and in turn we are supporting their needs to be able to have a fun but safe party.” The school isn’t alone in its approach.

About 200 miles to the west, Penn State has implemented similar tactics. Last year, the university stopped outsourcing the job of overseeing frats — via “social checkers” (sound familiar?) — to a private company managed by the student-run Interfraternity Council. Now, staffers at the university’s new Office of Fraternity and Sorority Compliance have the job. “They look for loud parties or lines of students outside houses, then knock on doors and enter, seeking evidence of underage drinking or crowds that exceed capacity rules or are too raucous,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in December. Likewise, in 2016, Harvard University announced rules that complicated the decision to join fraternities and sororities: Members of Greek organizations can’t be part of student leadership groups or captains of varsity athletic teams. They also can’t get endorsements from Harvard for prestigious fellowships, including Rhodes scholarships.

Getting busted for a party is just one more thing college students in Philly — and beyond — have to worry about these days. They’re already under record levels of stress and anxiety — and face more uncertain financial futures than their parents did when they were in school. They’re routinely put under the microscope — and used as human ammunition — in the country’s culture wars. They’re condemned to live the dawning of their adult lives on social media, for all the world to see. And then there are the young lives lost to suicide at Penn and other schools in recent years.

Remember when college was actually, um, fun?

Penn’s efforts began with good intentions.

In mid-2016, some Penn students opened up a skeevy email. Its subject: “Wild Wednesday.” Its contents: a “poem” to the “ladies”:

May we have your attention please/We’re looking for the fun ones/And say fuck off to a tease/Wednesday nights will get you going/With bankers flowing all night/Tonight is your first showing/So please wear something tight.

This was about a month before the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released, and more than a year before the #MeToo movement would explode onto the political scene. But female Penn students, many of whom were enraged by the misogyny of the Trump campaign, had long been speaking out against sexual misconduct at the university, so their reaction was swift.

The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that OZ, an off-campus fraternity, was likely behind the messages: The organization had been tied to email accounts that sent similar messages to freshman women in the past — messages that also included “poems” and “Wild Wednesday” references. At first, activists considered sending feminist lit to the accounts. They ultimately decided to go public instead, blanketing the campus with fliers featuring the email and stamped with THIS IS WHAT RAPE CULTURE LOOKS LIKE and WE ARE WATCHING slogans. A hotline for sexual assault survivors was listed on the fliers.

Penn administrators, who often avoid taking public stances on political issues, reacted quickly as well (in university-time, at least). A couple of months after the fliers circulated, the school announced the creation of a task force to fight sexual assault. Along with recommending ways to make the university “free of sexual harassment and sexual violence” and of “alcohol and other substance abuse,” the task force would hold accountable “students in unaffiliated and unsupervised groups” found to be in violation of campus policy — to “the maximum degree permitted.” Penn had apparently decided that one of the causes of OZ’s behavior was that it was an off-campus, unregistered frat, not subject to the same oversight as other Greek organizations.

Penn’s position didn’t form in a vacuum. Schools have increasingly found themselves ensnared in expensive litigation over incidents that occur off campus. The death last year of Timothy Piazza at Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi must factor into any administrator’s thinking, as must recent hazing lawsuits against PSU by former student James Vivenzio and the father of the late Marquise Braham. Add to this the growing chorus of #MeToo advocates demanding accountability for what happens at frats and parties, and it’s no wonder universities seem focused on rogue off-campus groups.

At Penn, though, even the activists were suspicious of the school’s ramping-up. Penn senior Amanda Silberling, who’d helped organize the protests against OZ, told the Philly Voice she was “a little bit wary” of the fact that the task force was zeroing in on off-campus groups. “This can happen to anyone and be perpetrated by anyone,” she remarked. “It’s not just off-campus groups and Greek organizations.”

The task force’s recommendations were issued in April 2017, and sure enough, they targeted unmonitored frats like OZ. Under the old rules, only recognized organizations that wanted to host an event at an on-campus space or a third-party venue, like a club, were required to register it in advance. The new rules expanded that requirement to nearly every other student group. As for the new “event observers,” the school claimed they weren’t really new — just an expansion of an alcohol monitoring program it started in 1999 to patrol on-campus events. No big deal, right?

Senior Dan Spinelli, the former executive editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper, says many students didn’t see it that way. As soon as the policies were rolled out, undergrads “became very afraid that any party that they held would get shut down.”

From the university’s perspective, the policies have been a resounding success. Rush, the VP for public safety, says, “We are pleased with the number of student groups who have registered their parties and continue to encourage those who haven’t followed the guidelines.” From late August to the end of January, Penn says, there were 288 “responses” to “nuisance properties,” mostly for noise complaints. Of those, 138 parties were shut down.

“In the student discourse,” says Spinelli, “the common theme was [that] Penn introduced a task force to stop sexual assault, and instead, it’s not allowing anyone to go to a party. Even though that’s not entirely true, there’s an element of truth to it.”

At the heart of Penn’s fun-killing — and many of the issues roiling campuses these days — is the question of how far schools should go to protect students from things that might be harmful, or even just unpleasant. It’s an issue bound up with the legal concept of “in loco parentis” — the idea that colleges serve as substitutes for Mom and Dad. In 1913, in Gott v. Berea College, Kentucky courts ruled that a private Christian school could lawfully prohibit its students from patronizing establishments it didn’t control. “Although other cases had previously applied principles resembling in loco parentis,” Georgia attorney Britton White wrote in the BYU Education and Law Journal in 2007, “Gott generally is viewed as the clearest expression of the doctrine in American courts.”

By the 1960s, as young people were increasingly sent to fight in Vietnam, students began to push for more freedom from collegiate control. In 1971, the 26th Amendment gave 18-year-olds the right to vote, further entrenching students’ sense of their own adulthood. College, White wrote, became more of a “sine parentibus” situation: no parents here, so anything goes.

In the 1980s, the wheel started turning back. As court rulings established a “special relationship” between colleges and students, schools began to be found responsible for everything from criminal activity on campus to injuries sustained during hazing and even sledding. In recent years, students have argued that their schools should do more to protect them from offensive and hateful speech as well as sexual misconduct. Cultural observers decried the “coddling” of students and mocked them for “safe spaces.” The wheel seemed primed to turn again.

For a fleeting second at Penn last year, it looked as though it had.

Potter, the 34th Street writer, penned a petition in September on that called for “the ability to have a social life at Penn.” Over 1,300-plus words, she made the case that Penn students are under an immense amount of pressure and as a consequence don’t have enough time to bond with friends, painting a dire picture of a campus where community bonds are frayed to breaking. At times her missive was clumsy, as when she ham-handedly suggested that Penn’s recent rash of suicides could have been prevented by a healthier party scene. (She now stresses that she agrees sexual assault is a serious problem on campus and understands why the rules were created.) But she made a bigger point about a school culture that was problematic long before the new rules were released.

“We are an academically rigorous institution that puts unbelievable pressures onto its students to not just achieve but to overachieve, often at the expense of peers and friends,” wrote Potter. “For many, the two or three days that they have when they do not have to deal with those things are the two or three days where they find the most peace and camaraderie.”

Her petition went viral, garnering more than 2,000 signatures within a day. A movement totally different from those the country had grown accustomed to seeing on college campuses seemed poised to bubble up: a fight for the right to party.

But then came the backlash. Penn junior Naomi Elegant posted on Facebook: “How removed from reality do you have to be to write such a long and absurdly self-righteous ‘petition’ and use people’s mental illness and suicide to prop up your argument for Penn to end its evil oppression of frat parties?”

The post got more than 150 likes. Then the backlash led to its own backlash: Critics of Elegant descended on her Facebook page, calling her a “poor baby,” “triggered” and more. “After reading the things you’ve said here,” wrote one person, “it makes me wonder how you attend such a highly regarded institution.” Another began a sentence with the words, “I hate to be racial … but … ”

In December, I contacted Elegant to get her side of the story. She politely told me she didn’t want to talk about the crackdown on parties. But, she added, “There is another issue with Penn administration that I think is much more severe and that I would be open to being interviewed about.”

The story she would tell me offered another slant on the notion, popular in the media culture wars, that college students live in a bubble — and reveals why she likely reacted so strongly to Potter’s petition. On a Wednesday in March, Elegant walked outside after finishing her shift at her job at the Penn Museum. She plugged in her headphones and checked her email. And she found a message from the university that she could barely comprehend: One of her closest friends, Aran Rana, had died.

“I was in shock,” says Elegant. Rana, a housemate of Elegant’s in an off-campus residence, had been on a leave of absence. While at home in Hong Kong, it would later be reported, he died by suicide.

There was something else about the campus email that Elegant couldn’t believe: It had been sent to her at the exact same time it went out to thousands of Penn students who didn’t know Rana.

“When you find out something like this, you’re in shock,” Elegant explains. “A lot of people can’t do the littlest day-to-day tasks, like emailing and going to class.” Even after the Daily Pennsylvanian interviewed her and other friends of Rana, the school didn’t reach out to them to offer help, she says.

Later, she found out that the school’s official policy when a student dies is to alert close friends before sending out a campus-wide email as well as to provide them with support afterward. The school did eventually email her — to ask for her help in sending Rana’s belongings to his parents: “They knew I lived with him.”

An October 2017 investigation by the Daily Pennsylvanian revealed that Penn’s track record in “postventions” has been inconsistent. Penn didn’t outline specific actions it took around Rana’s death to Philadelphia magazine but did say that “determining who is most impacted by a loss can be challenging, especially if a student has been on leave.”

I ask Elegant why she thinks there have been so many suicides at Penn in recent years. She tells me she doesn’t think her friend “committed suicide because everyone talked about grades around him.” Still, she says, Penn’s academic culture is “toxic”; there is a relentless “focus on high achievement … but also a weird fetishization” of bad habits. “People are like, ‘Oh, I slept three hours last night and I did this paper in five seconds.’ There’s a weird combination of appearing very polished and put-together vs. bragging about how many unhealthy habits you’re putting into your studying and job-finding.”

She also says the school does a poor job of providing mental health care. This is something I heard often. Strangers I approached on campus were forthcoming about the issue. Matthew Palczynski, a history major who graduated in December, was dashing around during finals week when he told me that he sought help a couple years ago when life “wasn’t great.”

“They didn’t seem to have the best idea of how to handle my personal case. They seem really overworked,” said Palczynski. “The mental health help that’s available on campus is tough to access for a couple reasons: long wait times, and referrals from outside doctors.”

Penn has recently taken steps to address some of these concerns: The university announced in 2016 that it would add permanent night and weekend hours for its counseling services, and in January it unveiled an online hub for all of Penn’s mental health resources. But Palczynski spoke for most students I interviewed when he said that while “they’ve certainly made steps in the right direction,” Penn administrators “definitely haven’t done enough yet.”

This strikes me as the opposite of in loco parentis. Or maybe a patchy, superficial version of it. What good is the parent who busts her daughter’s party but has no clue how to talk to her about her depression?

It’s striking that so many students with seemingly contradictory views, like Potter and Elegant, paint the same anxiety-drenched picture of college life in 2018. Another common denominator: Many feel they have to hide their anguish from everyone they know. There’s actually a phrase at Penn to describe the phenomenon of pretending that everything is splendid while silently losing your mind: “Penn face.” As Palczynski describes it, “We’re all miserable on the inside, but we have to look like we’re doing better than everyone else.”

Peter LaBerge graduated from the University of Pennsylvania last year and now works at a start-up in Silicon Valley. “‘Penn face’ is definitely a contributor to the insecurity people feel,” he tells me. He says that despite being constantly aware of “how much time you spend, how much effort you put in, how exhausted you are” in the quest to become a perfect student, you have to pretend it all comes easy: “There’s a lot of this, like, ‘hashtag effortless’ feel to Penn, when in reality you know how hard you’ve worked to get there.”

Why do today’s undergrads feel so overwhelmed and alone? There are likely specific reasons that Penn students, in particular, are suffering. But a much larger cultural phenomenon seems to be immiserating students nationwide. An October New York Times Magazine article detailed a growing epidemic of severe anxiety in teenagers and pointed a finger pretty convincingly at smartphones and social media.

Think of all the things an 18-year-old freshman deals with that she wouldn’t have encountered in 1960, 1980 or even 2000. College used to be a place where, in pursuit of self-discovery, you could experiment with everything from drugs to art to politics. You could try on Marx on Wednesday, sample The Fountainhead on Thursday, do something extraordinarily stupid at a party on Friday. Now, you can’t make a minor mistake without fear of it becoming national news. What does it do to a teenager’s brain to know that at any moment she could say something online that could quite literally haunt her for the rest of her life? You can’t even avoid this fate by, say, never going on social media: Anyone with a smartphone can preserve your worst moments in amber. Is it any surprise that in such an atmosphere, young people believe they can’t freely express their pain?

Political commentators often blame the Internet’s outrage culture on liberals. But any clear-eyed view of social media shows there’s no place on the political spectrum where college kids can inoculate themselves from the online mob: On both the left and the right, there are countless writers, TV stars and social media personalities waiting to dunk on you. There are also more understated effects of living a young life under the watchful eye of social media. LaBerge refers to social media as “‘Penn face’ on steroids.” He says he knows people who go as far as to Photoshop the images they post on social media. “People don’t post ‘I just ate my bodyweight in pasta and I’m Netflixing.’ They post pictures of going out. They post pictures of themselves exercising. … It feels like a very, very inauthentic depiction of lives, particularly in college.”

Then, when they graduate, today’s college students are deposited into an uncertain and rapidly changing economy. These kids lived through the Great Recession as children. Many saw their parents lose jobs even as older siblings graduated from college with poor employment prospects and mountains of debt. College is no longer the no-brainer it once was for middle-class Americans. A realistic cost-benefit analysis raises the question of what college is really worth — a fact that’s undoubtedly internalized by students, particularly those from working-class and poor families.

Social media, the shaky economy, and nonstop academic pressures mean that — contrary to much of the social criticism of “kids these days” — maybe students are leaving college prepared for the real world. Perhaps too prepared.

At the end of our talk, I ask LaBerge how working in Silicon Valley compares to his time at Penn. Surely, I think, the epicenter of the country’s high-stakes tech industry is more demanding than college.

“It’s very similar,” he says.

» See Also: The Strange New World of the Philly College Student

Published as “Remember When College Was Fun?” in the March 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.