School Hands Out Ban-the-Library Pins

At University of Chicago, administrators tell students to get a life and get out of the stacks

THE University of Chicago scales Olympian heights in the number of Nobel prizes won by its scholars - 67, a world record as of this year. But in the arena of fun and games, it apparently falls flat.

University president Hugo Sonnenschein would like this to change, but the challenge is a daunting one.

Some students delight in the school's stoic reputation. Displaying a kind of reverse snobbery, they sport T-shirts trumpeting "We're Proud to be No. 300" - or last in a 1994 rating of social life on the nation's biggest coed campuses. The tongue-in-cheek survey by the magazine Inside Edge ranked schools based on the ease of graduating, number of parties, strength of the football team, and "attractiveness" of females.

Others wallow in a "culture of complaint" nurtured by heavy workloads and compressed class schedules. In a survey of 718 students last year, public policy professor Richard Taub found that only 35 percent believed the typical University of Chicago student was happy, though most said they were happy themselves.

Even standard college guides describe the university as "a hard place to be," says associate dean of students Jean Tresse.

Eager to expand undergraduate admissions to help offset projected annual budget deficits of at least $15 million over the next few years, the administration this fall launched an unprecedented campaign to spice up the campus's bland social life.

Driving the campaign is the administration's worry that many prospective students may not warm to a place where Saturday nights revolve around intellectual discussions in the stacks of Joseph Regenstein Library. "We want to dispel notions that this is a dreary place to be - all work and no play," says Ms. Tresse. "At age 18 and 19, undergraduates aren't all that focused. They don't want it to be all a grind."

To tackle these problems, Mr. Sonnenschein called on faculty committees, student task forces, and the international accounting firm Peat Marwick to suggest ways to improve the quality of student life.

A centerpiece of the resulting strategy is the creation of a student union in a 90-year-old limestone landmark known as the Reynolds Club, originally a men's club. The first phase of renovation, completed this month, installed lounges with plush chairs and working fireplaces and a pool parlor and snack bar on the second floor where the career offices used to be.

The idea behind the club, which stays open until 2 a.m., is to lure students away from the library across the street. This year incoming freshmen were sent pamphlets introducing the club and bearing a ban-the-library logo.

Another major change was with this year's more relaxed, sociable freshman orientation. During orientation, which was lengthened from eight to 12 days, freshmen took part in community volunteering, desserts with faculty, and a classwide session of "goofy" exercises designed to break the ice and reduce stress after placement exams, Tresse says.

So far, however, student response to the campaign has been mixed. Chris Woolford, a senior from Summit, N.J., majoring in economics, says he has noticed a welcome shift away from what he calls a "totally negative school spirit." For example, he points to the bigger crowds at football games this year, whereas before "no one even knew where the field was."

But others contend that the academic pressure remains relentless. "You walk into class the first day and you're already 100 pages behind in the reading," says senior Dimitri Karcazes. "You can see people starting to crack."

Ironically, many students are using the renovated Reynolds Club not as a refuge from the library but as another late-night study spot. "I've never been too into partying - it's not my cup of tea," says freshman Zara Fettig, a biological sciences major from Springfield, Va. "I am more focused on the atmosphere in the classroom than on the atmosphere on Friday night."

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