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In the wake of The Princeton Review’s “Top 10 Pro­fessors” ranking, in which Hillsdale College ranked #4, Playboy issued its 2012 “Top 10 Party Schools” list.  Although Hillsdale appearing on the latter list today is vir­tually unfath­omable, it pur­portedly hap­pened 50 years ago.

“Several people told me we were [on the list], but no one has a copy and no one can prove it,” said Arlan Gilbert, Hillsdale pro­fessor for 38 years and now college his­torian. “But if we weren’t on the list, we should have been.”

“I had heard [that Hillsdale was on list] for a long, long time, but other than the claim and the pride some had for being on it, I never saw it,” James Juroe, Hillsdale English pro­fessor from 1970 to 2001, said.

Since 1955, many insti­tu­tions have believed that Playboy solely sur­veyed col­leges’ drinking in order to rank “America’s best party schools.” The 1987 list was based on inter­views with “social studs” on cam­puses in over 250 schools nationwide. Today, Playboy’s lists are deter­mined by ranking America’s Top 100 col­leges and uni­ver­sities on 900 data points in the three cat­e­gories of sex, sports, and nightlife.

Though Playboy has annually pub­lished such a list for the last seven years, the only recorded rankings pre­vi­ously appeared in January 1987, November 2002, and May 2006, with popular spec­u­lation that informal lists appeared earlier than 1987.

Indeed, Hillsdale College appearing on this list today is a laughable idea, but several factors con­tributed to the preva­lence of its party scene for 30 years.

“Hillsdale College was orig­i­nally excellent, then it went to seed for awhile before it was brought back to the glory of today. During those years, though, the parties were almost out of control. There was carousing and endless par­tying,” Juroe said.

“I can confirm that in the 1950s through 1970s, Hillsdale College had a dif­ferent kind of student who came here. We had that group of suc­cessful people, though, not everyone should be colored [as a partier], but there was a per­centage of the partiers and less aca­d­e­m­i­cally inclined,” Gilbert said. “A lot of stu­dents, not the majority, but some were more looking for a good mar­riage partner than for an edu­cation, which lent itself to the Playboy attitude of par­tying.”

Juroe and Gilbert con­tributed the weak decades in Hillsdale College’s history to “lead­ership without a strong grip.” Bad lead­ership led to a financial deficit, which caused many of the problems that allowed Hillsdale to “go to seed.”

“The problems were in large part financial. In doing his­tories, I came across papers of [Hillsdale Pres­ident] Philips until 1971 and his private papers out­lined problems,” Gilbert said. “When I was hired, the school was hurting finan­cially, but I never knew how badly until I read his notes. [Pres­ident Philips] was hired here really to try and balance the budget, and his first six of 20 years he couldn’t do that even while trying to save every penny.”

Financial shortages pre­vented Hillsdale College from hiring enough faculty to maintain a low student to faculty ratio; pro­fessors, such as Gilbert and Juroe, taught as many as 125 stu­dents per semester. Gilbert believes large class sizes enabled stu­dents to be lax in their studies which freed up time for social events like par­tying.

In addition, the college didn’t have funds to hire top-tier faculty or offer com­pet­itive schol­ar­ships to deserving stu­dents. Juroe said half of the appli­cants for jobs openings didn’t have PhDs.

“It wasn’t a place for serious pro­fessors to go,” he said.

In addition, the buildings, the library in par­ticular, had a drab appearance in con­trast with campus cur­rently.

“The library was neglected to the point of embar­rassment. It didn’t even have books for lit­erary research,” Juroe said.

Despite Hillsdale’s unfa­vorable rep­u­tation, new lead­ership began Hillsdale’s trek toward excel­lence.

“The college began to chart a new course in the early ’70s,” Juroe said. “[The] change was due to a con­certed effort of many people to turn around the insti­tution to make Hillsdale what it is today. This began with [former College Pres­ident George] Roche and his national out­reach efforts. He pro­jected a vision that was noble, high-minded, and spir­i­tually directed. Little by little, the whole party school scene was sub­jected to increasing pres­sures to become more dis­ci­plined in social activ­ities.”

Gilbert and Dean of Human­ities Tom Burke also rec­ognize strong leadership’s role with insti­tuting the nec­essary changes to improve the college’s rep­u­tation.

“[Pres­ident] Roche had a goal of making Hillsdale College a top-tier school by improving at every level,” Burke said. “Larry Arnn really went full steam ahead in pro­moting these things.”

“[Pres­ident] Roche and Arnn, par­tic­u­larly, were able to raise the salary level to a com­pet­itive level to compete with other col­leges to get the best teachers, which changed the tone of the college a lot,” Gilbert said. “It’s not still the same kind of excitement when you have an aca­demic tone over­riding every­thing else. I wouldn’t have thought in the’60s that it would get that good that fast.”

In his work as college his­torian, Gilbert wrote four volumes of Hillsdale College history, and he pur­posely includes the unfa­vorable years in his account of the institution’s past.

“I wanted to have a written record so that whoever in the future might want to review the past we had knows that we weren’t going to hide this,” Gilbert said. “Every school has certain issues, things they would like to have dif­fer­ently, but our [Hillsdale College] future is bright.”

Juroe and Burke agree on Hillsdale’s potential to rise to promi­nence.

“I think Hillsdale is on the rise and will con­tinue to advance,” Juroe said. “Ivy League schools are com­fortable with thinking that they have an invin­cible rep­u­tation, but Hillsdale is edu­cating young people in a way that few schools can claim.”

Hillsdale’s history con­tains many examples of over­coming obstacles. Gilbert uses the Civil War as an example of Hillsdale College’s per­se­verance.

“Of all col­leges formed before the Civil War, I would say that a very high per­centage failed. Most of the col­leges which had a bad fire never rebuilt,” Gilbert said. “We had a tremendous fire in 1874 and other schools would have just shut the doors, but we had that spirit that kept us going. The faculty met the next morning [after the fire] with burning stuff around and they said they would begin [classes] again the next day by meeting in private homes and College Baptist Church.”

Though they both expe­ri­enced Hillsdale College during one of its lowest points in history, Juroe and Gilbert agree Hillsdale’s tenacity, seen it its motto “virtus ten­t­amine gaudet,” trans­lated as “strength rejoices in the chal­lenge,” will con­tinue to raise its rep­u­tation.

“The spirit of Hillsdale College has a ‘can do any­thing’ and ‘can climb any mountain’ foun­dation,” Juroe said.

“I think the college is going to con­tinue to find new chal­lenges and to hold onto the basic stan­dards of indi­vid­u­alism and excel­lence.  I am sure that this college is going to hold onto them.  As long as there is a Hillsdale, these ideas will be kept alive,” Gilbert