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