I have no idea why I am so devoted to the University of Pennsylvania. What I do know is that I was a much better person when I graduated in 1972 than when I entered four years earlier. Which is why I am currently serving my third year as president of my class, as a longtime alumni interviewer of high school applicants for admission, and a mentor to different on-campus groups.
Like alumni of colleges around the country, I check out the US News and World Report rankings of universities and colleges and have been gratified when Penn rises in the poll and somewhat dismayed when we fall. Last month, one publication selected Penn as the top research university in the world; another proclaimed that more Penn graduates are billionaires than those of any other college. Neither of these two titles came as a surprise to me.
However, Playboy’s selection of my alma mater as the top party college in the nation came as a total shock to this undergraduate from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although over 50 percent of my class joined either fraternities or sororities, the popularity of the Greek system at Penn diminished significantly during my four years there as the peace movement and feminism gained traction. At that time, the legal drinking age in Pennsylvania was 21, and fake IDs were relatively hard to obtain. Unless you were friends with the hockey players who served as bouncers at the legendary campus bar, Smokey Joe’s, an underage male student had no chance of entering. And as recreational drugs got more popular on campus, the taste of the cheesesteaks improved, but the parties did not.
I went to memorable parties in my time at Penn—including one that ended with my dining room table broken in half and two women waking up in my bed—but they were few and far between. I spent most of my nights either working until deadline in the newspaper offices or writing papers due the next day.
The environment at Penn does not seem to have changed so radically that it would reach the Playboy pinnacle. In conjunction with my alumni activities, I visit the campus a minimum of five times per year. At nearby bars, I’m just as likely to see students from Drexel as Penn. As I stroll down Locust Walk through the center of campus after a football or basketball game, the fraternities that line the east side of the walk seem more subdued than they were 40 years ago. The students are better dressed and better-looking, but it always seems like the undergrads are in a rush—to the library, to the gym, to a music organization, or to a part-time job. With these types of pressures, it is difficult for me to understand when Penn students have time to party enough to draw Playboy’s attention.
The student body seemed as surprised as I was by this latest distinction. In an online survey conducted by the campus newspaper, 76 percent of respondents said that Penn does not deserve the Playboy ranking. One of the students I mentor, Cha Cha, wholeheartedly agrees. As she explained to me in an e-mail, “I don’t think anyone was not surprised by this ranking. … If you aren’t into parties, you definitely won’t really come in touch with any—which is probably more unavoidable at an actual party school.”
Cha Cha—who is going to graduate with degrees from both the Wharton School and the College of Arts and Sciences—chose Penn because she believed it would give her the tools she needed to become a force in the medical industry. While she might be an atypical student, even for Penn (she studies on big party weekends like Homecoming), she is closer to the norm on campus than a regular binge drinker is.
As a high school senior when I applied to Penn, I had no ambitions to be a force in the medical industry, or any other industry. I was thinking every weekend there would be an alcohol-induced orgy. I was infrequently right. Cha Cha clearly has a better grip on the value of a Penn education than I did—or that Playboy does, for that matter.
Jeffrey M. Rothbard is a partner in the law firm of Rothbard, Rothbard, Kohn & Kellar in Newark, New Jersey. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.