No More Idle Hands

August 20, 2008

Regarded by some students as the latest crackdown from the fun police, Michigan State University is poised to curtail a week-long orientation that’s historically been known as much for partying as preparation for college learning.

Michigan State administrators are pushing to shorten “Fall Welcome” next year, trimming the orientation from six days to three. That’s in part because so much of what students once did during orientation – registering for classes and buying books – is now done online before they ever arrive on campus. It’s also become clear to university officials that when students aren’t enrolled in classes and hitting the books, they’re often hitting the sauce instead.

“Having a full weekend before classes start with no responsibilities just has not been productive for students,” said June Youatt, senior associate provost at Michigan State.

Mike Uberroth, a junior at Michigan State, describes Fall Welcome as a cherished tradition that’s being ruined.

“It’s this among tons of other things that the school is cracking down on that’s killing the spirit the school used to have,” he said. “It’s like they’re trying to squash excitement … I’d be surprised if we don’t start wearing uniforms.”

If the new schedule were to garner faculty approval, it would mean students would move into dorms on the Sunday before Labor Day, instead of the prior Wednesday. In addition to shortening the time without classes, the schedule would make moving day more “family friendly,” Youatt said.

“Why did we pick Wednesday? I don’t know. Sunday is actually a rational decision,” she said.

While some have expressed concern about students having time to acclimate to the university, the proposal would still include a summer orientation session for first-time students in addition to the abbreviated Fall Welcome, Youatt said.

Orientation Week Not New to Critics

Michigan State isn’t the first to propose shortening orientation in part because a week without classes is seen as a recipe for trouble. Universities in Britain, for instance, have been under pressure to end “fresher’s week,” an orientation period for students that’s become synonymous with binge drinking.

Changing orientation traditions, however, isn’t easy. At Western Ontario University, then-President George Pederson unsuccessfully proposed curtailing orientation in 1991 because the “harmful sex and drinking” had become a source of concern, the student newspaper reported.

The sordid history of “O-Week” included an organized striptease in the 1970s, and parties that left cars overturned and fires blazing. The tradition of revelry stretched into the early 1990s, when students stripped half naked, coated themselves with honey and were summarily attacked by a swarm of bees, The [Western Ontario] Gazette reported. One student actually went to the hospital covered in bee stings, according to the paper.

Susan Grindrod, associate vice president of housing and ancillary services at Western Ontario, concedes that O-Week “got to be a bit of a party.” The events are all dry now, according to university officials, but O-Week’s transformation didn’t happen overnight.

“It was hard, yeah,” Grindrod said. “There was a lot of underground stuff, and we had a lot of tense meetings. But we persevered.”

Students who organize O-Week, many of whom meet Canada’s legal drinking age of 19, are now required to sign a pledge that they won’t drink at all during orientation. Stephen Lecce, president of the university students’ council, said the program’s live music, games and activities give students plenty of sober alternatives.

“This is one week of your life that really sets the tone for your future,” Lecce said. “We want them to be encouraged to have a week that is dry, that is filled with opportunities to give back through charities …get involved with leadership and particularly have a good educational experience.”

Students at Brown University have embraced recent changes to orientation, according to university officials who cite student surveys. The orientation was shortened from six days to three last year, in part to avoid the lag time between the arrival of students and the start of classes.

“There was kind of a lull in activity that we think had been seen as having value, but we began to see that students come with a lot of energy and are rearing to go,” said Katherine Bergeron, dean of the college at Brown.

The change in schedule also moves the start of classes to the Wednesday after Labor Day, instead of starting classes on Tuesday. That change was designed to insure faculty, who were often on vacation over the weekend, were back in time to teach and advise students.

“Let’s put it this way: It was one of the reasons why we felt this was a useful shift in the calendar,” Bergeron said.

No Clear Trend

While some universities are shortening orientation periods, others are actually lengthening the time students have before classes begin. As Business Week recently reported, some MBA programs have stretched orientation to two weeks or even a full month.

At Indiana University Purdue-University Indianapolis, a two-week “bridge program” was recently added for undergraduates. The university, which is largely a commuter campus, has a significant population of first generation students who benefit from the extended transition period, according to Scott Evenbeck, dean of the university college.

When students arrive on campus, they frequently don’t know their classmates and “you can hear a pin drop” during the first orientation session, Evenbeck said. That changes, however, by the end of the bridge program.

“By the last day they’ve made up cheers and they have T-shirts and they are over the top enthusiastic,” he said.

Jennifer Keup, director of the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition at the University of South Carolina, said there’s no clear data showing whether orientation periods are trending in one direction or another. What is clear, however, is that orientations aren’t what they used to be.

Orientations today are “a lot less about social activities and bureaucratic logistics,” and more often devoted to academic pursuits, Keup said. Many universities have adopted common reading programs in recent years, for instance, where all incoming students read the same book and discuss it during orientation or even throughout the year.

“Rather than seeing the welcome week go away,” she said, “we see the types of activities changing.”

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