Behind the “Scenes”

Putting together the pieces of Brown's fragmented social life

By and
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

How many Brunonians does it take to change a light bulb?

Eleven – one to change it and 10 others to share the experience.

Brown lacks many of the social apparatuses that other Ivy League schools provide for students. At Cornell and Dartmouth, fraternities and sororities dominate the social scene. Harvard and Yale have residential “houses” where their students live, eat and play. And Princeton, of course, has its eating clubs.

Besides housing all first-year students in “units,” Brown does not provide students with the community structures that other Ivy League schools do. A housing lottery reshuffles the social map of campus every spring, and a student center belongs to the hazy future. College guides, students and depictions of the University in the popular media sometimes describe a Balkanized campus of small social “scenes.” But when you ask most students at the University what they identify with most on campus, they’ll simply answer, “I’m a Brown student.”

“Brown students are independent in general,” said Tal Itzkovich ’06, chair of the Program House Committee for the Residential Council. He said that at Brown, students have “webs all amongst the student body,” whereas at a larger school social groups are more insular, and “you really wouldn’t socialize with people outside (your) house.”

Still, small communities flourish at Brown, perhaps more so than at other universities. The Princeton Review, the bible of college admission guidebooks, describes Brown undergraduates as “individual” and “eager-to-learn.” The Review dismisses the University’s reputation as a “hippie” school and notes, “Typically small ‘outsider’ communities (e.g. GLBT students) here have a lot of support on campus and generally hang out together.”

David Greene, vice president for campus life and student services, said the hallmark of social life at Brown is that no single group or activity dominates it, which “seems to reflect our community pretty well.”

“You can have what some people think of as a very traditional college experience by going to fraternity or sorority parties, for example, but you can also hear an a capella group, you can see different bands that are playing, you can go to a cultural event that’s happening on campus – there’s such a variety of things that might be happening at any one time,” he said.

Though a far cry from Cornell or Dartmouth, fraternities and sororities at Brown account for about 10 percent of the student body. Greek houses are known on campus for their numerous well-advertised parties, which are especially popular among underclassmen.

Greek life also dominates the campus social scene during Brown’s annual Spring Weekend. A collaboration of numerous student groups and University offices that brings several big-name musical acts to campus in late April, the event is traditionally a drawn-out weekend of music blaring from fraternity windows and keg tappings at 11 a.m.

An additional 7 to 8 percent of residence halls at Brown are reserved for program housing, including Machado, Art House, Buxton International House, Technology House, Environmental House and Interfaith House, according to Itzkovich. He said the independent nature of Brown students results in relatively low program house enrollment.

There are two cooperatives on campus that attract students looking for a closer residential community than is offered by University housing. Watermyn House is probably best known on campus for its naked parties, while Finlandia House, located across from the Center for Information Technology, is recognizable by the rocking chairs on its front porch and bikes perpetually locked to its railings.

Athletic squads also provide a social network for many Brown students. The University has 37 varsity intercollegiate teams and a number of club teams that also compete with other schools. The football team, men’s soccer team, women’s basketball team and men’s tennis team all won Ivy League titles this season, and the men’s and women’s crews were both ranked in the top five nationally at press time. The club teams are also successful: the men’s ultimate Frisbee team won last year’s national championship, and the sailing team has been ranked in the top three since 2003.

Andrew Perry ’08, a member of the sailing team, said the teams form “a pretty tight network.” He was recruited by Brown’s sailing coach in high school, which he said is the case with most men on the team.

“It’s a big time commitment to be on the team; you’re away a lot of weekends. There’s a tendency to get stuck in the social network of the team – that’s why there are a lot of sailing team parties,” he said. Still, against some objections from the close-knit team, Perry and some other members joined the fraternity Sigma Chi.

Through the lens

A 1998 article in Vanity Fair, “School For Glamour,” depicted the University as a magnet for the “children of A-list New Yorkers, Hollywood stars, Wall Street tycoons and European jet-setters.” Crowning Brown the most elite Ivy League school, the article claimed that while “Can I buy you a Jello shot?” suffices as a pickup line at Princeton, one would be better off here trying, “Je t’ai vu au Balthazar, non?”

Last fall, the nation got an eyeful of the Brown student body – literally – on Bill O’Reilly’s cable television show “The O’Reilly Factor.” Producer Jesse Watters secretly attended the annual Sex Power God party, which is sponsored by Queer Alliance, and videotaped inebriated, half-naked students as they writhed on a makeshift dance floor under portraits of past University presidents in Sayles Hall. Watters, who claimed to have heard students having sex in a bathroom stall and said that the party drug Ecstasy was involved, dubbed Sex Power God “the party Brown doesn’t want you to know about.”

Vanity Fair saw a chic, refined campus; O’Reilly’s segment reinforced aspects of the libertine, hard-partying reputation that Brown has not been able to shed, while also snidely targeting the University’s support for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. Meanwhile, “The OC,” another Fox show, sent two of its main characters, Seth Cohen and Summer Roberts, to Brown this season to vie for admission – although budgetary concerns had the producers shooting Brown’s scenes at the University of Southern California.

The power of fiction in shaping stereotypes of Brown should not be underestimated, especially considering Brown’s tendency to produce the behind-the-scenes players – writers, producers and directors – of the entertainment industry.

When Lisa Simpson, the brainy fourth-grade cartoon character on Fox’s “The Simpsons,” decides not to cheat on a test, she is plagued by a nightmare in which her principal informs her she probably will not be accepted to her dream school, Harvard. But the nightmare doesn’t end there – the principal smirks as he informs Lisa that she can always go to Brown, then turns to Otto, the burnt-out druggie bus driver, and asks him where he went to school. The reply? Brown, where he almost got tenure.

From Julia Roberts’ “My Best Friend’s Wedding” character, a Brown alum food critic who refuses to go corporate, to “24’s” two elite Brown alums, fictitious Brown graduates can be found everywhere. Alums are sometimes portrayed as pretentious Ivy Leaguers – in an episode of “Joan of Arcadia,” a Brown grad believes his education makes him overqualified to teach bratty teenagers – while other characters play to the hippie stereotype. In an episode of “King of the Hill,” a history teacher with a degree from Brown gets more than a little emotional about environmentalism.

Christopher Keating, a student at Rutgers University, attributes his perception of Brown’s social scene to “The OC.” “The characters on ‘The OC’ are lame, and they want to go to Brown,” he said, “so I think of all Brown students as lame.”

Drew Marin, a sophomore at Wagner College, said he pictures Brown as a place “where everyone gets drunk or high and has radical political debates.”

Though Anastasia McLetchie of Columbia University said she believes Brown students are generally “privileged hippies,” she still thought that Brown’s social scene “would be immensely cooler” than her school’s. “After all, if you can pass/fail everything and never get a grade once, why not spend all your time having safe sex and smoking pot on the fields while the professors pretend not to notice?”

Henry Shepard ’08, who transferred to the University in fall 2005 after spending a year at New York University, said Brown students are unique in their tendencies to form numerous small communities.

Shepard said the Brown student body reminds him in many ways of NYU’s, even though the universities are very different in size and demographics.

“Culturally, they’re almost completely the same, except that fashions that happen at NYU take about a month and half to get here – it’s a little more hip,” he said.

But while NYU students are “more interested in the city and parties going on around them,” Brown students are more interested in fostering relationships within the University community, Shepard said.

“At NYU, if they were good journalists they’d work for the Village Voice or Maxim, whereas there aren’t as many opportunities (like that) here. The really good people (at Brown) do things on campus,” Shepard said. “The (College Hill Independent) is fun and they have parties and they hang out together. At NYU, if you’re really cool and you’re a writer, you hang out with 30-year-olds in Williamsburg – which is fine, but it’s not the same experience.”

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