Sunday, September 7, 2008 | Category: Sharp Thinking
It’s the lull before the storm. Back-to-school. The airwaves are jammed with ads for school supplies, just as the gates to campus are jammed with minivans and SUVs, many pulling trailers laden with all the “essentials” any student in residence might need. Most schools would no more consider buying airtime than trying to organize a campus open house this week. Marketing can take a breather, to pause and plan, before the recruitment flurry begins in earnest.
Except, of course, on campuses that are celebrating their first day with full university status — like Algoma U, Capilano U, Vancouver Island U, Emily Carr U of Art & Design, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and of course my personal favourite, the University of the Fraser Valley, which rolled out a new brand just as the new students were rolling in (you gotta admire the chutzpah!).
On the public affairs front, the media have a back-to-school glow that generally takes a human interest approach to campus news. Of course, that’s not to say there are no campuses grappling with bad news — if you’re UBC, you’re struggling to cope with some 300 students who were promised residence rooms that won’t be done construction for two weeks yet. Ontario’s colleges just narrowly averted a strike of support workers, and the University of Sudbury almost faced a back-to-school faculty strike. If you’re McGill, you’re coping with a renegade (tenured, of course) professor taking his concerns about academic integrity public, and making the international press with his adversarial website, D-Grading McGill.
But experienced campus communicators and public affairs officers know this is the calm before the storm — now is the time for prayer. “Please, let this year’s O-Week go without a hitch.” “Let there be no partying… or at least, no out-of-control partying… or anyway, no out-of-control partying that makes the newspapers… OK, let there be no bloodshed that makes the newspapers!”
To some extent, two federal elections have helped to take the heat off other news this month, but for many the prayers have not been answered. Near Fanshawe College, in London, firefighters respond to 6 garbage fires in the Fleming Drive neighbourhood during the first weekend. London Police seem to be taking a zero-tolerance approach, charging 187 students in the first week. Fanshawe College president Howard Rundle publicly vows to “throw the book” at offenders. (It’s interesting to note how quiet the parties at nearby UWO appear to have been this week — whatever they’ve done in recent years seems to be working.)
Meanwhile, Kingston Police were dispatched to the “student ghetto” near Queen’s University 20 times on Sunday, and 26 times more on Tuesday, for everything from drug and weapons charges and a hit-and-run, to a burning gasoline tank outside a house party. (The Globe & Mail publishes a sarcastic letter from a disgruntled Kingston resident, suggesting that “helicopter parents” should come pick up the broken beer bottles and rotting garbage.) Kingston city councillor Bill Glover claims this is a “record year” for complaintsabout student rowdyism, and the Police chief observes that it’s not the frosh, but the upper-year students, who cause most of the problems.
In St. Catharines, home to Brock University and Niagara College, Police laid about 40 noise complaints related to student parties. By comparison, Hamilton Police laid just a handful of charges for noise and alcohol infractions around Mohawk College and McMaster University – about 36 charges. With 10,200 students in total, that works out to about one charge per 255 students. (It would be interesting to calculate the ratio for other campuses – perhaps Maclean’s could incorporate it into their ranking formula as some sort of measure of student life!)
So what can be done in Public Affairs offices, to minimize the damage rowdy students can cause to an institution’s brand, or to town/gown relations with disgruntled neighbours? I’ve noticed a variety of approaches:
Awareness Campaigns: Molson’s and the Student Life Education Company are promoting their website,HeresToMyChoice.com, which offers tips and a quiz on mature social, academic and safety decisions. The University of Toronto has its “AskFirst” education campaign, and Dalhousie has its “Sex should not be a Crime” campaign, to counteract date rape among students. One of the more radical approaches was taken by Queen’s University two years ago, with its award-winning “Keep Queen’s Reputation Out of the Gutter” campaign. (See it on Academica’s AdSpotter.)
Campus Planning: A report released in August by Fanshawe College students included recommendations for better amenities and areas for socializing in student housing, and more planned activities, to help avert disastrous street parties. The authors in part blamed “jail-like” surroundings in student residences for out-of-control behaviour.
Cash Payments: In 2006 and 2007, Queen’s University “donated” $275,000 to the city of Kingston to help cover costs of policing Homecoming. This is an expensive way to buy community goodwill, and I don’t think any other campuses have gone this far.
Proactive Enforcement: In mid-August, several universities tried to get out in front of the problem, announcing enhanced police patrols in student residential neighbourhoods. Fanshawe College sent out students to educate their peers about safe partying and noise bylaws. Dalhousie worked closely with Halifax Police on “Operation Fall Back,” including a dedicated squad car for student neighbourhoods, and apparently McMaster and Hamilton Police have a similar program.
The Iron Fist: This year, Fanshawe College established a new Student Code of Conduct, appointed a new Student Code of Conduct Administrator, and created a new Student-Community Relations Officer position, to go door-to-door reminding students of their obligations in terms of noise bylaws, garbage, and responsible citizenship. And of course, Fanshawe clearly communicated the steps it was taking through the media. (Ironically, uOttawa repealed its proposed non-academic code of conduct just in time for O-Week.)
Lead by Example: Queen’s University seems to have had some success at moderating Homecoming street parties on Aberdeen Ave by unleashing hordes of staff and student volunteers, to exchange beer bottles for plastic cups and act as a calming influence. Of course, you can just be grateful if your president doesn’t end up bringing the keg to the party!
I hope we can garner some lively discussion here on this topic. Please comment below: Did student behaviour get out of hand elsewhere this month? What communication strategies and tactics have been tried? What do you think works best?
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