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An embarrassing month for Washington University


Until fairly recently Washington University students could pretty much count on adding the modifier "in St. Louis" when identifying their school to anyone not from nearby. That has changed somewhat, as the sometimes-dubbed "Harvard of the Midwest" has scaled the U.S. News and World Report university rankings, peaking last year at number nine. (This year the magazine took the school down a couple of pegs, to the eleventh spot.)

But the school's image is taking it on the chin some. Last week student protesters began occupying the admissions building, demanding higher wages for campus workers. Unfortunately, this coincided with an influx of prospective students in town for the school's "April Welcome."

A more surreal series of events in March has had the World Wide Web a-chatter about Wash. U. -- and not about how great the anthropology department is. The buzz concerns a series of embarrassing episodes, including a sorority's ejection from the City Museum for drunken behavior and a student allegedly defecating in the room of a dorm floor advisor. Links to accounts of the incidents turned up on popular Web site, drawing hundreds of sarcastic comments.

Wrote one observer, who posts under the nom de Web "ZeroCorpse": "I weep for the future."

As for the past, it went down something like this:

Fresh off a semester-long ban on booze at Greek-sponsored events, members of Wash. U.'s Alpha Phi sorority and their dates showed up drunk for their March 18 formal at the City Museum downtown. One passed out in a bathroom, while others vomited in trash cans, according to City Museum evening manager Nicholas Lyter. But the most distressing occurrence, Lyter says, came when a Phi passed out in front of a group of Girl Scouts.

"It was clear that a lot of the members were intoxicated when they got there, and we knew that a good percentage of them were underage," Lyter says. "It got to the point where I had to protect our guests, the City Museum and the sorority members themselves."

Lyter says Alpha Phi local president Jessica Schaffner later proposed that sorority members might perform some sort of service for the museum to make amends. He suggested they give the Girl Scouts a call instead.

Schaffner did not return calls requesting comment for this story.

The following week, hundreds of copies of the campus newspaper Student Life, which contained a chronicle of the City Museum fracas, were stolen and dumped in the trash by a person or persons unknown. Many on campus fingered the Phis.

"Phi, phie, pho, phut...I smell the puke of a sorority slut," chimed a Farker known as "Hornwrecker." "Put me on double secret probation."

Meanwhile, on the night of the formal, a group of freshmen were wreaking havoc in the Wash. U. dorms. According to campus police chief Don Strom, nine or ten students broke into and vandalized the rooms of their resident advisors, the upperclassmen in charge of enforcing the rules on their floor in Lee Hall. In one instance a vandal defecated on an advisor's floor. Campus police arrested four of the frosh and took them to the St. Louis County jail for questioning. They and some of their cohorts are likely to face criminal charges, though none have yet been filed, says Strom.

One student who lives on the floor and says he was involved with the incident describes it as a prank gone awry, the result of escalating tensions between the freshmen and one of the advisors.

"She does a lot of hypocritical activities," the student, who asked that his name not be published, says of the advisor. "She pretended to be our friend, but there were some days when she was just not [cordial]. We've had kids get [disciplined] for use of profanity, for throwing a football past quiet hours. They weren't even making noise."

The dorm resident says he was questioned by campus police and released. He also says some of the other students involved were ordered by school administrators to move off the floor.

Strom would not reveal the names of the students or advisors involved in the incident.

Last month a less caustic but similarly bizarre incident left officials in the school's Office of Alumni Relations red-faced after the office mailed out laughably inaccurate questionnaires to graduates nationwide.

Some of the forms listed former students as having children who were older than the alums themselves. Others characterized male alums as sorority members, and still others categorized Caucasian students' ethnic identities as a mélange of "American Indian," "Black American," "Asian Pacific," "Hispanic," "Foreign," 'White American" and "Other."

Laura Chauvin, assistant vice chancellor in the alumni-relations office, estimates that of the 30,000 forms sent out, "perhaps thousands" contained erroneous information. "I've gotten 25 to 30 calls or e-mails so far," Chauvin reports. "And I'm not the only one in the office who answers the phone."

Chauvin says the forms got messed up at some point after they were generated from the database and before being output to the printer. "Basically, some of the fields were not cleared from the printing of the previous questionnaires," she explains. Which meant the cumulative data kept stacking up on successive forms.

"It was not a data error, and nobody's files were corrupted," Chauvin goes on. "We sincerely apologize to everyone and anyone who was affected. From now on we'll have a more scrupulous review of these forms."

Not everyone is buying the official line. "My friend speculated that they were putting it out to people who hadn't responded to any fundraising queries recently," says Bill Watson, a Class of 2000 mechanical-engineering grad. "His thought was that if you send somebody something that's all screwed up, they'll think it's funny and it'll catch their attention."

After realizing the gaffe, the alumni office sent out corrected forms and notes of apology -- perhaps the classiest act in a very bad month.

"This is probably the most publicity my school has ever received," habitué "barfooz" noted of the drunken sorority soirée and the dorm vandalism. "Go Wash U!"

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