ORONO — At 10 o’clock on a Friday night, Josh Gastonguay, Chris Burns and Nicholas Murphy are sitting on the deck of the Bear Brew, a popular bar, drinking Grateful Deads, cocktails made with five types of alcohol.
The friends, English majors at the University of Maine who are in their early 20s, chat quietly about the Greek tragedy “Oedipus the King.” This, they say, is the extent of their partying.
Of course, they say, some students overindulge. On Labor Day weekend, police were called to off-campus housing for two out-of-control parties.
But, Murphy says, “Any stories of debauchery are grossly exaggerated.”
This summer, for the first time ever, the Princeton Review put Maine on its annual list of the nation’s top party colleges. The dubious honor has sparked a debate among students and university official over whether it’s fair or accurate to depict the state’s flagship university as a 21st century Animal House.
Is Maine really a party school? The answer depends on who you ask.
“Of course it is,” said Morgan Barnes, 21, a senior mass communications major from Cape Elizabeth. “What else is there to do?”
Robert Dana, Maine’s dean of students, doesn’t quite agree.
“It reminds me that we constantly have to be reminding people of who we are and what we stand for,” he said. “That we need to stress moderation and personal responsibility. We’re not without issues, but we’re certainly not a campus unhinged.”
The Princeton Review, a Massachusetts-based test preparation and admissions consulting company, has been doing on-campus surveys and ranking colleges for 20 years. It relies on volunteers who ask students more than 80 questions, ranging from “How many out-of-class hours do you spend studying each day?” to “How do you rate your campus food?”
Those responses are used to create 62 lists, such as Best Campus Food, Most Beautiful Campus and Most LGBT friendly. The Princeton Review uses only what it considers the top colleges in its rankings, about 15 percent of America’s 2,500 four-year colleges.
Maine’s ranking as No. 19 on the party school surprised many people. Orono police Capt. Josh Ewing said he was shocked to see Maine on any list of top party schools. If anything, he said, the school has gotten tamer in the 13 years he’s been on the job.
“This is nothing compared to what we saw a decade ago,” he said.
Back to back parties
Before classes started this month, wild parties on back-to-back nights generated buzz among students and created headaches for others.
The parties happened at the Grove, a new student housing complex a half-mile from campus. With 22 buildings, nearly 200 apartments and space for more than 600 students, the complex built by Campus Crest Communities Inc. looks more like an all-inclusive resort than student housing.
It has a giant courtyard with a pool and a lounge area, a shared common building with a game room, computer stations, couches and flat-screen TVs. There are beach volleyball courts, tennis courts, basketball courts and a tanning salon.
On its sign, the O in Grove looks like a martini olive. T-shirts advertising the Grove bear the slogan “Get a room.”
On Sept. 1, and again on Sept. 2, gatherings of hundreds of students spilled into the Grove’s outdoor common area. Police described the scene as chaotic, with loud music, lots of excessive drinking and rowdy behavior.
Students took pictures and videos of the scene and posted them on social media websites. One video showed a young man skateboarding off a roof.
Megan Collopy, 21, an anthropology major from Dexter who lives off campus with a roommate, got a text message about a party at the Grove from a friend who lives there and couldn’t sleep. Collopy didn’t go.
She said she never thought of Maine as a party school, she said. “There are kids who party a lot, kids who don’t at all, and everyone else is probably in between.”
Joe Martorano, 21, who lives at the Grove, said he wasn’t a participant but watched from his window. The morning after one of the parties, he said, he picked up $20 worth of bottles and cans.
“It was pretty crazy,” said Martorano, who’s from Calais. “People were jumping off roofs. I don’t know how long that’s going to last.”
The next Friday night, Sept. 7, security guards were manning the gate at the Grove by early evening, checking everyone who wanted to get in. Around 9 p.m., a steady stream of vehicles pulled off Park Street and into the Grove. Many were turned away. The same was true of pedestrians.
Ewing said Orono police issued two dozen summonses at the Grove from that Thursday night to Sunday morning. Four people were arrested.
“Good outcomes require good planning,” said Dean Dana. “Since that first weekend, we’ve had conversations with police, with parents and with property owners to address it. I think that was an environment that was not fully ready.”
UMaine’s reputation as a party school predates the Grove, apparently driven by tradition. The university’s song, “The Stein Song,” is about drinking to all the happy hours and careless days — and the lack of alternatives in the Orono area.
According to students, parties tend to be front-loaded early in the year, before the weight of coursework sets in, before the snow and biting cold discourage party-hopping, and before fraternities get more discerning about who they let through the doors.
Indeed, Greek organizations get much of the credit and blame for the college party scene, and not just at Maine. Fraternities’ popularity is one metric that the Princeton Review uses to rank party schools.
Sean Mahoney, the treasurer for Pi Kappa Alpha at Maine, said fraternities get labeled unfairly as party spots.
“We have to behave ourselves because there is more scrutiny on us,” said Mahoney, a 21-year-old senior from Boston.
Asked whether Maine is a party school, Mahoney said, “I guess it’s what you make of it. I’ve been to other colleges. It doesn’t seem that much different here.”
Emily Lavoie, vice president of recruitment for the Alpha Phi sorority, said Maine has parties, but she’s not convinced it qualifies as a party school.
“I think it’s the people more than the school,” said Lavoie, 22, a senior from Carmel. “I think that type of thing overshadows many of the other things students are interested in.”
For new students, the first few weekends are an opportunity to set the tone for their social life. For many, it’s their first time away from home, their first chance to be an adult, their first chance to abandon parental authority.
Molly Cameron, 22, of Brookfield, Mass., spent two years at Southern Maine Community College after she graduated from high school. She took a year off, then enrolled as a junior at Maine. She said she understands the appeal of partying, especially for younger students.
“I think any time you get 18- and 19-year-olds away from home and their parents, they are going to party,” she said.
Because there is a strict policy against minors drinking on campus, most students won’t go wild in a dorm. It’s easier to find a house party where they can plunk down $5 and drink warm beer from a red cup all night, Cameron said.
Nothing else to do
The Bear Brew was quiet at 10 p.m. on the recent Friday, but an hour later it started to fill up with young people — Maine students, mostly — in various stages of intoxication. The music got louder. Conversations got louder. People slipped in and out the front door more frequently.
“I think (partying) is the social outlet,” said Joseph Miller, 21, of Topsham, who was downstairs in the bar. “There isn’t much else happening. It’s a large school in a rural area. I think people party almost out of necessity.”
It’s nothing new to those who have been around Orono for a while.
“These kids, they don’t drink nearly as much as I did,” said Jim Bence, who owns the Bear Brew and studied at Maine in the late 1970s. “They are well behaved for the most part.”
By 11:30 p.m., College Avenue was flooded with clusters of people wandering to and from the fraternities. Asked where they were going, most replied, “I don’t know. Do you know of any parties?”
Just before midnight, students lingered outside another housing complex, Orchard Trails.
On the first floor of one of the buildings, Matt Navojosky, 21, of Auburn and Chris Lessard, 21, of Gray threw a party for about 30 people. People in the kitchen played beer pong. Others sat in the living room, trying to talk over the hip-hop music. Some danced.
Navojosky said he has been hosting parties for a while and they never get out of hand.
Asked what his secret is, he said, “You need to keep out stupid freshmen who can’t hold their alcohol, and you can’t let too many people in or you’ll start to get complaints.”
The two roommates said they see nothing wrong with college students partying responsibly.
“We do it right here,” Lessard said.