“Vodka Sam” May Be a Symptom of a Problem, but She Herself Is Not the Problem—Not Even the Public Relations Problem

Last week, the Princeton Review released its annual rankings of U.S. colleges and universities.

In the category “Top Party Schools,” the University of Iowa was ranked #1, moving up from its #2 ranking last year and bumping last year’s “winner” West Virginia University from the top spot.

A spokesperson for the university responded to the news by saying: “Among all the rankings published by various media outlets, the Princeton Review‘s stand out for their complete lack of objective, scientific methodology. . . . Their rankings are based almost exclusively on anecdotes and random, subjective feedback.”

I am not sure about the efficacy of issuing that statement because most media reporting the story then hastened to point out that Iowa also ranked first in the categories “Lots of Hard Liquor,” “Lots of Beer,” and “Students Study the Least.”

Somewhat coincidentally, as these rankings were being released and discussed, a University of Iowa undergraduate posted an item on the internet that went viral. Apparently, after one night of heavy drinking, someone (presumably not her) measured her blood alcohol level at .341, earning her the online sobriquet “Vodka Sam.”

Since she survived this misadventure with the bottle—one assumes without any permanent brain damage—one can only hope that she regards it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Indeed, the most lasting damage done to her from that one night of excessive drinking may be her inability to distance herself from the “Vodka Sam” story when she graduates and starts job hunting. Unless her degree qualifies her to work in an addiction treatment facility, that irremovable bit of information about her is probably not going to enhance her employment prospects.

But, in response to the “Vodka Sam” story’s going viral, on top of the dubious distinction announced by the Princeton Review, the president of the University of Iowa, Sally Mason, felt compelled to make this statement to a reporter for the Des Moines Register: “It’s sad that one student and one student’s behavior shapes the image of 30,000 other students . . . I feel very, very concerned about the young student that had that level of alcohol in her blood. I’m very concerned for her health, safety and well-being. There’s no doubt that there’s a problem there . . . The vast majority of our students have expressed concerns to me about the reputational damage that one student can do to all of them . . .  We work with those students to help them understand it’s important that they get the message back to their peers, who may think it’s amusing, or may think that it’s OK to engage in these kinds of risky behaviors and attract national attention to the University of Iowa.”

Granting that the quotation as I found it has been edited, it might have been better if the president came across as more genuinely concerned about the student and less pointedly concerned about the impact on the university’s reputation.

Indeed, one might come away thinking that “Vodka Sam” has been almost single-handedly responsible for the university’s public-relations problems related to the Princeton Review rankings. And that impression largely undercuts the concern expressed about her abuse of alcohol.

Moreover, framing the concern over the damage to the school’s reputation as something expressed by students and simply being related by the president seems disingenuous—if not cheesy. I simply find it hard to believe that the president’s office has been swamped by contacts from students who are concerned that “Vodka’s Sam’s” newfound notoriety will hurt their employment prospects. It seems much more likely that several people on the university’s Board of Trustees have expressed some alarm over the news items.

In sum, if the university regarded the Princeton Review rankings as frivolous, then the spokesperson should have simply said that. Likewise, if the president of the university were truly concerned about the problem highlighted in these news stories and not mainly about the fallout from them, she should have simply responded to the reporter’s questions by focusing on what the university is doing to reduce incidents of alcohol abuse among its students—thereby emphasizing the university’s proactive efforts to address the problem, but without admitting that the problem is necessarily widespread. And, regarding “Vodka Sam,” she should have said simply that the university administration had contacted her to indicate their concern for her well-being and to direct her to some on-campus resources that she might find helpful.

3 thoughts on ““Vodka Sam” May Be a Symptom of a Problem, but She Herself Is Not the Problem—Not Even the Public Relations Problem

  1. Pingback: “Vodka Sam” Redux: Why Hannah Horvath May End Up Attending the Iowa Writers Workshop but Never Actually Set Foot on the University of Iowa Campus | Academe Blog

  2. Pingback: Improved Responsiveness to Sexual Assaults on Campus: The University of Iowa’s Plan | The Academe Blog

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