UW-Madison: ‘College Life’ appears to fall short in depiction

April 13, 2009

by John Lucas

MTV’s reality-based series “College Life” appears to present a sensationalized view of student life with an exaggerated emphasis on drinking and dysfunctional relationships, according to UW-Madison officials.

Filmed in Madison and featuring UW-Madison students, the promos and an early version of the pilot episode missed the mark badly, says Dean of Students Lori Berquam.

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“Unfortunately, it appears that MTV squandered a tremendous opportunity to show one of the most active and engaged campuses in the country,” says Berquam. “The network’s view of campus life is not reflective of the challenges and opportunities experienced by the majority of our student body.”

The show, which is centered on the lives of freshman students, premieres tonight (April 13). UW-Madison officials viewed early versions of the pilot and promos supplied by producers, but have not been given an opportunity to see the full show.

“College Life” was created by a UW-Madison alumnus who approached the university in 2008 and pitched a show reflecting the breadth and depth of a large public university. The alumnus then sold the idea to MTV. The university was initially intrigued by the possibilities and helped organize a casting call for participants in August.

But by early fall 2008, the university decided not to continue its cooperation and ended any informal partnership it had with MTV. Berquam cites concerns that producers had a preconceived vision of college life that would ultimately harm the participating students and UW-Madison’s reputation.

Students participating in the show are being paid by MTV for videotaping their stories. Those living in University Housing are restricted to filming off-campus, except when in their rooms with the door closed to protect the privacy of other residents. The university allowed filming in residence halls with restrictions because the show’s producers were prepared to move all student participants from Housing to private residence halls. Research shows that living in university residence halls enhances the academic experience of most freshman students.

Each participating student signed a contract with MTV and must obtain a signed release from anyone captured in the filming process. The university has barred the network from filming on campus, using its name, logos and marks or footage of campus buildings. The program airing tonight apparently carries a disclaimer noting that the university does not endorse the show.

“We understand the power of MTV and were initially honored to be considered for a program that could showcase our unique experience,” Berquam adds. “But the ‘College Life’ they’re selling is nothing more than a stereotype that disrespects our students and harms our institution and the value of a UW-Madison degree.”

Berquam says she’s holding out hope that regular episodes might reflect a well-rounded picture of life in Madison. She cites national awards and campus studies showing that UW-Madison students have an unusually high rate of participation in out-of-classroom learning experiences.

The university has hundreds of student organizations, top-ranked academics and research programs, nationally ranked athletics and a unique location in a vibrant city. Upon graduation the university has an extremely high rate of alumni that go on to work in the Peace Corps and Teach for America, as well as becoming corporate CEOs.

She says she doesn’t expect a show to focus solely on those aspects of the university and acknowledges that the university is struggling with Madison’s drinking culture. But balance is key to an accurate portrayal.

“You could go anywhere in the nation to get footage of someone going to a party or drinking at a bar,” she adds. “There is so much more to college, and UW-Madison in particular.”

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