Editorial: It’s time to scale back Poly’s ‘party school’ rap

‘The students are back, and the beer and booze are flowing. At least that’s how it seems to many of us in San Luis Obispo.”

— City Councilman Andrew Carter, Tribune Viewpoint, Sept. 27

Accurate or not, that image of the spoiled, beer-guzzling, boorish college student is indeed alive and well — and perhaps more prevalent than ever.

Since the start of the academic year, students have been blamed for destroying the peace and tranquility of family neighborhoods; for drunken carousing in the downtown; even for forcing some longtime residents to move away out of desperation.

On top of that, the arrest last week of a Cal Poly student who allegedly had marijuana brownies mailed to his dorm led to some wild assumptions about rampant drug use among students.

To which we say, enough already.

Yes, some of the criticism is warranted. That’s why we agree with most of the measures the city is proposing to better control off-campus partying.

But it’s time for a reality check: The city in particular and the region in general are highly dependent on Cal Poly, both for their economic well-being and also for more elusive quality-of-life benefits.

So let’s tone down the rhetoric. And that broad brush many of us have been using to paint — make that taint — all Cal Poly students? Time to stow it — permanently.

Instead, consider just a few of the benefits of having a top-ranked university here:

Cal Poly provides more than 3,000 jobs, making it the largest government employer in the county.

It’s a key driver of the retail sector. Student spending totaled an estimated $140 million in 2006-07. Spending by visitors to Cal Poly generated an additional $25 million. And the university itself spent $32 million locally on supplies, equipment, services and other purchases.

The university is a close-to-home option for local high school and community college graduates. In 2008, three local high schools — San Luis Obispo High, Atascadero and Paso Robles — were among the top “feeder” schools of first-time freshmen to Cal Poly, and Cuesta College and Hancock College in Santa Maria were the top sources of transfer students.

The large pool of student interns and Cal Poly graduates is a boon for local employers and helps drive the economy.

Local nonprofit organizations have benefited greatly from student volunteer effort. In 2008-09, 9,500 students contributed nearly 225,000 hours of community service at schools, homeless shelters and literacy centers, to name but a few.

Cal Poly attracts world-class musicians, actors, artists and lecturers who perform at the PAC and other campus venues. And the Cal Poly athletic program is a boon not only for spectators, but also for young athletes who benefit from the soccer, basketball, baseball and other sports camps staffed by Cal Poly athletes.

Cal Poly faculty and staff have been an invaluable resource for local communities. They’ve served on city councils, planning commissions and other advisory bodies, they’ve lent their expertise to various nonprofit causes and they’ve been strong contributors to debates over development, the environment and other key issues.

Bottom line: On balance, we believe the benefits associated with Cal Poly far outweigh the negatives.

That doesn’t mean that Poly students should get a pass for poor behavior. Neither should the university administration, which in our view often takes a stand-offish approach when student misconduct affects the community.

But bashing the entire university for the misbehavior of a minority of students is not only unfair, it also contributes to the growing town-gown divide.

By all means, the city and the university must continue efforts to curb loud, out-of-control partying.

At the same time, it wouldn’t hurt the rest of us to recognize the thousands of students who do things right.