Johns Hopkins students loosen up their tight-laced reputation

May 13, 1991|By Diane Winston

At a campus where fun was once a four-letter word, students at the Johns Hopkins University are starting to mention the term without blushing.

Almost. On a sunny spring day, a gaggle of undergraduates lolling on the lawn seemed to be enjoying the weather. But each one had a thick textbook within arm's reach -- just in case the urge hit them to study quadratic formulas or chemical equations.

The Baltimore school, touted as one of the nation's elite institutions, has long been twitted as a pre-med factory and a research-oriented ivory tower. Moreover, the university's starchy conservatism -- vestiges of long-gone days when the all-male, predominantly Anglo students wore ties and jackets to class -- has made it a natural breeding ground for the Foreign Service and the Department of Defense.

A new mood on campus seems to be nurturing people, as well as scholars. The day Beverly Moy spread her books out on the lawn, her classmates flocked to a Relaxation Fair -- a student-sponsored event that provided an afternoon's alternative to studying for exams.

Not only are students, faculty and administrators conspiring to have a good time, but they are also becoming more socially active and politically conscious. A growing number of students are slipping away from their books long enough to play, to party and to participate in the progressive politics and support for minorities' status that is sweeping many American campuses.

"We are trying to be sensitive to the community here," said Chris Columbo, dean of Homewood campus school services. "We try to be aware of different titles or names for ethnic groups or just language in general.

"For example, we are now working with the publications department on the correct language for a new admissions piece. We are going to do everything in our power not to make the language gender-specific."

The winds of change swept through the campus several years back. Not only were students, spurred on by the environmental movement, growing more active and aware, but the university also reassessed its responsibilities.

The moment of truth came in 1987 when the Human Climate Task Force reported that the university had failed to promote a positive agenda on everything from moral values to minority rights to campus security.

Since then, the university -- borrowing a phrase from Mao Tse-tung -- has let 100 flowers bloom:

* The Human Relations and Cultural Diversity Committee was formed last year to foster respect for differences in race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation. The committee sponsors movies, lectures, workshops and seminars that teach students about minorities.

* The Women's Studies Program started offering classes this fall with an interdisciplinary approach to the study of gender differences.

* The administration has informed the Department of Defense that the ban against gays and lesbians in the Reserve Officer Training Corps is discriminatory and counter to Hopkins policy. The university says it will re-evaluate its ROTC program in five years if governmental changes are not forthcoming.

* Trustees recently voted to sell off tobacco stocks in the school's portfolio. They began selling off their investments in South Africa in 1986.

* Students for Environmental Action has become one of the most popular groups at Hopkins. The campus is dotted with recycling receptacles and fliers on how to help the environment.

* New on-campus housing for sophomores, which opens this fall, will provide the organized community experience and venue for social activities that only fraternities have offered in the past.

Hopkins' new president, William C. Richardson, supports both political activism and good old-fashioned fun. He's known to have an open-door policy for students and to promote the improvement of undergraduate life.

"One of the attractive things about Johns Hopkins University is its students do have a lot of fun," Dr. Richardson said recently. "And just because Hopkins students are serious doesn't detract from their ability to have fun."

Students say they have fun just choosing among the activities offered on campus bulletin boards: Movies, plays, lectures, as well as parties on campus and in fraternity houses.

But the best times are those that occur spontaneously.

"Last week, my friends and I had a pot luck supper and told everyone to bring kiddie food," said Megan Williams, a sophomore studying chemistry. "We had Beefaroni, macaroni and cheese, Kool-Aid and pizza.

"That was a lot of fun."

Still, the school has a reputation to live down.

In her 1990 "New and Improved College Book," aging preppie doyenne Lisa Birnbach quotes an anonymous Hopkins student, "Most people are not happy here, especially the ones who want to go to med school." Ms. Birnbach concludes, "Those who enroll remain satisfied with the academic caliber of the place upon arrival. It's the other issues that bother them -- the ones that contribute to the quality of life."

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