CARBONDALE — For decades, Southern Illinois University Carbondale held a distinction that many of its administrators worked to quash: it was considered one of the best party schools in the Midwest.
With a vibrant downtown entertainment scene and a prevalent drinking culture, the Carbondale campus drew fun-seekers far and wide, and in 1987, Playboy magazine ranked SIUC 17th on its list of the top 40 party schools in the country.
But the revelry was a mixed blessing. Although the annual Halloween celebration drew large crowds and boosted the local economy, it also brought riots and destruction, and eventually, city and campus officials devised a set of regulations to rein in the party and preserve the university’s good name as a research institution.
In the years since, SIUC’s freewheeling, hard-drinking image has faded — the university no longer makes it into the Princeton Review’s annual roundup of party schools.
John Jackson, a longtime SIUC administrator who is now a visiting professor with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said in an interview last month that Carbondale’s raucous Halloween celebrations were a source of bad publicity for the university, and that the administration worked to suppress the events in the late 1980s. But the issue resurfaced when Jackson was interim chancellor in 2000.
A Halloween celebration that year resulted in riots, injuries and arrests: Partiers threw rocks through the windows of businesses, lit clothing on fire and chucked beer cans at police officers, according to previous reporting by The Southern.
“… I tried to put a stop to it by closing the university in 2000 for Halloween, which was not a very popular move with the downtown and all the students, as you might imagine. I think it succeeded after all, but nobody else much liked it. Anyway, my view on Halloween is a bit jaundiced because of that. Long and short is, we were going to get somebody killed,” Jackson said.
Others wonder whether SIUC’s rejection of its old reputation has contributed to its precipitous enrollment decline. Anthony Greff, an SIU alumnus, has built a popular brand around the notion that Carbondale should revive its party-school image: His “Soberly Intoxicated” entertainment blog has thousands of followers across multiple social media platforms.
Greff, a promoter who helped popularize Unofficial Halloween and other Carbondale special events, said he developed the brand in 2007.
“And I brought up the idea — and it’s been brought up to me countless times — that SIU never had problems whenever it was known as a party school. … They had these epic Halloweens, they had no problems with enrollment. Whenever I would talk to people, ‘Oh, SIUC — that’s a party school.’ You didn’t want to go to SIUE, because that was a commuter school. And ever since that, it’s come to the point where alumni, they will talk to me and they will say, ‘You know, I don’t recognize this school,’” Greff said.
Sally Carter, owner of Hangar 9 on The Strip, grew up in Carbondale and began managing the bar in 1978. She said she believes SIUC’s party-school reputation was a draw for students.
“If you look at the numbers and where the numbers started dropping with enrollment, they coincide directly with Halloween and the city and the university’s efforts to get rid of the party school image,” Carter said.
She said she believes the university has lost its identity.
“I mean, that’s what people came here for — that and the natural beauty of the surroundings,” Carter said.
Recently, the City of Carbondale has taken steps toward reviving the Halloween tradition, perhaps suggesting a newfound openness to the identity it previously tried to shirk. In 2015, the city council elected to lift all restrictions on Halloween — including restrictions on bars and a ban on keg sales — and in March, city officials announced that they plan to host a Halloween-themed festival that draws on the holiday’s history in Carbondale.
Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry said the festival is part of an effort to revitalize the city’s downtown and bring entertainment back to The Strip, and that he doesn’t believe reopening Halloween activity will be a problem this time around.
“We have, unfortunately, almost half the students that we had back then. So it just isn’t going to be that big of an event, starting out,” Henry said.
Initial plans suggest the event will be comparatively tame: The celebration will begin in the morning with family-friendly activities, and live music on Washington Street will get shut down by 11 p.m., according to Henry.
“It’ll be much, much different, and I really don’t have any trepidation about it at all,” Henry said.
Henry said he hopes people in surrounding communities will get more comfortable with coming to Carbondale.
“Those riots really frightened people off way back when, and I don’t blame them. But our students, it’s just different today. I think there’s just a different mentality. There isn’t this ‘party hard’ sort of mentality going on,” Henry said.