‘Suntan U’ reputation casts long shadow

From the Saturday Evening Post’s September 16th 1961 edition, “Scholar in the sun. Miami’s climate and extracurricular diversions make it hard to knuckle down and get good grades.”


Tucked away in bound books and dusty magazines, within the corners of Richter Library, exists a school whose history consists of excessive sunscreen, a younger drinking age and an unrecognizable Miami.

Before the University of Miami was dubbed a top-50 institution by U.S. News & World Report, it was known for its unwanted reputation as the “Suntan U.” In 1949, the Saturday Evening Post – a glossy publication similar to The New Yorker – published an article emphasizing the university’s “country club” atmosphere.

The magazine’s feature on the school “… highlighted a kind of post-war renaissance – a burgeoning student body and physical campus, a prestigious marine laboratory, a medical research center and a successful law school,” according to historian and senior member of UM’s Board of Trustees Arva Moore Parks’ publication, “The pathway to greatness: Building the University of Miami: 1926-2001.”

Though the 1949 article was meant to focus on UM’s progression from its former days as a “cardboard college,” it gave readers the impression that the students simply liked to spend their days sunbathing and socializing.

Despite the fact that the 1949 article by Harold H. Martin said UM overcame its “handicap of perennial poverty and the popular delusion about the sedative effect of the South Florida weather,” the school still wasn’t seen as a legitimate educational institution.


The social scene through the decades

In the ‘60s, the university had already started cracking down on the apparent party-goer atmosphere. In a follow-up article reported by Jerome Ellison for the Post in 1961, it was explained that “skylarkers don’t get away with what they used to. Last semester three fraternities were put on probation, a house mother was fired, and two fraternity officers were suspended – all for simply ‘having a few drinks’ (the brothers’ version) at weekend parties.”

Apart from the 10,000 students who commuted to UM during the ‘60s, there were also 5,000 undergraduate students from all 50 states and 52 foreign countries, according to Ellison. Almost half the students held down jobs and nearly 400 were on the dean’s list.

Still, that same article reported that “Miami, near the southern tip of Florida, is a resort city in a land of sand, palms and warm seas. Its major industry is fun. Hialeah, Tropical Park and Gulfstream Park race tracks are nearby. So are four dog tracks, two auto speedways and a jai alai establishment, all presenting opportunities for betting. Such attractions lure Miami’s students.”

The culture of the city at the time – as well as the campus’ – were notably different.

“Things were very different, much smaller and much simpler,” said Wellness Center Director Norm Parsons, who has worked at UM for 42 years. “Life moved at a different pace than it does today. It was a much different campus, better in some ways and not as good in others.”

After WWII ended, the student population at UM soared from 1,700 in 1945 to more than 10,000 in 1948, according to the Post’s 1961 article. In 1952, attendance reached 12,000. Once President Edward T. Foote II arrived to campus in the early ‘80s, however, he made the decision to come back “smaller and better,” Parsons said.

“We went from 12,000 students to 8,500 students,” he said. “The idea was that you could become more selective.”

Decreasing the number of students enrolled at UM helped bring about the decline of the “Suntan U” era. However, there were other factors to consider, like the city and campus life at the time. From 1973 to 1980, the drinking age in Florida was 18; it was raised to 19 in 1980, then finally 21 in 1985. This granted the majority of the student population the freedom to drink freely on campus.

Needless to say, this changed the campus dynamic: the Rat was open past 10 p.m.; packs of beer were distributed as part of spirit programs; and students tried to stack as many empty cups at their tables as possible before they would tilt over.

“I think the Rat would go through 40, maybe 60, kegs of beer in a two-hour time frame,” Parsons said. “The students would be lined up around the front of the lake to get into the Rat, and as the students staggered out, the others would go in to start the party. I think we’re a little more sane and intelligent now. It was the culture; it was the way it was.”

Moreover, it’s important to consider that the city of Miami was not yet the sprawling cosmopolitan center that it is today.

“It was a different time for Miami as a city, too,” said Terry Bloom, department chair of journalism and media management and UM alumna from 1991. “Miami itself was a very different city then. [Students] stayed closer to campus.”


Revamping the curriculum

As the number of enrolled students was reduced in the early ‘80s, the number of students in each class diminished as well. World-class faculty members were hired as older ones retired or left the university.

And, according to former Provost and Executive Vice President Luis Glaser, that made all the difference.

Glaser, who entered the university in 1986 and has taught biology since, worked to ameliorate the academic standards at UM.

In 2001, President Donna E. Shalala was appointed to serve as the president of UM. Through several fundraising campaigns, the university has been able to collect resources, as well as faculty members, to help raise the standards of the classroom.


Getting rid of the reputation

In 2008, Vice President Emeritus William Butler, who served as vice president for student affairs from 1965 to 1997, authored a book titled “Embracing the World: The University of Miami from Cardboard College to International and Global Acclaim,” in which he described the effect of the reputation the school earned during the post-WWII era.

“Today … we recognize that the university brilliantly utilized the adrenalin of the 1960s in an opportunistic way to invigorate the institution, ensuring that, in contrast to other campuses, ‘Suntan U’ would emerge as a more vibrant, worldly and more confident institution,” Butler wrote in the book.

Through the addition of talented faculty members, the downsizing of the student population and the construction of top-notch facilities, UM has worked its way to the top of the ranks. From cardboard college to $50 million facilities, UM started from the bottom but now it’s truly here.