The reality series “College Hill” caused an uproar at its previous locations, but the Black Entertainment Television show provoked its greatest controversy to date at its most recent setting, the University of the Virgin Islands.
Alumni and parents sent e-mails and called the university. Radio shows aired discontent over the way the students portrayed themselves.
Members of the university’s Board of Trustees expressed their outrage over the cast members’ behavior and distanced themselves from the decision to allow the show to be filmed at UVI.
They advised President Laverne Ragster to apologize to both the university and Virgin Islands communities, which she did in full-page advertisements in the Virgin Islands Daily News and the St. Croix Avis.
However, the show brought in its highest-ever number of viewers, and Ragster also wrote a newspaper column saying some good came out of the experience.
“There’s no denying that ‘College Hill 4,’ to some extent, speaks the truth,” Ragster wrote. “The drinking, the sex, the serious anger management issues. All this and more are common among today’s college students, and we at UVI believe a ‘mirror’ function is at work as our UVI students see their classmates behaving badly.
“It’s all to the good when they experience a way to see themselves and make some positive changes as a result. The show also provides an opportunity to see how the institution assists students to face and surmount personal development challenges.”
According to Nielsen Media Research, more than 1.6 million viewers tuned in to watch the series premier, which featured four students from the Virgin Islands and four from California.
At a March 17 meeting of the trustees, members said they had been notified of the decision to film the show at the university only after Ragster had signed the contract.
“I was absolutely horrified by the program,” board member Wesley Williams Jr. told the Daily News. A public university has a role to educate the public as much as its students and not highlight modern society’s base instincts, he was quoted as saying.
In addition to the full-page advertisements, Ragster has taken steps to prevent other universities from being presented as UVI has been. In conjunction with presidents from previous universities where “College Hill” was set, Dr. JoAnn Haysbert of Langston University and Eddie N. Moore Jr. of Virginia State University, Ragster is seeking a meeting with Viacom executives to discuss how African-Americans are portrayed in the media. Viacom owns BET.
“There needs to be some sort of balanced approach in their programming, to include positives along with the negative. Right now, they seem to be only interested in the bottom line,” Ragster told the V.I. Source, a local online newspaper.
Others on campus also felt “College Hill” did not accurately represent Virgin Islands students.
“As a social worker, counselor and someone who attended this university, it’s like the university was our mother and we allowed someone to come in and violate our children,” Winifred Anthony-Todman, UVI Upward Bound coordinator, said.
“This was done without having the decency within which to prepare” the staff and students, she said.
Nicholas Lima, a junior psychology major, said, “The decision of a small group of people is going to affect a large group of people because now when people from the States see the name ‘University of the Virgin Islands,’ they are going to say, ‘Oh, that’s that crazy school!’”
Alumni from Langston University, where the series was staged in its second season, had complained when the series was at that HBCU.
“We are not denying this type of thing goes on,” David Stevens, national president of the Langston University Alumni Association, had said, “but we are questioning what are the motives behind presenting many of the negative aspects without showing the good that goes on.”
Hudspeth said the show presents stereotypical images of Black people. He likened BET to minstrel shows of the early 20th century.
“BET represents the merchandising and exploitation of stereotypical and oftentimes destructive behavior of Black people for the benefit of profit,” he said.
Virgin Island cast member Idesha Browne, a senior biology major, said, “everyone has to take into consideration that this is TV.”
In the first two episodes, there were displays of nudity and profanity, and sexual overtones. Cast members drank until becoming sick, and dared each other to become nude and to perform sexual acts.
According to Browne, many of the negative comments came because of “the timeline of the show.” She said that scenes, specifically those in the first episodes, were not shown chronologically.
“They had to put things together to make the audience watch the show,” Browne said.
“A lot of negative comments that are made are about the timeline. People think everything happened so fast but those who lived in the house know how it happened,” she said. “The show isn’t about UVI. It’s about eight students who live in a house and attend UVI.”
“Most of the discontent was generated within the first hour, which was not unexpected . . . in a small community not used to having itself portrayed in any way on national TV,” Patrice Johnson, UVI public relations director, said.
“I am not at all unaware of what large conglomerates are involved in [in seeking] ratings and appealing to audiences, and so I think that BET has met its goal of attracting viewers,” Johnson said.
Inquiries about admission to UVI quintupled after the show’s premiere, according to Kathleen Pascal, administrative specialist in the admissions office.
“From the moment the show began at 11 p.m., until 5 a.m., students began sending in inquires,” she said. “They were amazed that there was a university down here, and many of them said that they saw that thing on BET.”
Pascal said that before “College Hill” arrived, she would get 25 inquiries on a normal day. After the premiere that number rose, on average, to 125.
BET.com posted a link leading to a brief history of UVI.
“UVI has an enrollment problem and it brings attention to people who don’t know about UVI,” Dasch Underwood, a graduate student in public administration, said.
How would the administration deal with a massive influx of students who wanted to get a taste of the Virgin Islands?
The campus dorms can house only 264 students on St. Thomas and 100 on St. Croix, according to Ragster.
She said there was a waiting list of 100 students for the St. Thomas dorms during the fall semester, although the St. Croix dorms had a great deal of room.
Ragster said the university would accept new students on a first-come, first-served basis. Once the dorms are booked, the university would help students find interim housing until more space became available.
Surprisingly, Virginia State University, the show’s location for the third season, saw a drop in enrollment the following year. While there was a 2 percent increase in out-of-state students, from 1,483 to 1,529, the number of in-state students declined, from 3,572 to 3,343, according to the university’s Web site.
“I don’t regret anything. If I could do it again I probably would do it,” cast member Browne said. She said she was happy for the opportunity to refine her speaking skills and for the interaction with others.
Johnson, the UVI public relations director, agreed. “What people don’t realize is that we seldom get opportunities here in the territory to interact, observe and be a complete party to the level of professionalism these students have become privy to,” she said.
Black College Wire’s Aslin Leger, a junior communication major at the University of the Virgin Islands, is the St. Thomas campus managing editor of the UVI Voice.
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