Paul Ryan's Alma Mater: From Miami of Ohio to GOP's Philosophical Leader

Bagel & Deli has never left the 1990s. The tiny hangover haven for students at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, boasts wallpaper made of actual Newsweek covers. It offers, as a special, the Tonya Harding club sandwich (“It’s a Hit!”). There are no tables, no chairs, and practically no changes from when Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan stood in line here as an undergrad.

The national press and opposition researchers descended on campus when Ryan was elevated to the ticket. They found little else but images of a turtlenecked Ryan in frat group shots and a grainy photo of his African American girlfriend on the cheerleading squad. Unable to fulfill persistent “paul ryan shirtless” Google requests, they withdrew, missing the story of Miami’s impact on Ryan, and the potential role his fellow alumni might play in the do-or-die swing state of Ohio.

Ryan graduated from Miami in 1992, taking with him a BA in economics and political science. Within three days of his unveiling as Mitt Romney’s running mate in August, Ryan was back on campus, clutching a “lucky Ohio buckeye” handed to him by U.S. Senator Rob Portman.

He spoke briefly of Bagel & Deli and the school’s prowess in the rink (“That’s why I have a cleft chin -- fourteen stitches playing hockey here”). He then launched into his stump speech, his Wisconsin accent echoing off the red brick buildings which command every corner of the campus, from the old main building to the new parking garages. For the next fifteen minutes, it was Medicare, payroll taxes, health insurance, “an election based on anger and division.” Paul Ryan had moved on. But maybe not as much as it seemed.

In southwest Ohio, Miami commands the financial heights of the collegiate landscape. Future architects, engineers, and doctors apply to the University of Cincinnati. Teachers funnel into the tiny College of Mount St. Joseph, and in downtown Cincinnati you cannot swing a dirty martini without hitting an MBA from Xavier University. But undergrads take the SAT well aware that if their goal is under the business or econ umbrella, all roads lead to Oxford.

Miami, founded in 1809, is a showcase “public ivy,” a picturesque white-and-red-brick campus awash in khaki. Mainstream reporters often refer to Oxford as “bucolic” or “pastoral," neither of which takes into account the town’s Starbucks, pottery painting studio, or Wild Berry, the local incense/feather boa/edible underwear shop.

The northern drive from Cincinnati to Oxford takes forty-five minutes and spans about eighteen different college-town stereotypes. You’ll see a person sporting a crocheted beret wheeling a unicycle past a ramshackle tire shop. Until recently, a gas station featuring a Vend-a-Bait machine was the last major landmark between the big city and the little town; the rest is cornfields, sprawling churches, and a roadside amusement park offering a hand-built wooden roller coaster. When Ryan was a student here, Oxford’s tallest structure was a rusting 130-foot water tower.

Ryan was required to live on campus with the rest of the freshman class and faced the usual gauntlet of liberal arts curriculum courses, including formal reasoning and a foreign language. By the time he was a declared economics and political science major, he was balancing requirements in calculus, statistics, and international policy.

Like about a quarter of Miami’s students, Paul Ryan went Greek, pledging Delta Tau Delta. Student fads during his time in Oxford included marathon euchre games and “traying,” the practice of secreting trays out of the dining halls to use as sleds on snowy campus hills.

So: it’s no seething cauldron of social unrest. Oxford is an especially unpopular place to riot. The closest the student body came to doing so during Ryan’s tenure was the destruction of the football stadium’s goalposts upon the ending of a 20-game losing streak in his sophomore year. An ecstatic crowd carried one to the foot of the aforementioned water tower, deposited it there, then, unsure of what to do next, drank some more and went home.