"Taking the High Road on Alcohol Abuse"

From our student constituency, we hear the perennial refrains: “There’s nothing to do on the weekends except drink,” “we need to have some way to release our academic stress, so we drink,” or “we’re old enough to make our own decisions about where alcohol fits in our lives and no one can stop us.” From our faculty, we sense an uneasiness about giving priority to alcohol policies- perhaps because they recall collegiate indiscretions of their own, because they are far removed from regular encounters with inebriated students, or even out of fear of encouraging further administrative inroads into campus life. From parents, the feedback we receive is mixed: “Make student life as safe and supportive of academic success as possible, but if my son or daughter gets into trouble, give him or her a second or even a third chance.”p. It really is only from the front lines of exposure or intervention that the call to act decisively on alcohol abuse is rendered consistently and with a sense of urgency- from dormitory rectors, from the campus security force, from the health center, and from residents in neighborhoods with heavy student concentrations.p. In the past academic year, we have witnessed a rash of large-scale campus disorders related to alcohol abuse, either in protest of specific campus policies or as an offshoot of springfests where heavy outdoor consumption of alcohol is tolerated or even fostered. When the local police have become involved, the results have been rock throwing, fires, overturned cars, tear gas, and injury to people, property, and the reputation of the institution.p. Even more distressing, because so poignant, has been a series of highly publicized student deaths directly connected to alcohol- the results of Greek initiation rites, athletic event parties, falls from high places, and random instances of overdrinking by the inexperienced or the chronically abusing.p. What is a president to do? Is not alcohol use and abuse on campus a no-win issue that is best left on the periphery of administrative preoccupations and addressed head-on only when pressure from the governing board, the state legislature, or the non-student part of the campus community becomes too intense?p. I would argue that it is incumbent upon us as college and university presidents to lead the way in fostering an improved campus climate with regard to alcohol use. Much good can be achieved by properly mobilizing our various communities, as long as we are realistic in our expectations for change. The first challenge is to have the courage to evaluate the situation on one’s own campus and, in the process, to make an assessment of the extent of the alcohol abuse problem and the forms and patterns that it assumes at one’s institution.p. We know much more about the extent of the problem across the extent of the problem across the country than we used to. In 1994, I chaired the Commission on Substance Abuse at Colleges and Universities, which issued the report “Rethinking Rites of Passage: Substance Abuse on America’s Campuses.” This report and a host of other studies by government and university researchers have laid out the contours of the problem:
-One in three college students reports drinking to get drunk on a regular basis.
-Women now drink to get drunk at rates equal to men.
-Nearly 40 percent of women and more than 50 percent of men engage in binge drinking (defined as downing more than five drinks in one sitting).
-Students living in fraternities and sororities report drinking rates that are three times those of other students
-White males consume more alcohol in a given week than any other student group.
-Excessive use of alcohol is implicated in most reported rapes, in the vast majority of other violent crimes on campus, and in the contraction of sexually transmitted diseases.
-The abuse of alcohol negatively affects academic performance.*

This is a sense of the national picture. After a campus evaluation is completed and the extent of the problem has been ascertained (in descriptive or comparative terms), the next challenge is what to do. Which programs, projects, or people can offer assistance?p. To help in our own evaluation, Notre Dame participated in the 1993 and 1997 Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Studies. We found the information very helpful in assessing patterns of alcohol use on our campus. In addition, the principal investigator in the study, Henry Wechsler, has served as a consultant to our Office of Student Affairs, reviewing our current policies and programs and recommending initiatives to address our specific challenges.p. The first instinct of many educators is to propose putting a course in the curriculum or making some program mandatory for the student body. This is a desirable step, but far from adequate. Research suggests that education in and of itself does not change behavior. Learning about the physiological and psychological effects of various quantities of alcohol consumption by body mass or the different metabolism rates of male and female drinkers is not sufficient to shake the individual’s craving or the influence of group drinking practices.p. While educational programs related to alcohol abuse are necessary first steps, they need to be integrated into a more comprehensive effort. As a second component of such a strategy, campus leaders should review the current disciplinary and intervention policies for alcohol-related misbehavior. And in fairness, we should all strive for consistency in substance abuse policies dealing with staff, faculty, administration, and student misconduct. For example, at Notre Dame, the Office of Human Resources reviewed our substance abuse policy for staff, and our faculty senate has done the same for the faculty policy.p. For about 10 percent of the general population, alcoholism will permanently affect their physical and emotional health and well-being. Interventions in these types of cases should help the individual find the resources (personal and social) for a lifetime of sobriety.p. A much larger part of the population will be problem drinkers in irregular patterns and at different times in their lives. While the vast majority of experts agree that alcoholism is a disease with both physiological and environmental causes, there is no comparable consensus about why drinking to get drunk is morally unacceptable- whether because it is prohibited by religious teaching, threatening to personal or group safety, demeaning to one’s rationality, or contradictory to the capacity for human relatedness. the fact is that the social context of the college years (especially for the traditional 18- to 22-year-old cohort) will tend to enable problem drinkers to act out with impunity, absorbed into the broader collectivity. Thus, for this group (and even for the occasional drinker who does something stupid), intervention should be directly related to the form and degree of unacceptable conduct.p. Like all university policies, those related to alcohol abuse need to be enforced fairly, consistently, and with a fitting sense of proportionality. But we surrender our proper moral responsibility if we choose not to invoke the sanctions available to us.p. A third component of an organized and all-embracing effort is to seek student involvement in changing the accepted practices and traditions of the campus. One group of students who often go unrecognized are those who choose not to drink at all. They may feel marginalized by campus party and dating patterns, especially if they are making the transition from high school to college, yet non-drinking students can be a valuable resource in promoting alcohol-free social alternatives. At Notre Dame, the Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs makes funds available to subsidize alcohol-free activities.p. For a larger percentage of the student body (many of whom come to college with established patterns of alcohol use), the ultimate appeal is for moderation. Many institutions try to engage the cooperation of this group by setting standards for how parties are to be given and how much alcohol can be served. this dovetails with additional steps such as requiring trained servers, instituting prior registration, and restricting advertising and sponsorship. One dilemma that inhibits all of these efforts is the national drinking age of 21. The more overtly that administrations get involved in promoting moderate drinking, the more susceptible they are to legal action. After weighing the available options, however, I favor taking the risk of advocating moderation. At Notre Dame (and, I suspect, elsewhere), there is not enough support from our constituencies to make a totally dry campus a feasible option. However, there is widespread support for strong action that encourages moderation.p. In addition to student cooperation, we need faculty participation. There is no compatibility between our aspiration to be centers of academic excellence and the reality that we too often are way stations for persistent drunkenness and riotous disturbance. We should all assist in developing a new student peer culture in which alcohol is not the center of campus social life and those of legal age who choose to imbibe can do so in a safe, responsible manner.p. There are indeed signs of progress on many of our campuses. Student organizations dedicated to reducing alcohol abuse are flourishing. Educational professionals with expertise in substance abuse are active in the student affairs and health services operations at many of our institutions. Faculty groups and governing boards are seeking to define a proper role for themselves in confronting this disturbing issue. Furthermore, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) at the National Institutes of Health has provided substantial funds for university-based research. NIAAA also has undertaken a major initiative (with governmental and presidential support) to seek out the best available research data on alcohol use and abuse at American colleges and universities, and to disseminate information about successful programs and strategies.p. The problems of binge drinking and widespread alcohol abuse will not soon disappear from our campuses. But with thoughtful presidential leadership, we can creatively engage our communities to prevent those forms of alcohol-induced conduct that violate our sense of peace and security and that make us passive contributors to the degradation of student lives.p. * Commission on Substance Abuse at Colleges and Universities, “Rethinking Rites of Passage: Substance Abuse on America’s Campuses” (New York: National Center on Addition and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. June 1994)

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