College administrations confer on alcohol policies

“Dialogue” is the new buzzword for college alcohol policy. From intercollegiate conferences to small focus groups, administrations are engaging in conversation to implement effective frameworks for campus drinking culture.

One key initiative involves establishing common guiding principles for alcohol policy among schools in the Consortium on Financing Higher Education (COFHE), an organization of 31 selective private colleges and universities, including the College.

This initiative was first proposed last November at the annual COFHE Academic and Student Services Officers Conference, which was themed “Is It All About Alcohol?” in line with a suggestion from the director of student health at Duke, the host institution. “He felt there was a lot of discussion and research [on alcohol policy] being done by large public universities and decided that the COFHE schools ought to have an opportunity to talk about alcohol among themselves,” said Sue Wasiolek, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs & Dean of Students at Duke.

College administrators agree. “It’s been an ongoing issue at Williams,” said Dean Merrill, citing the 2004-05 Alcohol Task Force. “In the last few years, we’re seeing campuses respond in different ways to alcohol abuse, and the COFHE initiative, I think, simply recognizes that schools want really to consider a variety of strategies to use.”

The Duke conference was followed by another at Brown University in June, and the initiative has been gaining momentum in the months since. “About two weeks ago I received a correspondence from the Acting Dean of Student Life at Dartmouth, saying that they had actually come up with some guiding principles for alcohol education, policy and enforcement,” Wasiolek said. Duke has since signed on to those principles, joining Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT and Swarthmore. “The principles essentially summarize and clarify the direction we wish to go in,” she added.

While Williams has not yet signed on with these five COFHE schools, the College is engaged in the consultation. “At the moment, this is a fairly informal thing,” Merrill said. “I liked the dialogue that had gotten started and thought it would be great if Williams could be a part of that.” She highlighted the importance of gathering information to determine which approaches work at small, private institutions.

Among the measures that Duke has in place is a no-alcohol policy for all first-year residence halls, which is enforced by student Resident Assistants and staff Resident Coordinators. “Duke also expects all students to abide by the law,” Wasiolek said, noting that Duke campus police usually take action in response to inappropriate behavior rather than routinely monitoring public consumption of alcohol.

Duke, which in 1999 was shaken by the death of junior Raheem Bath from alcohol-related causes, is also looking to employ a point person to have overarching responsibility for data collection and advisory services for the Duke community. In addition, the provost and other administrators have been conducting roundtable discussions with fraternities, sororities, residence halls and other student groups to decide what steps to implement, in the light of recommendations made in a Campus Culture Initiative report released in February.

Princeton University is undertaking a similar process: a coalition of faculty and students is convening to set out approaches to create a safe, accountable drinking culture. The formation of this group, which hopes to release a report by mid-May, comes on the heels of the announcement that residential college advisers (RCAs) will be obligated to take action when they encounter significant violations of the alcohol policy – including underage drinking, pre-gaming and drinking games – beginning the 2008-09 year.

“This enhanced level of responsibility for RCAs is not intended to disrupt the lives of individual students who might consume an alcoholic beverage in the privacy of their dorm rooms or to interfere with other activities that don’t violate alcohol policies,” wrote Kathleen Deignan, Dean of Undergraduate Students, in a guest column in the Daily Princetonian (Nov. 29).

Neither Deignan nor a representative from the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students at Princeton could be reached for comment before deadline.

When asked whether such a policy would ever be implemented in Williams, Merrill noted that the Junior Advisor (JA) system differs significantly from the typical residential advisor system. “We recognize that and the deep attachments students and alums have to that system,” she said. “I think the JAs can provide a lot of leadership in addressing the problems of excessive drinking, and the dean’s office would like for them to be able to do that within the system we have already.”

Another issue on the table is the abuse of hard liquor on campus. “Right now, I think the best strategy about hard liquor is to talk to students about the dangers associated with it, especially when it comes to pre-gaming before parties,” Merrill said.

A frequently cited model for dealing with hard liquor is Bowdoin College’s complete ban on such beverages in campus residences in the late 1990s, a policy that is credited with reducing the number of acute intoxication or alcohol poisoning cases to one hospitalization in 2003–04, two in 2004–05, and two in 2005–06. The policy has been refined over the years. Last year, the administration added, for example, an alcohol by volume standard to help clarify what was included as hard alcohol, according to Kim Pacelli, Director of Residential Life at Bowdoin.

“When considering alcohol policy, we try to balance health, safety and enforcement,” Pacelli said. “We know that some of the highest risk behaviors occur when hard alcohol and drinking games are present.”

Currently, all parties and alcohol (wine and beer) on Bowdoin’s campus are registered on a weekly basis. In addition, there is a mandatory meeting for all alcohol and event hosts. “The student body does a good job registering events, and there is a healthy sense of community responsibility that enables peers to watch out for one another,” Pacelli said.

Regarding the different tiers of enforcement, security at Bowdoin handles most infarctions on site. With more serious cases, such as presence of hard alcohol or drinking games at an event, students’ names will be passed along to the Dean’s Office for further discipline, Pacelli said.

The ban on hard liquor and drinking games has not completely eliminated alcohol-related woes at Bowdoin. A Nov. 9 article in the Bowdoin Orient, titled “Dorms a ‘disaster’ for housekeeping after weekends,” described damages and bio-cleanups in residence halls as a regular occurrence.

According to Pacelli, there are no plans to revise Bowdoin’s alcohol policy at this point, and damages will continue to be handled on a case-by-case basis. “Hosts are responsible for clean up in the immediate area of their party,” she said, “and we are always working with hosts to remind their guests to be respectful of the Bowdoin and Brunswick communities as they are leaving the party.”

“I think Williams’s drinking scene is not unlike that at many other schools – that is, it’s better than some and worse than others,” said Merrill. “The fact that we haven’t had a fatality doesn’t mean anything more than that we’ve been very lucky.”

As such, discussions will continue, both on the wider scale – as with the COFHE initiative – and on campus. “We’ll ask ourselves and keep talking with students about how best to address the many problems on campus that come with alcohol abuse,” Merrill said.

Additional reporting by Shannon Chiu, Executive Editor.

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