Alcohol working group aims to investigate, improve campus culture

Last November, the College administration finalized its plan to create a working group to approach issues related to alcohol consumption on campus. In the intervening months the working group, co-chaired by Steve Klass, vice president for campus life, and Dean Bolton, has met four times to develop a plan for improving the student experience on campus in regards to alcohol.

The group is comprised of student representatives from groups like the Junior Advisor Advisory Board, College Council and the Minority Coalition and various administrators. The working group meets every three weeks to discuss issues surrounding alcohol use.

“We’re still in the early stages of the arc of this working group’s existence,” Klass said. “It’s still working as we’d envisioned it might, still finding its own path from meeting to meeting. We’ve covered a lot of ground from health issues to social issues to security issues, but we haven’t taken a deep dive into any of those arenas quite yet. We’ve begun discussing more anecdotal views on how alcohol is used on campus and  are beginning to relate those discussions to early understandings of the data we have access to. We’ve invited guests such as Campus Safety and Security to come speak with us to provide more of a sense of what they see, what their practices are around situations that arise from alcohol use.”

The group has yet to define a specific set of goals or priorities because it is still beginning, according to Klass, and its focus remains on understanding the way current policies function and how the College currently deals with issues related to alcohol consumption.

“We’ve focused on understanding the data describing how students approach alcohol use and related issues in their first year relative to both the experiential aspect and to their expectations before arriving on campus,” Klass said.

In addition to Security, the working group has met with a group of student athletes who attended the APPLE Conference at the University of Virginia in January. On its website, the APPLE Conference cites its goals as “promoting student-athlete wellness and substance abuse prevention.”

The athletes brought ideas from the conference for “educational initiatives that have been productive at other places,” Bolton said.

“The student-athlete group is pulling together its notes, reviewing what might be adaptable to our campus,” Klass said. “They gave us a really enthusiastic presentation and hope to build on the great networking opportunities that they developed at the conference.”

Klass was careful to point out that this is a working group, not a task force, and its aims are not to complete a set of specific goals and then disband.

“This conversation is still shaping itself a bit, which is the right way to go about something this complex,” Klass said. “As we said at the outset, this isn’t a task force that will seek to achieve a small number of identifiable goals, write a report and then feel as though its work is finished.”

Although the group does not have a set of specific tasks to complete, Bolton said it would still be possible to measure the success of the campus culture surrounding alcohol through a variety of objective and subjective measures.

“I think we’re interested in alcohol having less health- and safety-related impacts on the campus, and we’re also interested in having fewer students say that alcohol-related damage or negative social interactions are making their experience here more difficult, or making them feel unsafe,” Bolton said.

With only three or four meetings left in the year, the working group will need to find replacements for students who are graduating in the spring. However, Klass and Bolton will focus more on finding students with new perspectives to add than simply expanding the size of the group.

“It’s hard to schedule meetings with this many people so, rather than increase the size of the formal group, we’re figuring out who will bring other perspectives, expertise or experience and have focused conversations as we have so far with the student-athletes and [Security],” Klass said. “So, for example, we met with [Security] at the outset, and now that we’ve had more experience with these discussions we have additional context for future conversations with them. This approach served us really well with the bias incident task force.”

According to Bolton, the working group plans to hold events for the campus when students return from spring break, but wants to ensure that the events are designed to maximize the number of students who feel heard.

“We’re planning [events] for after break, that’s what we’re talking about; what kinds of events would be helpful, particularly whether it would be better to have large open meetings with hundreds of people or more focus-group kinds of gatherings and what is the right balance and what is the right context to have a conversation where we really feel we’re hearing the voices of students in a meaningful way,” Bolton said.

Both Klass and Bolton stressed that the working group does not exist to reform the College’s current alcohol policies, but to improve the campus culture surrounding alcohol and make more students feel comfortable in the College’s immeditate social environment.

“I think at the moment, folks are most interested in looking at what are some productive ways to think about education and informing people as they first arrive about alcohol issues in a way that will help people to be safe and to live in a community where all students feel welcomed and thrive, looking at the ways in which we might most productively have those conversations in the first year, but also looking forward,” Bolton said.