Universities Must Take Responsibility for Student Drinking

BlogHer Original Post

Trash strewn throughout neighborhoods, young men uprooting stop signs, people peeing in front yards, drunken brawls, people breaking into strangers' homes and falling asleep there, men punching pizza delivery drivers, and women vandalizing police cars.  No, it's not Skid Row, a gang-infested community, or a post-apocalyptic landscape.  Rather, it's 1 a.m. in a relatively upscale professorial neighborhood of State College, Pennsylvania.  The National Public Radio show This American Life recently profiled the city and Pennsylvania State University, which was recently ranked the #1 "party school" by the Princeton Review.

Here's a snippet from early in the episode:

There are three girls in mini skirts, under a streetlight, fully visible. . . One girl hikes up her skirt.  "They're peeing in my yard. . .  That's my car, OK, and three feet back is a girl's white ass, peeing. . .  You know that might be why the plants grow really really well in that spot, I'm just realizing."  Sarah's caught other groups of girls peeing in that same spot.  Once she heard a girl say, "This is a good place.  I go here all the time."

Host Ira Glass reports researchers have found that Penn State and State College exhibit several key factors that tend to coalesce into an epidemic of irresponsible undergraduate drinking.  Among these are a large undergraduate population, a big fraternity system, a successful football team, and relative geographic isolation.  He cites a sobering statistic: 1700 U.S. college students die each year from alcohol-related injuries.

At the risk of sounding like a total killjoy, what I heard in the Penn State episode of This American Life is profoundly disturbing and is, I believe, a primary symptom of a larger problem inflected in university life--and particularly life at major public universities--in much of the U.S.:  Universities are now serving as a conduit for the extension of adolescence rather than as a place for students to grow intellectually and emotionally.

I'm not buying the argument made by some of the people Glass interviews that young adults need this time to be wild so that they can (a) enjoy their lives while they're still young because once they're in the working world, they won't have as many opportunities to get plastered and (b) getting drunk and making horrible mistakes is an important learning experience that is key to growing up.

The first college I attended used to have very strict rules about men and women being in one another's dorm rooms--ones that I saw mirrored at conservative Christian colleges, even though it is a public college.  As an 18-year-old who was 3,000 miles from home and experiencing horrible homesickness, the last thing on my mind was how easily I might have sex in my dorm room.  But by the time I had transferred to my third college, I had matured significantly and understood that college was a time and place where I would enjoy a good deal of independence.  I appreciated, therefore, that Grinnell had a policy of not acting in loco parentis; the college trusted us to make reasonable choices as students, as residents of the town, and as young citizens of the world.  In fact, the college trusted its students so much that it allowed the student government to use funds provided by the college to serve free beer at sponsored parties on campus.

But Grinnell students apparently--OK, obviously--are quite different from those at Penn State or at other universities I've attended or visited.  As anecdotes and statistics about rape, drunken sex, public urination, more serious crime, injuries, and alcoholism on college campuses and in college towns attest, many public university students aren't ready to assume the responsibility that comes with consuming alcohol.  Both out of consideration for the neighbors and for the sake of students' health, universities need to be held more accountable for their students' behavior and more responsible for rigorous programs that help students make good decisions about drinking.

Historiann recently wrote that widespread undergraduate drinking is a symptom of an "impoverished undergraduate vision of adulthood":

I understand the feeling that college is a special time in life–it most certainly is.  What’s more disturbing is the impoverished vision of adulthood this belief implies.  Instead of seeing graduation from college as an exciting beginning of their lives as free adults who can explore the world, establish themselves in their chosen fields, and/or engage in creative projects, it’s just the first blow of the work whistle they’ll be waking up to for the rest of their lives.  For example:  it’s striking to me how young most of these students marry and have children.  But instead of seeing these events as joyous milestones in their own lives, they apparently see them as millstones of adult obligation they must undertake, regardless of their own wants, talents, or needs.

Why do they have such a dreary view of adulthood?

As of the time I'm writing this, her post has drawn 49 comments, most of them substantive and many of them packed with disturbing anecdotes.  FrauTech offered this observation about what universities could do about alcohol abuse and its accompanying behaviors, and why they're not doing anything:

Colleges can do things to limit this behavior, like not allowing sororities/fraternities to be on campus, spreading out their on campus dorms, anti-alcohol policies etc. The fact that they choose not to says something about what’s more important to administrators (warm bodies paying tuition).

After listening to the This American Life episode, a neighbor of the University of Oregon in Eugene shares a perspective on living near the campus:

For the most part we are happy co-existers. However, when it comes to drinking and the dangers that accompany it, we have had disappointments. You will recognize many of the dangerous anecdotes in this story–including the thoughless removal of stop signs (a removed sign at Kinkaid and 20th nearly caused a fatality).

This is ridiculous.

Ira Glass reports that Penn State has spent millions of dollars tackling the alcohol problem, offering educational workshops and alternative activities that don't involve alcohol.  Clearly, the university is not doing enough, yet one solution to the problem may lie in Act IV of the radio episode, "A Drinking School with a Football Problem."  I've written before here about the problems engendered by high school football programs, and it may be past time for colleges to scale back their football programs as well, especially since college football isn't necessarily the revenue-generating opportunity that many people envision it to be--in fact, it can cost universities millions of dollars.  How does spending millions on coaches and expensive stadiums further universities' core missions of research and teaching?

Of course, mine is an incredibly unpopular stance among universities, students, and alumni.  As Bad Lawyer points out,

The problem arises, when these efforts [to curb undergraduate drinking] conflict with alumni weekends, and drinking in and around sports.  Alumni organizations give crates of money to the university--anti-alcohol efforts often run headlong into fundraising.

In the radio episode, a correspondent interviews an administrator who says that prohibiting drinking at football games or elsewhere on campus has never been considered.

Again I say it: ridiculous.  This is a difficult problem to solve, but universities employ some of the most creative, bright, and resourceful people in the country.  Why not ask them for help in cleaning up this problem in their community?

What solutions, if any, do you see to the problem of undergraduate alcohol abuse?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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