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University Sobered by Alumnus' Death on Campus

"WE'RE not talking about Prohibition," University President Judith Rodin CW'66 was saying. "We're talking about responsible behavior and accountability ... The students asked for responsibility, and that's exactly what we want. We want them to take responsibility for their own behavior -- and, frankly, for one another."
   Rodin's somber words addressed a longstanding concern at Penn and other universities around the country: alcohol abuse. Although Penn has been struggling to curb binge-drinking in recent years, a drinking- related death on campus brought the issue painfully close to home and sparked renewed efforts to change students' attitudes toward alcohol.
   On March 21, Michael Tobin C'94 was found dead from a fall down a flight of stairs outside Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house. The 26-year-old alumnus from Pittsford, N.Y., had returned to campus to attend an alumni dinner hosted by the fraternity, and according to police had been drinking throughout the previous day. He suffered a fractured skull and internal injuries.
   After expressing its shock and sorrow over the tragedy, the University administration responded with a temporary -- and highly unpopular -- crackdown on drinking. The measures included banning alcohol at all undergraduate parties registered with the University; sanctioning students and organizations guilty of serving alcohol to minors or already intoxicated persons at any party; and supporting stepped-up police enforcement of alcohol regulations at Senior Week events. (The brothers of Phi Gamma Delta, which had been suspended by the fraternity's national office and by the University in the wake of Tobin's death, voted last month to forfeit their charter.)
   At the same time, the administration appointed a task force of 21 student leaders, faculty and administrators -- chaired by Provost Robert Barchi Gr'72 M'73 -- to discuss the temporary restrictions, study alternatives and recommend a long-term approach to altering the culture of alcohol use at the University.
   Two busy weeks that followed the strictures saw one of the largest student protests in Penn's recent history; the reversal of parts of the alcohol ban; and progress made toward a comprehensive plan to promote responsible drinking and social alternatives to alcohol. The fact that binge drinking is not confined to Penn "doesn't mean we can't make a Penn-specific response," explained Rodin in an interview last month, while the task force's work was still underway. "It's too easy to say it's happening everywhere and to kind of throw our hands up.
   "We experienced a death on campus," she added. "It was a terrible, terrible tragedy and we needed to say to the campus, 'Let's take a time-out and reflect on alcohol abuse. Let's take a time-out and focus on health and safety. Let's take a time-out and reflect on responsibility and accountability' -- and we got the community's attention."
   Many student leaders, however, complained that the administration should have consulted students before issuing such a sweeping edict, and on the afternoon of March 30, hundreds of students crowded onto College Green to protest the alcohol restrictions, warning that the alcohol ban would force parties underground, endangering students' safety and possibly leading to a rise in illegal drug use. At several points the thoughtful rhetoric of rally speakers was drowned out by epithets against Penn administrators and the steady chant of "Beer! Beer! Beer! Beer!"
   Mark Metzl, a college junior who sits on the alcohol task force and is the president of the Intra-Fraternity Council, was not at the rally, though he also voiced fears that the suspension of registered parties involving alcohol could endanger students' safety. "The system that we previously had to monitor and supervise these parties was very effective," noted Metzl shortly before the task force's first meeting. "The increased presence of the Liquor Control Enforcement [board] and the Philadelphia police on campus may prevent some students from seeking help for their friends when they possibly need medical attention, for fear of being cited or arrested themselves."
   Barchi, however, told The Daily Pennsylvanian that students would never get in trouble for helping a friend to the hospital, adding: "It absolutely remains in our policy that the health and safety of our students comes first, period."
   Though some students have embraced the challenge to promote responsible attitudes toward alcohol -- and the college- house program has made a point of sponsoring alcohol-free events -- Rodin pointed out that the "groups that need to be more attentive have been the hardest to reach, and so the ER visits increased, abusive behavior increased, and we need a fundamental turnaround in that aspect of alcohol use." Last fall, for example, even as Rodin welcomed the incoming freshmen with a warning about alcohol abuse, two freshmen were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning within a two-week period ["Gazetteer," Nov/Dec 1998]. According to the DP, at least six more students were hospitalized this school year after excessive drinking.
   Rodin rejected the criticism about a lack of consultation, noting that students have had a number of opportunities to provide input since a "campus-wide conversation" was launched in October 1997 at a University Council meeting devoted to binge drinking and alcohol- related violence. Since then, Rodin and other administrators have met with student leaders to get their feedback and Rodin has written columns in the DP warning students against excessive drinking, reporting on the work of a special presidential committee on alcohol abuse and asking them to e-mail suggestions (at last count, four had been received).
   In an "Open Letter to the University Community" published in the DP on March 26, the day after the restrictions were announced, Rodin and Barchi recounted the events and thought processes that led to their actions, noting that, "as the events of last weekend have made all too clear, the message is still not getting through loudly enough or strongly enough."
   While acknowledging that most Penn students do not abuse alcohol, the administrators pointed out that "alcohol-related events traditionally escalate during the final weeks of the academic year" and explained, "We do not want another member of our Penn family to be a victim of alcohol abuse."
   The temporary alcohol ban received the endorsement of The Philadelphia Inquirer in a March 30 editorial titled "Last Call." "Mounting incidents of binge drinking and alcohol- related violence nationwide show that Penn is not overreacting," the Inquirer stated. "But the university should move cautiously before considering a permanent ban on drinking. Common sense says the goal should not be to eliminate alcohol but to change norms of behavior -- and no single action can do that."
   An open forum held on April 5 attracted about 20 students, whose suggestions -- including mandatory alcohol education for incoming freshmen and the use of emergency medical personnel to monitor students' impairment at parties -- were referred to the task force for consideration.
   Despite his reservations about the alcohol ban, Metzl described the first meeting of the task force as "productive" and "an open and honest discussion of the issues and concerns facing the University community."
   Soon after the task force formed, Rodin accepted its recommendations to lift the alcohol ban for a number of previously scheduled events, such as fraternity and sorority formals held at off-campus locales, with the provision that the groups follow strict regulations such as using wristbands to indicate which guests are over age 21. She also reinstated the regular schedule of Senior Week events and agreed to add to the sponsored entertainment at this year's Spring Fling.
   But the more important work continues, Rodin said. The task force has been meeting in smaller groups to address broader concerns, such as how to increase social options that do not involve alcohol and how to provide help for students with alcohol-related problems; ultimately, it will consider the essential issue of culture change.
   Rodin predicted there would be an increased focus on educating next year's freshmen -- either through a course or through a "stepped-up orientation" -- but was quick to add, "It's not a one-step thing. Changing a culture in which some people believe that abusing alcohol is the way to have fun or to relax is something that will take time -- and we know that. Many students are coming to Penn, and institutions like Penn, [as] experienced drinkers from high school -- and we know that, too."
   The task force's suggestions will augment the earlier recommendations of a special committee on alcohol abuse, which had recommended hiring a coordinator to work with students found to have alcohol-related problems; conducting an annual survey to measure alcohol and drug use among students; and waging a social-marketing campaign to help change students' attitudes toward drinking. Other suggestions included assigning books through the Penn Reading Project to foster freshman discussions on the responsible use of alcohol; encouraging faculty to reconsider the tradition of scheduling few classes on Fridays; and notifying parents of students with drinking problems.
   Though the administration's alcohol rules provoked considerable disagreement, Penn's campus was unified in sadness over the loss of a former Penn student and all-Ivy lacrosse star. Several hundred students turned out to pay tribute to Michael Tobin at a candlelight vigil held on College Green the Friday following his death.
   Andrew Gold C'94 shared memories of his friend, teammate and fraternity brother in the Daily Pennsylvanian. Tobin, he wrote, "had all the qualities of a natural leader, refined good looks and so much life pumping through his veins that I still do not believe he is gone." Gold ended his tribute to his friend with this plea: "I hope that everyone who writes, speaks or thinks the name Michael Tobin will do him the kind favor of looking at the person rather than just the statistic."
   
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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/3/99