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University Sobered by Alumnus' Death on Campus
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.
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
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
"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
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