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Culture Change Needed on Alcohol
can set an example of moderation. By Judith Rodin
abuse is a major concern at colleges and universities
nationwide. Several institutions have suffered the deaths of students
from alcohol poisoning, and alcohol-related violence is increasingly common.
A 1997 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found a significant
increase over the past several years in the number of students who drink
excessively and frequently; a significant increase in the number of students
who drink to get drunk; a disturbing increase in arguments, injuries and
property damage among students who drink; and increased instances of disruption
(including in studying and sleeping) in the lives of non-drinkers by students
Against this background, as the
May/June Gazette reported, March 21 was a sad and solemn day for
the family and friends of Michael Tobin C94 and for Penn. Michael
Tobin died in a tragic alcohol-related incident at a fraternity house,
and the full gravity of alcohol abuse tore at the very heart of our University.
With student emotions running high in the wake of Michaels death,
Provost Robert Barchi and I decided to impose a temporary suspension on
the use of alcohol at registered undergraduate parties so that the University
could take a collective breath and seriously reflect on the issue. Now,
as I will explain further, we look to the entire Penn community, including
our alumni, to help stem alcohol abuse on our campus.
We announced the suspension only after two years of
consultation with students and others in a serious effort to arrive at
alternative solutions. Unfortunately, as Michael Tobins death and
other alcohol-related incidents made too clear, more action was still
At the same time as we announced the suspension, we
formed a student-faculty-administration Working
Group on Alcohol Abuse to give new and urgent consideration to long-term
strategies that could more successfully curb misuse of alcohol among Penn
undergraduates. Chaired by the provost, the working group of 15 student
leaders (including the presidents of the Interfraternity and Panhellenic
councils, representatives from the Undergraduate Assembly and the College
Houses, and a co-captain of the basketball team) and seven faculty and
administrators met intensively over five weeks. The wisdom and dedication
of the groupparticularly the students, who showed remarkable leadership
and maturity even in the face of peer pressurewas most impressive.
Equally impressive is their
thoughtful and thorough product, which is published in full in these pages
(see box). The working group struggled with
difficult issues and long-held attitudes about drinking. They wrestled
with how to diminish what is, in their words, "the sense of entitlement"
that even legally underage students feel toward alcohol. Accomplishing
this, the working group stressed, will require a large cultural change.
To that end, the recommendations wisely suggest
a comprehensive approach to alcohol abuse. Under the guiding principles
of health and safety, the recommendations advocate increased health education;
strict compliance with the law; ensuring a supportive environment for
students; personal and collective responsibility and accountability; new
ways to minimize the risk of alcohol abuse; and creating expanded social
options that are seen not as "alternatives" to drinking, but
as truly appealing.
The overarching objectives of the recommendations
were captured articulately in an editorial in The Daily Pennsylvanian:
"We applaud the balance struck by the committee between two oft-contradictory
imperativespreserving the health and safety of students and complying
with applicable laws and regulationswithin the context of a third
principle: that students are and ought to be responsible for their own
I urge you to read the recommendations in their
entirety and to share your thoughts on them. Our intention is to begin
implementation by September. I am confident that the recommendations can
create a significant change in campus culture.
Fellow alumni, this is where your leadership
is truly important. When the working group presented its recommendations
to me, the student members emphasized that a change in campus culturein
the way the Penn community thinks about and uses alcoholis crucial
to effecting and sustaining a change among our undergraduates. And they
specifically noted the example that alumni set for students today.
All of us need to think about how much alcohol
is and should be part of life at Penn. I do not suggest abstinence, but
I do very strongly suggest a need for responsibility. If we are to create
real change, we need to infuse our campus culture with a new set of expectations.
As alumni, we need to think seriously about how we celebrate Penn and
how we can exemplify the responsible use of alcohol at alumni events.
Each of us, after all, is a University ambassador.
Penn alumni set examples as leaders in business,
science, the arts, government and a host of other fields the world over.
We need to set an example right here at home as well. I encourage all
alumni organizations to consider thoughtfully the issues of moderation
in the use of alcohol and the need for a culture change at Penn. I welcome
your suggestions and would be grateful for your participation in this
The students in the Working Group on Alcohol
Abuse have given the Penn community a challenge. We must all rise to the
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Gazette Last modified 6/2/99