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Culture Change Needed on Alcohol
Alumni can set an example of moderation. By Judith Rodin

 

ALCOHOL 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 who drink.
    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 C’94 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 Michael’s 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 Tobin’s death and other alcohol-related incidents made too clear, more action was still required.
    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 group–particularly the students, who showed remarkable leadership and maturity even in the face of peer pressure–was 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 imperatives–preserving the health and safety of students and complying with applicable laws and regulations–within the context of a third principle: that students are and ought to be responsible for their own actions."
   
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 culture–in the way the Penn community thinks about and uses alcohol–is 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 important effort.
   
The students in the Working Group on Alcohol Abuse have given the Penn community a challenge. We must all rise to the occasion.
     


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