Judith Rodin

A recent campus survey found a majority of Penn undergraduates do not believe alcohol is necessary to have a good time. A whopping 90 percent of the students even said that their social lives need not revolve around drinking. Despite such encouraging attitudes, studies here and elsewhere have shown alarming trends in excessive and binge drinking on college and university campuses.

The trends hit close to home last month when three Penn freshmen wound up in the hospital with alcohol-related illnesses.

More than a year ago, Penn President Judith Rodin responded to the trend by creating the President's Special Committee on Alcohol Abuse, whose recently released report urges a public-health approach. Rodin last week sat down and discussed some of those committee recommendations, as well as her own views of the problem, with the Current.

Penn's president gets personally involved in curbing alcohol abuse on campus - a matter of life and death.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

Q. How important is the issue of alcohol abuse and what led to the creation of Penn's special committee?
Every year, there's been growing concern on college campuses all around America with regard to excessive alcohol use. It seems to be escalating, at least with binge drinking and the aggressive behavior that's associated with it. And I think we saw a significant upturn of that last year at Penn. There was a lot of violence after parties ended, a lot more binge drinking, people in the hospital, and of course the deaths in Louisiana and Massachusetts really made us believe it was time to take an even harder look.
   The committee was the end of a process, actually; we had several forums and focus groups. We talked to all the people who were already doing work with regard to alcohol use on campus, both scientific work and also counseling, and we got a lot of input and asked the committee to consider much of this input, consider the existing scientific literature and the existing prevention and treatment literature and come up with some recommendations.

Q. And were these findings surprising?
No, they certainly didn't surprise me. I think the committee did a wonderful job of integrating the information and making a series of very well-grounded substantive suggestions. There is no single solution to this and I think we all recognize that, and that's one of the reasons we're struggling to come up with a kind of textured, integrated, careful, non-punitive approach to what is a really serious issue.

Q. An approach suggested by the committee calls for "changing the culture of acceptance for excessive drinking" on campus. What does this approach entail?
Their judgment, and I think this is accurate, being a social scientist myself, and particularly someone who has spent a career in studying health-damaging and health-promoting behavior, is that individual behavior exists within a social fabric - a culture and a society.
   The culture of college campuses, in general, and the culture of Penn as one of those campuses, accepts alcohol use as normative. It accepts alcohol use as social life. And, it promotes the view that if you don't drink, you can't have as much fun.
   They are recommending that we need to change that culture and the first step of that is to change the perception that everyone drinks, because it isn't true. There are lots of ways to have fun on campus without drinking and we need to help create more of those options, which was one of the recommendations of the committee and which we have been implementing.

Q. Such as the conversion of the former fraternity house into alcohol-free student space?
One thing is the new space. The second thing is to invest in a lot of programming at the college houses for Friday and Saturday night events that are alcohol-free. One notion of how imbued it is in the culture is that two years ago, when the students began to think about developing alcohol-free parties, they talked about developing "alternative" programming, as if normative was drinking and alternative was not drinking.

Q. Which was reflected in the recent Drug and Alcohol Resource Team survey of undergraduates. Do you think those perceptions are shifting?
I think the perception is shifting and we can help shift the perception. What we need to do is to make it clear that not everyone does drink and certainly very few people drink to excess. And that's what the committee means when they talk about taking a "public health" approach - being really strong on education so that people understand both what is and isn't real, what the effects of alcohol really are, give more explicit training on how to avoid peer pressure, create the kinds of norms and culture in which you don't have to be drunk, or even drink, in order to be cool.

Q. Once there is a problem identified, how should the University respond?
Our first response has always been, and must continue to be, to get that person help. We don't want to create the kinds of situations where people are afraid to either seek help or to get someone else to the hospital or whatever they need because they're afraid that there's some punishment at the end of that. We will continue to try to get the person both immediate help and longer-term help.
   My own perspective is that we need to try to have more parental involvement. There are many times at move-in when I've seen parents actually bringing liquor in and chuckling with their kids about what they remember their own college days to have been. We have to get parents to realize we're talking about abusive behavior now, not just having a drink or two at a party.

Q. But it's most effective when students help each other?
I think that is extremely effective and extremely important. Number one, students respond to help from one another; students ought to feel responsible for one another; and students helping one another conveys the counter-culture message, which is not everybody is drunk every Saturday night. I have tried personally to talk to the student leaders - The Daily Pennsylvanian, the Undergraduate Assembly, the Inter-Fraternity Council - about this issue, in particular, because I think they need to step up and play a leadership role.

Q. So you feel personally involved in this issue?
Extremely. It's obviously both because of my training, but also because of my responsibility, a critical issue. When I was an undergraduate here, Penn existed in loco parentis, so a university could have rules about what I could and couldn't do. Now, we have still all the same responsibility but we don't exist in the same way in regulating the students' behavior. We don't have as much opportunity to do that except through moral authority. And I'm trying to exercise my moral authority as the University president.
   I think the stakes just got higher this week, when the Massachusetts grand jury indicted the fraternity at which [MIT student] Scott Krueger died. That's a first in holding the entity responsible in that way, and I think it really does change the stakes.

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Originally published on October 1, 1998