When Stephanie Ives was hired in the summer of 1999 as Penn’s first alcohol coordinator, the campus had just emerged from an intensive review of its alcohol and drug use culture. Former president Judith Rodin had pulled together a special commission to look at the issue the year before, and in the spring of ’99, after a tragic accident involving an alumnus, then-provost Robert Barchi launched the Working Group on Alcohol Abuse.
In her newly established position, Ives was charged with carrying forward the policies of that working group through education, prevention and intervention. Her experience with drug and alcohol programs, including a successful campaign to reduce binge drinking at the University of Arizona, equipped her well for the task, and in her first seven years here Ives has worked vigorously to curb alcohol abuse on campus and to correct misperceptions about student drinking.
Q. How did you get to know Penn’s drinking culture when you first got here?
A. I joined the University police on many ride-alongs late at night on weekends to see what was going on in the student culture ... so I could get a real sense of what the campus climate was like. Over the years I’ve continued to try to make it out there at least once a year, usually around Spring Fling … so I can make observations for myself about what the drinking culture looks like from the street level when you’re standing at the corner of 41st and Locust on a Saturday night at 1 a.m.
Q. Isn’t drinking just part of the student experience? Why make it such a big issue?
A. I often speak to people who question why we put such an emphasis on college drinking. They’ll say, “I drank when I was in college,” and I try to explain that drinking today is very different than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. The question is, did you ever see 30-foot beer funnels, did people do keg stands, did they play Beirut [a game where a ping pong ball is aimed at a cup of beer and if it misses the player must drink the beer]?
Q. So there’s a lot of high-risk behavior out there?
A. Some of the behaviors are more high risk but not all the students are engaging in these behaviors. It’s a cluster of students who are very high risk and very visible because they’re causing harm to themselves and to other people and it gives people the impression that this is the norm on a college campus. But in our research we’ve found it’s really not the norm. Most of our students are low risk drinkers and about 14 percent abstain. So we need to make sure that the true norm of college drinking is what we’re talking about and not the isolated highest risk behaviors.
Q. How do you deal with those high-risk drinkers?
A. Many students don’t intend to stop drinking so we try to work with them where they’re at and reduce the harm that’s coming about as a result of their high risk drinking. We have a program called “Say Something” which targets student leaders to educate them to what high risk drinking looks like among their peers. So what seemed normal—“Oh, that’s just what he does”—now all of a sudden seems like, “Oh, wait a minute, I see this through a different lens. I see that my friend really is struggling. Maybe I should say something to this person.” And it teaches them the skills to do that and to refer their friend to an intervention resource on campus.
Q. Would that be here in your office?
A. I have an intervention specialist on staff. Julie [Lyzinski] is very accessible to students and we get excellent feedback about progress students make when they’re working with her. Initially she’ll do an assessment to see whether or not a student is really beyond what she can help them with and if so she’ll make a referral over to CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services].
Q. Let’s talk about some of the rules you enforce, like banning drinking games.
A. At registered events on campus we don’t allow kegs and we don’t allow drinking games. I can’t say there are no drinking games happening on campus but under the supervised party registration system we would not allow drinking games to occur. We are concerned about drinking games because you have to be concerned about any type of behavior in which losing count of how much you’re consuming is part of the activity. We try to encourage students to realize that one drink an hour is what your body can process. If you’re looking for a buzz you’re going to miss it if you’re engaged in drinking games and just experiencing the most oppressive effects of alcohol.
Q. Do students see you as a killjoy?
A. I think we have tried to combat any misperception by acknowledging to students that we understand that alcohol is part of the college experience for many of them and I am coming from a health perspective, not a prohibitionist perspective. That philosophy was handed down right from the beginning by the provost at the time, who said this is not about whether you are of age or under age, because clearly you can be any age and abusing alcohol.
It’s about what kind of use puts you in that harmful place where you are about to be hurt or hurt someone else, or suffer academically of course. So I think students are pretty aware that we’re not trying to kill any party.
Q. How does Penn compare to other universities?
A. Penn is pretty typical. We have an incredibly competitive student body, the cream of the crop when it comes to intelligence and academic potential, but when it comes to alcohol and other drug use we’re right in the middle of the pack.
Originally published on September 7, 2006