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Staff Box

COUNCIL October 15, 1997

A Council Discussion: Alcohol and Civility at Penn

Dr. Judith Rodin: Let me start by saying that there is certainly nothing new about drinking on college campuses. What is new and different, and what is getting extraordinary national attention, is the very significant increase in binge drinking.

Penn is not alone in this; you have only to open a newspaper or a magazine to find headlines like Newsweek's "Drinking and Dying: a death at MIT puts campuses on edge." They report that in August a student at Louisiana State University died from binge drinking. At MIT two weeks earlier a student died from binge drinking. Some five months ago, a fire at North Carolina University in a fraternity house claimed the lives of five studentsfour of whom, the coroner believes, were too drunk to try to escape.

There have been many incidents across campuses in America of riotsalcohol-related riotsin the last several months, including two melees in September at the University of New Hampshire. Here at the University we had several weeks in a row of alcohol-related assaults reported. At the beginning of the year, a number of students were brought to HUP after binge drinking in what I think really were near-death episodes.

The MIT event most surely could have been at Penn. Investigators at the Harvard School of Public Health published a study recentlyPenn was one of the institutions surveyed, but the data are national data so I won't be able to comment on the Penn statistics in particularbut they say that 44 or 45 percent of the students report binge drinking, which is drinking more than five drinks at one time, usually quickly. Whether that's a lethal dose or not depends on your weight and gender and a variety of other health-relevant characteristics. But for some people, that is a lethal dose. They report that it happens across all segments of university communities, but the incidence is greater in fraternities and sororities. Again, according to the Harvard data for a national sample including Penn, 84 percent of fraternity and sorority students report binge drinking50-some percent who live in the dormitories and 40-some in off-campus housing.

We are, I think, facing what I believe is a life-threatening set of events at the University. Students are abusing themselves by binge drinking, encouraging one another to do it, and so abusing one another in a serious wayand then demonstrating their inability to restrain themselves in an increase in episodes of highly aggressive, alcohol-related assaults that we are seeing escalate on campus.

I don't have an answer. There is no single solution. There are many constituencies that are arguing crack down, and there are other constituencies that are arguing get more help and support, both in the residences and in the fraternities. We have talked, and many of you have talked, about a variety of solutions. In this discussion you will hear the wisdom of my colleagues, in terms of the thinking that has gone on and the ideas that we have generated so far.

Today, the Massachusetts Legislature announced that it will ban alcohol on all state campuses in Massachusetts. At the beginning of the week, I received a letter from three international fraternitiesSigma Nu, Phi Delta Theta, and Phi Gamma Delta, the fraternity at which the MIT student diedsaying that they are recommending that presidents ask their fraternities and sororities to go alcohol-free.

I am not here to propose solutions. I am fearful for your safety. Last year you looked at me when you were worried about the safety and security issues and you said, "Do something." And we tried. This year, I am looking at you, the students in particular, and I am saying, "Do something." Help us to figure out what to do. There is no right answer. If we close down parties on campus, you may drink in unsafe areas off-campus and come home at five o'clock in the morning, so I'm not sure that's the solution either. We all need your help. Let's do some collective and creative thinking together.

Kate Ward-Gaus: I work in the Office of Heath Education, a division of Student Health Services here at Penn. My role is coordinator of alcohol and other drug education programs on campus, and in that capacity I'm the advisor to the peer education program , the Drug and Alcohol Resource Team, otherwise known as DART. I'm also co-chair of the Alcohol and Other Drug Task Force with Barbara Cassel, the Associate Vice Provost for University Life, and I am here representing all of those capacities.

As we begin this conversation I have to echo much of what Dr. Rodin has already said and I want to thank her for convening this group. This is unique. I have the opportunity to talk with colleagues who do alcohol-and-other-drug programming on college campuses not only here in the Philadelphia area but also throughout the Ivies. And it is a remarkable step that we take by sitting in this room this afternoon and discussing this in this format.

At first glance it might seem that we take this step because of the MIT and LSU incidents; but as Dr. Rodin said, we have situations on Penn's campus that require that we do thisnot only looking at what we have done but what we can do, what we need to do, to move forward creatively. Our many different programs and initiatives echo the efforts other people have made that have proved helpful to a certain extent. But it's becoming clear to me that more needs to be done.

One thing I'd like to talk about is how we define binge drinking, because in the education sessions that we have through DART it can often become a sticky point: People use the term when someone goes for a long time without drinking and then drinks a lotand that is certainly one understandingbut the understanding that is used in research on this is drinking five or more in a row for men, four or more in a row for women. This afternoon what we're going to define as the problem, the thing that is most troubling, is the consumption of large amounts of alcohol that puts a student at risk for serious health problems and/or compromises their judgment, causing them to act in uncivil ways, and/or be a target for someone else's egregious behavior.

[Discussing strategies the U.S. Department of Education suggests, she noted that in the late 'eighties, as a result of the Drug-Free Schools Act and on D.O.E. funding, Penn like most campuses created a task force to develop policies and programsbut most others disbanded theirs once policy and programs were in place. Penn did not, and has received national recognition for keeping the task force as a vehicle in which every segment of the University can come together on a regular basis.

[On D.O.E. suggestions about resource allocation she noted that Penn stands out in providing services; yet, given fears that near-miss situations could become the next tragedy...]

So let us look at environmental strategies. We have a wealth of social, recreational, community service, performing arts, and other extracurricular activities. And yet, we often refer to them as our "alternative programming." Alternative to what? Socializing with excessive alcohol use is the norm? Then that is the environmental belief that I want to challenge and I want us to challenge today. I want us to consider a norm that is based on health, responsibility, and consideration of one another and ourselves.

Maureen Rush: I'm Director of Police Operations. About two weeks ago I was awakened about four-thirty, quarter-to-five in the morning, and it was one of the supervisors from the Division of Public Safety, Penn Police, who told me that a student had just been attacked by another student and had the entire back of his head split open. Twenty-two stitches it took to put him back together. It was touch and go at that point. The young student was taken to HUP emergency room; he was obviously in the best hospital in the world he could be in, and fortunately for him, there's a happy ending.

But, as Dr. Rodin said earlier, we could have been MIT, we could have been the front page of the Inquirer the next day, we could have been the lead story on Action News. That same weekend there were four other incidents where students were attacked by fellow students.

The big problem last year was crime, namely armed robberies. And as Dr. Rodin said, the community came to the University and said, "Do something." As a result many, many resources were poured into the University environmentadditional Spectaguards and police officers were hired, and many resources across the University in addition to Public Safety reacted. And the solution did not come from just Public Safety or from the administration; in fact, the Undergraduate Assembly and GAPSA were intensively involved in the solutions. Faculty and staff members started to come to more safety presentations and, overall, the result was that it wasn't just one entity that solved that problem. It was a community of people coming together both on and off campus: landlords, business people and internal Penn community members.

I think the same problem exists this time except that the enemy, if you will, is not the outside. The enemy is within, which is probably a little more puzzling to respond to. But I think that the solution again is not one entity, but a multitude of types of people who can respond and bring their specialties. The panel up here are going to talk from different perspectives, and yet the same perspectiveand hopefully that will be the same as from the student groups that will be working with us.

I'd like to state just briefly what Public Safety's response has been to this year, basically starting at move-in Labor Day weekend. The Penn Police tried to close down parties by around 2 a.m. We are talking mostly about the off-campus parties, and let me explain to you why we were doing that. Number one, the fraternity and sorority affairs houses have always had a standing order that their parties will shut down by 2 a.m.; so what was happening last year was that the parties were shutting down on the campus and then people were going off campus to other parties. Obviously there were some fears for people walking around compromised by alcohol, leaving parties individually as opposed to in groupsat four, five, six o'clock in the morning, believe it or not. So by closing the parties down at 2 a.m. we did two things. One, we got the students to move en masse, leaving the par-ties in groups instead of alone, and at a time when augmented patrols are on duty. It almost looks like Veterans Stadium opening out because, unbelievably, some of these houses were holding 500 to 600 students, not just Penn studentsPenn has become the choice location for all different types of people to come party, not just Penn but Temple, Drexel and Villanova, so we get to meet a lot of different students from all over the Philadelphia area.

The second reason is that the West Philadelphia community has implored the University community to look to their quality of life. Frankly, they are tired of people waking them up at three, four, five o'clock in the morning; they are tired of people becoming ill on their porches or using them as bathrooms. [Neighbors] approached Glenn Bryan from Community Relations, Carol Scheman's Office, and asked what we could do. So there's a committee working on civility issues within the West Philadelphia community.

In addition, the Division of Public Safety recently met with owners of all the restaurants and bars locallyLa Terresse, White Dog, Smo-key Joe's, just about any entity that serves alcohol. We invited the beer distributor who seems to be the choice beer distributor for the off-campus parties, Springfield, who unfortunately didn't show up but we are going to still try and have a conversation with them. We basically invited these groups as partners, not as an accusation that they are the problem, because, quite frankly, we don't really believe that they are the problem. They at least have bartenders trained by TIPS to see when people are intoxicated and to flag them and not to serve them; so in fact there is more control within these establishments than there is at the off-campus parties.

The second step was a meeting with all the presidents of the fraternities last week at about 11:30 p.m. I wanted it to be at that hour so that they could meet face-to-face with the supervisors who are there when the parties are being shut down. Scott Reikofski set that up and Matt Baker, president of the Interfraternity Council, was there. It was a total success; there was a lot of recognition that as leaders in the Greek system they could become leaders on this issueand actually help create change agents within the Greek system which could spill over to the other members of the student community. I know the UA has also met with President Rodin and they are also part of the solution.

Police officers have expressed to me the horrors that they have seen in the last couple of weeks, and their fear of ever having to to take a student to the hospital and have him or her pronounced dead. To have to call those parentsthere are people in this room who have had to do that for other reasons in the past, and I don't think any of us want to do it because someone either drank to excess or became involved in alcohol-related behavior that ended up being criminal behavior. There are several students who have been arrested in the last couple of weeks on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to aggravated assault and other charges from the District Attorney's office. I think those students, whether they were the victims who ended up in the hospital, or are now going to be the victims for the rest of their life because they have a criminal record, will tell you that no one went out that night intentionally trying to alter their lives. But lives were altered.

Fortunately no one has totally, finally, ended their chances for waking up tomorrow and making better choices. And hopefully we won't have to meet that kind of problem in the future. I think we can, as a group, end this problem just as we took control and brought measurable changes last year to the crime problem.

Dr. Ilene Rosenstein: I'm the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services, which is a department within the division of University Life, and I was asked to speak to you about what we see at Counseling and Psychological Services, and what kind of interventions we've done and believe we should do more of.

Just to give you a pattern, we have about 2500 students who come in as individuals or couples for some kind of counseling during an academic year. The primary concerns that most of them present are actually academic.

We have a question on the problem checklist that asks "Are you concerned about the consequence of drug or alcohol use, self or other?" In 1996-97, 16% of those students who came in put "some to severe concern" about that ,with 3% putting they were "very concerned" about their alcohol use. In 1997, meaning July 1 to yesterday, 10% came in saying they were "very, very concerned." However, when you look at those stats, 50% are concerned about someone else who is using alcohol, not themselvesa boyfriend, a girlfriend, a roommate, someone they live with, someone who is in their fraternity or sorority. Only 20% were concerned with their own drinking and identifying it as a concern.

The clinicians' perceptions were much different. Substance abuse, or substance usage, was seen as interfering with what we call developmental taskspicking a major, career decisions, social connections, being able to have ongoing relationships, academic achievement, and social skills. Few of them had clinical diagnoses of actual substance abuse or alcohol dependency. If that was given, it was probably graduate students who gave it. Last year we only had two people who were hospitalized for recovery. We have a small group, a subgroup of students who've come in and said they feel very naive about their drinking. They don't remember what happened to them on a certain night... they have black-outs, they end up in places and they're not sure how they got there. Some are concerned that they experienced something sexual, either date rape or some kind of inappropriate sex without consent. Some have woken up with black eyes, or other kinds of thingsnot knowing if it was done by their boyfriend, who was equally drunk, or if they fell; and no one can tell them what happened.

The type of substance use in rank order are: alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, steroid abuse, speed, mushrooms, ecstasy, or prescriptions that are prescribed for somebody else (mostly antidepressants like Prozac) or diet pill abuse.

Last year we saw a real growth in consultation. Questions came from faculty and staffand this is including residentspeople saying, "I'm not sure what kind of abuse exactly, but I need help on how to confront it." Students called, asking "Is this a problem?" And we had numerous parents calling, saying they were amazed at the amount of drinking their child, and their child's Penn friends who came home with them over break, were indulging in.

We collaborate with many different departments on psychoeducational workshops. We do trainings with RAs, GFs, peer educators, administrators and faculty. We find that more faculty are asking our specialists on alcohol and drugs to come and do class presentations, particularly in schools that are helping professions. And more students are coming in asking for materials on alcohol and drugs, for papers that they're writing or even for dissertations. We have various groupsby the far the most popular is Adult Children of Alcoholics. We have many students whose parents are children of alcoholics. We have a care group which is a mandatory assignment group mostly coming from the Office of Student Conduct. And what's been concerning for Marilyn Silverberg, who runs the group, is that many of those students who come for the alcohol assessments are not the people who are having a problem. They've been caught walking across campus holding a can of beer, which may be an infraction, because they are underage, but they're not having alcohol problems in the way that we may expect.

One last thing is the ER count. Just for this year to date we've had 11 contacts already. The average age is 19, with the range of 18 to 24, and 72% are male. One was a graduate student. What brought them to ER? 18 shots of vodka in two hours, a 20-year-old who did 13 shots of tequila and beer, are typical examples.

Ron Jasner: I'm Assistant Director of Risk Management. After hearing everything that we've heard, I'm going to be the one person here who is going to argue that we ought to crack down, and we ought to crack down hard. The unfortunate thing that I've seen here at Penn in my ten years, and also living in this community for the last eight, is that I haven't seen either an increase or a decrease in the number of these incidents. I have yet to see any hard data that suggests that this is now a suddenly expanding problem. I would suggest to you that it has become more the flavor of the month in the media, and that we've been dealing with these issues for a very long time. The dramatic problemthe one we've always had and I think our student activities people will tell you, will show usis that if we have activities, and alcohol is not involved, our students won't come. I think that's true on the undergraduate level, I think that's true with respect to GAPSA events, I think that's true with respect to any employee events, and that the only way to really change that is to change the culture. That would be my position.

Dr. Helen Davies: I'm here as one of the faculty who lives in the residential system; I live in the Quad and during Spring Fling I have trouble with the puddles of vomit, and that's very disturbing. This year I have not seen quite as many beer cans, beer bottles, empty bottles of alcohol around as I have in the past, and I'm looking at this a little hopefully. I know that within the Quad system right now, the assistant deans are doing a tremendous job, together with the groups that come and talk about alcohol abuse, and this seems to be having some effect right now. One of the things that was mentioned that I feel most keenly is the particular vulnerability when women have drunk a lot, and the men they are with have drunk a lot, and we do see sexual abuse and rapeand these are issues that need to be brought to the fore so that we can do something about it. And the man on my right [Mr. Jasner]I don't know him, but I'm agreeing with him more and more.

Michael Kraver: I'm President of Sigma Alpha Mu, and I'm here representing the Interfraternity Council. I understand everyone's looking at me because all of the reports about LSU and MIT are related to fraternities, and I understand that we shoulder some of the blame. I wouldn't suggest that's completely unwarranted. But at the same time I'd like to stress what Ms. Rush said, that we have an elaborate system of distribution at our parties and all our bartenders are TIPS trained. Our parties are pretty much as safe as we can possibly make themwe've put in a lot of effort to ensure that.

I won't specifically comment on any changes until I've heard concrete suggestions, but I think what's very important here is that we need to avoid an adversarial system where it becomes the ad-ministration against the students. I know the art-icle on that in the D.P. scared me, as president of a house, liable for whatever goes on there, and it scared just about everyone I've spoken to about it, because of its references to the LCB. I speak out of personal experience. Last year I had two disciplinary-related incidentsone of them dealt with through the Office of Student Conduct, and one through the LCB. And I think we should utilize the Office of Student Conduct as much as possible. [Laughter.]

In October, a number of Penn students broke into my house, and assaulted a number of my housemates. Instead of going to the police, we dealt with it through the Office of Student Conduct and these students were punished accordingly, yet they avoided having a criminal recordbecause the Office of Student Conduct, unlike the LCB, looks out for the best interest of the students and they realize that, with the exception of a heinous offense, like the one Ms. Rush alluded to where the kid needed 20 stitches in his head, it's best to try to avoid giving any students here at an Ivy League institution a criminal record as much as possible. But then also in March I was one of the 33 students at the Palladium the night the LCB raided it. I'll tell you all honestly that I have been subpoenaed and tomorrow I have to go to court to testify for the State of Pennsylvania and, by the advice of my lawyer, I have to plead my fifth amendment rights to ensure that I can be a lawyer if I want to one day.

We can go out any night and give 5,000 minors citations and ruin their lives. I don't think that should be our goal. I think that we should try to come up with some other system. In the [D.P.] article the owner of Cavanaugh's was quoted as saying something like "They might raid my bar and catch me serving to a minor and punish me for that, but that's going to do nothing to curb the binge drinking that's going on at the party down the street."

I think we need to try to stop the problem; in order to stop the problem we need to address the reasons, not why minors drink necessarily, but why people drink excessively. Without addressing that fundamental point anything else we try to do in terms of punishment or anything else is fruitless. I hope we can work out a compromise that solves the problem through a means other than creating a fearful environment on campus. We don't want students walking around afraid of everything they do. I don't know anyone who is looking to drink excessively to the point of creating a problem for themselves or anyone else; and I don't think that we should view the student body in that way.

Victoria Tredinnick: I have two points to make. One is about health and responsibility: that it's important for the University to continue to look at this as an issue of health and responsibility, not as a moral or legal question because drinking is certainly not the problem; the problem is abuse, or too much drinkingand insofar as we care about the values of a free society, I think that with that goes responsibility and that's where we should be putting our efforts. Further, a crackdown is simply not practical and pushing the problem underground will probably make things worse, but that's an opinion. The undergraduate experiencein loco parentis asideis really about learning and growth, and the University has a real role to play in providing that sort of environment. The second point is just to say that the Provost's Residential College proposal is really excellent and comes at a very good time. I was a member of a similar residential living arrangement in the late 'eighties when I was in college, and it was really wonderful for giving us a sense of responsibility for the environment and for one another. I think that could begin to solve some of the problems.

Noah Bilenker: Binge drinking has been a hot topic around campus. It's also been a hot topic among my friends. We all have personal experiences: I don't know how many times I've heard a friend say, the morning after, "I'm never drinking again." I'm not sure whether that's a good or bad thing, because they got to the point where they got so sick that they made an absolute statement like that. I still can't get over the 18 shots in two hours, that I just heard here. And I'm just wondering how many repeats you getI mean how many people have 18 shots in two hours and wind up in the hospital again?

When I first started driving it was a really icy winter up in New Jersey and my father took me out to a parking lot after a big ice storm, and we kept getting into skids on purpose, just to see how to get out of the skid. I think it's kind of similar with drinking: people are going to feel around and try to see what it's like, but we have to find some way to get them to know without going to such an extreme. People are going to experiment; I know in European countries people have glasses of wine very often with dinner while growing up and they know what it's like. It's not like that here, and we know people are going to drink, people are going to experiment, so we have to have some kind of control of the environment. As Mike said, with the Greeks you have the ability to kind of educate. We have the ability to give mandatory DART sessions and education sessions and support networks. As Vicki said of the College Houses, support networks are very important. I know that the IFC is bringing in a speaker [who is] a recovering alcoholic.... I've had a lot of very useful dialog with Kate Ward-Gaus and the UA would like emphatically, with the help of the administration and the rest of the University community, to address this problem possibly with some kind of day-long educational event.

Sharon Weinzimer. I'm President of DART, the Drug and Alcohol Resource Team. DART is a volunteer student organization and part of the Office of Health Education. Through workshops, we facilitate small group discussions encouraging students to make educated, responsible, and safe decisions concerning their alcohol consumption. We hope to curb the excessive drinking of alcohol that occurs at Penn. We ask students to talk openly about decision-making and peer pressure, hoping they can recognize their personal limits and goals, and the need for personal responsibility. We want to ensure that students can recognize the medical risks that accompany alcohol consumption and know exactly where to seek medical treatment. It is to our benefit that we have emergency treatment so accessible.

Previously DART has focused on the individual, challenging his or her decisions and actions regarding alcohol use, but recently we have shifted our focus to emphasize group responsibility, challenging students to think about their interaction with friends and hall-mates in situations that involve drinking. We are a great resource for information on alcohol first aid. Although we are concerned with the recent hospitalizations associated with alcohol abuse, we do see these numbers as progress that students are taking responsibility and are actively seeking medical attention. Also, DART workshops are mandatory for first-year residence halls and fraternity and sorority pledge classes. We are effective at reaching students that are particularly struggling with the increased freedom and increased responsibility students face in entering college as a whole, or entering the Greek system specifically.

As peer educators, and as students, we share the concerns of excessive alcohol consumption on campus. We have targeted what we are considering to be the high-risk groups through our freshman and pledge workshops. But there is a population of older students that we do not reach. They do not attend our workshops and our workshops are not designed for them. Although we agree that policy and enforcement are necessary in dealing with this problem, we feel that education is crucial and integral, but must also be coupled with students that are willing to take personal responsibility in decision-making.

Tracy Feld: I'm the Assistant Dean in Residence in Hill College House and I'm glad to have the opportunity to congratulate and thank Sharon and DART for the pivotal, vital, and excellent work that they have been doing. DART is one of the best resources available to us in residence for trying, particularly in a largely first-year house, to reach students with a healthy message about alcohol. We're really glad you're here.

I'm also really glad that we're all here. I wanted to say at the beginning that, boy, I don't want to make that call to parentsand we at Hill House have faced, in the past, situations where there but for the grace of I-don't-know-what, we could have easily been MIT. We had a situation in the not-too-distant past that was very similar to the situation at MIT, and the difference, as I understand it, is that the MIT student went home and closed his door and died. At Hill House, the student happened not to close his door, and got to the hospital, and then went on to stop breathing and went on a respirator. And lived.

So we're very concerned about binge drinking, and about the very real risk of death for students, and also about their compromising of their futures in other ways. But I do want to reiterate what's been said also about other risks to studentsto their academics, to their being susceptible to violence, as perpetrators of violence and as victims of violence, victims of rape and other kinds of assaultstudents who are just making bad choices under the influence.

Many of those choices, we're left trying to help them sort out in the morning because they don't remember. I'll agree with Ron Jasner, this is an issue we've been working on for a very long time and we do not have the answerand we really need students to help us find the answer. I think I might sound as if I'm disagreeing with Ron Jasner on another point, but he's used to that: I'm not sure about, and I'd want to explore what the idea of "cracking down" means.

I wanted to talk a little about the context and the role of the RA and the GF in residences in this dynamic. Our fabulous RAs and GFs are walking a very difficult line in residence today. In the case of alcohol we depend on them to be educators, we depend on them to provide alternative programming, but the most important thing that I depend on from my staff is that they will be a friend and that their students will trust them and will come to them when there is a problem. The other part of their role, though, is that they are asked to, required to, uphold the law. When they know of underage drinking in the residence, they're to put an end to it. And they do put an end to it, as evidenced by these huge parties that are springing up past 40th Street where we have no control: there's no teachable moment west of 40th Street. So I worry about Massachusetts, about the ban of alcohol, and it'll be interesting to see what that leads to. Since the tightening of the liability laws towards the end of the 'eighties, I have seen the drinking of students on this campus pushed further and further underground and farther and farther away from where we can have any impact, so "cracking down" poses a very real concern for me.

I celebrate the work that staff members are able to do because they're able to build the support of students. I also celebrate the instances in which students can impress upon their peers to behave responsibly. And I think, in the end, that's what we're going to be depending on.

Entered in the Record by the Chair of the Council's Student Affairs Committee

On Alcohol Consumption: Help Each Other Avoid Disaster

Prior travel plans make it impossible for me to join you in today's deliberations about alcohol consumption and incivility at Penn. I do, however, appreciate the opportunity to make a few remarks about this issue from my perspective as the Chairman of the Student Affairs Committee and as a practicing psychiatrist.

We on the Student Affairs Committee have been very concerned with the adverse con-sequences of excessive drinking at Penn, both on and off campus. We have heard from all sectors of the Penn community about the extent, nature and consequences of excessive drinking, including the all-too-frequent occurrences of accidental overdose, sexual and physical aggression, property damage and interpersonal violence. We have proposed that the University Council seriously address these concerns, and today's discussions fulfill our committee's first and foremost recommendation: to create a broad dialogue about problem drinking at Penn. Recognizing and framing a problem is an indispensable first step to finding solutions.

But what, if anything, is to be done about excessive drinking in and around Penn? To begin with, we need to establish who is responsible for doing what about the issue. This is far from obvious. Students attend college not only to master academic subjects and earn degrees, but also to become socialized into the world of modern adulthood. In our society, this includes learning to consume alcohol responsibly (otherwise known as "holding your liquor"). This unwritten curriculum is being taught in frat houses, student apartments, local bars and wherever else students go to have fun. Alcohol is an incredibly easy way to relax, relieve tension, fraternize, and alter one's consciousness. And it is extremely available, even for students who are "underage." So, for the time being, drinking alcohol is an integral component of college life. This is not likely to change much, even if strict prohibition laws were passed and enforced.

What could change, however, are the standard responses of the entire community to instances of excessive drinking, particularly those which clearly, negatively affect others. At the level of student social events, all forms of binge drinking, including "chugging" and playing games to increase alcohol consumption, should be actively discouraged. These are simply dangerous behaviors with huge risks associated with them. Students themselves should be pressuring each other to refrain from binge drinking. If fraternities and other sponsors of events where alcohol is consumed cannot effectively reduce these reckless activities on their own, designated monitors should be given even greater authority than they have to disband the parties.

Students who are noted to be binge drinking should be required to attend counseling sessions to help them stop drinking. Moreover, their parents should be notified of this, and their close friends should be given instructions for observing their alcohol consumption. Often, it is the pressure of peers that helps problem drinkers to stop. Currently, there is inadequate follow-up to instances of binge drinking (and its sequelae) unless the student has broken a major code of conduct. This must be changed in such a way as to emphasize the concern of the entire community for the health and well-being of the student in question.

At the level of direct instruction, it is my opinion that the University should ask all students to read and discuss books like DrinkingA Love Story, by Caroline Knapp. This could be a part of the freshman orientation program, and it could be made a requirement for individuals and organizations who demonstrate excessive drinking. The activities of peer educators in the DART and FLASH programs should be further expanded to target specific sites where high rates of binge drinking occur.

In a recent teaching session I held with medical students about the ethical aspects of intervening with peers who are adversely affected by alcohol, a student recounted how a college friend of his, who had been known to drink excessively, was killed in his car after leaving a frat party. The student expressed deep remorse and regret for not having made more of an effort to help his friend contain his impulses to drink. I mention this story to underscore what is perhaps my most important point today: that binge drinking at Penn is a largely social phenomenon, and that students must make even greater efforts to help one another avoid the harm and disaster which can result from it. I encourage the students present here today to take a leadership role in creating a true community of concern which actively dissuades people from drinking themselves into oblivion.

--Anthony L. Rostain, M.D.

Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, December 16, 1997, Volume 44, Number 16