From the Daily: Drinking in the open

BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Published November 23, 2014

In an effort to curb drinking on campus, this year the University shortened Welcome Week. The University’s Division of Public Safety and Security’s improving statistics show promise but also raise concerns about the way the institution handles drinking. This year’s condensed Welcome Week saw a decrease in alcohol-related ambulance requests to University Housing and alcohol-related visits to University Emergency Departments, suggesting an improvement over last year. However, there was a sizable uptick of emergency calls from student housing off-campus. This inverse relationship suggests that while the University has curbed on-campus drinking, off-campus drinking has only worsened or faced increased enforcement. Thus in order to have a safer drinking culture on and off campus, the University must look to other options for controlling drinking rather than on-campus enforcement.

The efforts to tone down Welcome Week brought about an increase of minor in possession tickets, which usually carry with them hundreds of dollars in fines and a probation period. The University’s response to the drinking culture on campus has mostly been granting additional funds to bolster enforcement and attempting to educate new students. The shift of drinking incidents from University facilities to less-controlled off-campus housing indicates that the University’s efforts might not actually be benefitting students, but driving them into even more unsafe drinking environments.

The risk of relying on punishment to curtail the University’s drinking culture is that this might push the culture “underground;” it’s unlikely that college students will simply stop drinking just because the University strengthens its enforcement. It’s more likely that they will drink in environments that cannot be as easily monitored, as was seen this Welcome Week, thus putting them at greater risk. This approach also puts the futures of many capable students in jeopardy by pushing them into the criminal justice system. Grant money could be better spent finding ways to keep students safe without additional adverse effects.

Other schools have succeeded in taking responsibility for the drinking culture at their school rather than throwing money at it. One of the most successful models is the National College Health Improvement Program, which has been gaining traction across the country. This program was developed at Dartmouth and focuses not on preaching the dangers of alcohol but rather use one-on-one motivational interventions that attempt to improve students’ lives by identifying and reducing the negative effects of alcohol’s. Thirty-two institutions have participated in the program thus far, including several with higher enrollment than the University. A similar practice is having students that are heavy drinkers talk privately with a medical professional about their drinking habits. These educational approaches shift the conversation from normative right and wrong to realizing the actual effects of the drinking and could remove the glamour of partying.

Stanford combines an “open-door” policy that keeps drinking safe and manageable for resident advisors and other staff, a party registration system that allows campus security to look out for student safety and a three-hour online alcohol education course to ensure that students do not hide drinking by doing it in unsafe environments. Rather than allowing their fraternities to host gameday tailgates at off-campus houses, Indiana University has them reserve designated lots in a field near their stadium. Limits on the size of the lots allow authorities to keep parties from getting out of hand and provide easy assistance in case of an emergency. Encouraging openness reduces the chances that students end up in situations where they can’t get the help they need, which is ultimately every university’s goal.

The University’s legacy for academic and athletic excellence has garnered international recognition. University President Mark Schlissel’s aim to protect our reputation and our peers comes at a crucial time in determining the institution’s legacy, but students must be given the right incentives for this to happen. An approach of openness and comprehensive education offers the University the opportunity to shape the futures of Wolverines for years to come.