Combating the culture of campus drinking

October 30, 1998|By Harold Ridley

WE ARE America's college campuses. And we have a drinking problem.

You don't have to look too hard these days to understand the truth in that statement. At my own institution -- Loyola College in Maryland -- one need only visit the residence halls on a given weekend to witness a situation that has been described in great detail in a recent guest editorial in The Sun, or read a recently released national study from the Harvard School of Public Health and our own longitudinal surveys of student drinking habits.

These reports confirm what our residence hall staff sees every weekend on our Baltimore campus: a rise in alcohol abuse and the resulting anti-social behavior that is hampering the intellectual, social and emotional development of the young people who have entrusted four very important years to us.

Drinking to excess

The Harvard study alone is frightening. Slightly more than half of the Loyola undergraduate respondents to the 1997 survey said they had engaged in heavy drinking three or more times in the previous two weeks, nearly three out of every four reported that when they drink, they usually drink to excess, and 76 percent say they drink to get drunk.

More troubling is the fact that just 9 percent of those surveyed say they have a drinking problem. Yet these students admit that -- under the influence of alcohol -- they have done such things as miss classes, fall behind on school work, get into trouble with campus police, argue with friends and suffer memory loss.

How long before a real tragedy occurs? Drinking-related deaths last year at several major universities are the tip of the iceberg, a barometer reading of a deeper storm gathering on the nation's campuses. We live in a culture that glorifies the role of alcohol and treats college drinking -- even though it is illegal for at least three-fourths of the traditional undergraduate population -- as a rite of passage.

These students are coming to us with well-established habits, too: 43 percent of the respondents in the Harvard study said they had abused alcohol while in high school.

We could take comfort in the fact that this is a national problem, but that would be cold comfort indeed. Comparisons invite inertia. At Loyola, we have decided to fight the inviting temptation to say we're just like everyone else.

The drinking problem is a challenge that cuts to the very heart of the ambitious academic goals Loyola has set for itself and to its historic Jesuit mission: to cultivate the mind, body and spirit of our students.

What is the proper role for a college or university in handling this issue? The Washington Post recently reported that George Mason University will evict students from on-campus housing who are caught with illegal drugs in a residence hall; the Virginia school also requires counseling for underage drinkers and all drug offenders.

The University of Delaware informs parents immediately when a student has been caught breaking school rules; there are no second chances.

In some cases, local communities are stepping in: The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board denied an application for a liquor license to Lehigh University as a means of curbing underage binge drinking.

We think these are responsible institutional policies and we applaud them. Loyola also has been active in trying to stem the tide. We have seven licensed psychologists in our counseling center and two full-time addiction counselors in our Alcohol and Drug Education and Support Servies Office, an extraordinary commitment for an institution with 3,200 undergraduates.

As one might expect, our internal surveys indicate that abusive drinking is symptomatic of more elemental forces at work in the lives of our students, such as stress, social anxiety and depression. We are thus fighting a battle on two fronts -- first, to address root causes of the problem, and second, to treat its symptoms.

The staff sponsors intensive counseling and a continuous series of educational and "awareness" events each year, and has spearheaded efforts to inform entering freshmen and their parents about drinking and its consequences during our summer orientation sessions.

I have participated in those sessions, challenging parents to become our allies in this battle and cautioning them that students who break the rules will find little quarter here.

Stemming the tide

Like the University of Delaware, this year, Loyola instituted a policy of notifying parents of freshmen for first-time violations of our code of conduct, which prohibits the possession of alcohol by minors in our residence halls.

Also, we are engaged in a $90 million building campaign -- which includes a new recreation and fitness center -- to create the kind of campus where undergraduates are encouraged to pursue their academic and social lives without always turning to the local bar scene.

I have encouraged our faculty to demand more from their students, inside and outside the classroom, and our elected student leaders have taken the lead in placing the issue at the top of their agenda for the academic year.

We must all look for opportunities to challenge the premises that underlie the culture of college drinking: that drinking to get drunk OK; that it is part of the rite of passage to get drunk several times a week; that to be a part of the social scene, you need to be a heavy drinker.

I have worked with young people in higher education for more than 25 years. I know that the word "potential" is more than an abstraction; it is a daily reminder to my colleagues and myself that ours is a sacred responsibility to help young people reach their intellectual and emotional best.

MA The Rev. Harold Ridley, S.J., is president of Loyola College.

Pub Date: 10/30/98

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