Admin: Position not a reaction

It’s not a response, administrators said. Then what is it?

The University’s decision to add an alcohol educator to the rolls of the Yale College Dean’s Office begs explanation. As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And for many Yalies, the University’s network of ad hoc alcohol educators — freshman counselors, residential-college deans and masters and health professionals — ain’t broke. But University officials say they are being proactive in improving what they call a flawed system before major problems arise.

“We want to be proactive in this kind of thinking,” explained Amy Backus, an assistant athletic director who serves on the search committee for the new director of alcohol and substance abuse initiatives. “We don’t want to wait until a tragedy happens.”

A number of other schools within the Ivy League and across higher education already have similar positions. But at many of those schools — unlike at Yale — overhauls of alcohol education have followed exactly the kind of tragedies University administrators say they are hoping to avoid.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology hired its first associate dean for alcohol education and community development in January 2002, five years after freshman Scott Krueger died of alcohol poisoning during a fraternity initiation. The death of Krueger, who was found unconscious in the fraternity basement with a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.4, was directly responsible for the MIT administration’s decision to re-evaluate the school’s alcohol polices. The new administrator spearheaded the implementation of the resulting reforms, including mandatory educational programs for organizations serving alcohol at parties.

Harvard tapped its first and current alcohol educator, Ryan Travia, in 2005 after a review of alcohol policies prompted by increasing cases of alcohol poisoning among its student body. Travia’s responsibilities as laid out at the beginning of his tenure included the creation of a drug and alcohol peer-advisor program.

And alcohol educators are increasingly gaining traction in higher education — Backus recalled a conference of New England deans last April at which such positions were “on the tip of everybody’s tongues.”

Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry said the move would improve communication across the University’s existing alcohol-education network, the upshot being that students, in turn, would gain a better grasp of alcohol- and substance-abuse issues. Dean of Undergraduate Education Joseph Gordon — who kicked off the search process in April before passing the baton to Gentry this summer — added in an e-mail that “the same concerns that occasioned the Alcohol Committee report in 2006 lie behind the creation of this position.”

That report, submitted to University President Richard Levin in February 2006, recommended that the University promote a “safety-first” alcohol policy by taking a series of steps, including installing resident fellows on Old Campus and creating new rules for registering parties.

Students aren’t quite sure there’s a problem, but nonetheless said they favor additional educational resources in the arena of drugs and alcohol.

Shaun Farrell ’11 was among nearly a dozen students who praised the plan to bring an alcohol educator to campus by fall 2009, so long as administrators keep their word that such an official would not alter Yale’s “harm-reduction” attitude toward drinking on campus. Farrell said any additional resources for alcohol education would be a plus on top of the status quo.

“I remember during freshman orientation they basically said, ‘This is a shot. Don’t do 10 of them,’ ” he said. “There’s lots of people who came here who have never had a drink before.”

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