UP CLOSE | Shaping a drinking culture on Yale’s campus

alcohol
Photo by Yale Daily News.

At the outset of the fall semester in 1985, students over 21 lined up in Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall to receive drinking cards as part of a series of new undergraduate regulations on alcohol in response to the increase in the drinking age in Connecticut. For those underage, Old Campus would now be dry.

“I think the policy sucks, but I know there’s going to be ways around it,” said a member of the class of 1989 to the News in September of that year.

Nearly three decades later, the problem of underage, high-risk drinking remains a pressing issue on the administrative agenda. All Yale administrators interviewed said the University is poised to move forward with major policy and program reforms when administrators receive recommendations this fall from the University Council Committee on Alcohol in Yale College. The group, convened in January, is comprised of five members of the University Council — an advisory body to the president — and five outside experts in alcohol usage on college campuses.

The forthcoming policy changes round out several years of heightening concern over alcohol abuse on campus. Recently, administrators have imposed a number of policy shifts, including revising tailgating regulations at least three times since 2005 and requiring students to register off-campus parties in August 2012.

Officials at Yale see the current attention given to alcohol issues as stemming in part from national trends among college administrators to re-evaluate drinking culture and address the dangers of high-risk drinking.

Over the past several decades, colleges have placed increased attention on fostering student wellness — physical, mental and social — rather than strictly academic accomplishment, said Yale College Dean’s Office fellow Garrett Fiddler ’11. Administrators have highlighted the health risks associated with alcohol abuse in particular, he added.

“We know much more about the impact of mental and physical wellness on academic success than we ever had before, and it was a wake-up call when we realized some of our [academic performance] had nothing to do with academics,” said Tom Workman, principal communication researcher and evaluator at the American Institutes for Research. “Suddenly we learned … that wellness has a strong impact.”

Paul Genecin, director of University Health Services, pointed to medical dangers, links with sexual misconduct, property damage, chronic alcoholism, lowered academic performance and a disrupted living environment for other students as repercussions of alcohol abuse that are urgently drawing administrative attention.

Today’s efforts to address alcohol abuse, unlike those in the past, draw on increasingly available data that point administrators toward prevention strategies proven to be effective. Yet while a larger pool of evidence-based approaches is available, Yale’s leaders are still searching for a comprehensive plan to combat the risks associated with college drinking.

“All the pieces are falling into place, but the puzzle just hasn’t been put together yet,” said Aaron White, a researcher at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the Undergraduate Drinking Research Initiative. “We know a lot more about what works, there are more campus administrators involved and I think we are all anticipating there will be significant improvements moving forward.”

 

PROVEN SOLUTIONS

Historically, a gap has existed between research on high-risk drinking and administrative action. Only in the last decade has the divide significantly narrowed as administrators have started emphasizing data-based practices rather than hit-and-miss efforts, experts said.

Toben Nelson, associate director of the College Alcohol Study, said the most effective approaches to reducing high-risk behavior restrict student access to alcohol — whether through making it less available for purchase, not serving it at events or training servers to be responsible in their service, among other means.

“A well-documented finding [is] that educational efforts by themselves really don’t do much to change people’s behavior despite the fact that we think they ought to,” Nelson said. “Information doesn’t by itself drive student behavior.”

To a degree, the University has taken this logic into account — the Dean’s Office as well as the Office of Risk Management currently offer responsible server training, a class that teaches students proper alcohol distribution techniques and intervention strategies, said Marjorie Lemmon, the manager of Yale’s Office of Risk Management.

But generally, rather than these more restrictive policies, the University has focused on educational programs that attempt to adjust the behavior of the entire student population.

In August, the University debuted an online alcohol education course with skits depicting appropriate drinking practices for incoming freshmen. The online module was built on research that shows the success of “social norms approaches,” methods that aim to change a student’s perceptions of others’ behavior, Fiddler said. Including Yale students in the skits increases their effectiveness because studies show social norms approaches work better when they are specific to a campus, he added.

Experts said individual counseling, rather than broader alcohol education, is one practice that research has shown to have an especially positive impact on behavior related to alcohol. Through brief motivational interviewing, counselors can help students facing alcohol abuse issues realize where their problems lie and how to begin to change, experts interviewed said.

Currently, Yale students who exhibit problematic alcohol use are directed to one-on-one counseling with substance abuse counselor Marie Baker, Fiddler said. The process draws on the concepts of brief motivational interviewing as well as BASICS (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students), a preventative strategy that provides students with feedback about the accuracy of their beliefs about alcohol.

In 2012, Yale administrators introduced a new freshman orientation session about alcohol where freshmen counselors led group discussions. The conversations follow similar principles to brief motivational interviewing, but the concepts are expanded to fit a group discussion rather than individual interaction, Fiddler said. The purpose of the conversations is to have students consider what they want their interaction with alcohol to look like and what drinking will and will not accomplish in terms of social benefits.

The tricky aspect of finding a solution to alcohol abuse is combining research-backed methods into a cohesive strategy for a particular university, White said. Different campuses have different social dynamics, he added, so “there is no ‘one size fits all.’”

 

SCALING BACK SOCIAL LIFE

In December, Yale announced the formation of two new committees to address alcohol and drug use — the Yale College Dean’s Office Task Force on Alcohol and Other Drugs and the University Council Committee.

Administrators said the bulk of forthcoming policy and program shifts will be made clear in a report from the UCC.

Meetings of the Task Force — a cross-section of students, faculty and administrators — concluded last spring and the group submitted its undisclosed recommendations, largely focusing on suggestions for educational programs, to the University Council Committee. The University Council Committee is expected to make official recommendations concerning Yale’s approach to alcohol sometime this fall.

Linda Major, assistant to vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said consistent discipline for alcohol abuses and preventing students from entering dangerous situations has been proven to lower incidents of high-risk drinking.

Recent cases of dangerous drinking have pushed masters and deans to cancel or downsize major campus events. Within the past decade, dances such as Pierson’s Inferno and Jonathan Edward’s Spider Ball have been scaled down. Timothy Dwight’s Exotic Erotic was held for the last time in 2000 after 10 students were hospitalized that year. Silliman’s Safety Dance was canceled last October after eight hospitalizations.

There is no debate among masters that the cancellation and downsizing of schoolwide dances has picked up in recent years, said Jonathan Holloway, master of Calhoun College and former chair of the Council of Masters.

“The level of awareness is ratcheting up, so it is increasingly difficulty for masters to rationalize hosting these big campus parties which can be a tremendous amount of fun if people only realize they can have a great amount of fun while sober,” he said.

Students have noticed an increased administrative crackdown on alcohol and fear that the University has shifted its stance on alcohol from supportive to punitive, according to an April letter from the Yale College Council to the University Council Committee.

While Holloway said he is frustrated by the decision to downsize major parties because the majority of students are not engaging in high-risk drinking, the small number of students who do end up hospitalized “forces our hand,” he said.

 

A MODERN PROBLEM

Administrators and experts interviewed cited a variety of reasons for the heightened attention to alcohol in the past year — not only at Yale but across the country — including evolving student drinking habits and legal developments that have increased University liability.

College students today exhibit entirely new drinking habits compared to students in years past, Workman said. Whereas beer was the drink of choice decades ago, hard alcohol has become much more commonplace, and the popularization of flavored hard alcohol has also replaced wine in social settings, he added.

Pregaming has become a particularly significant campus issue in the last five years, Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews said, adding that she has noticed that students are drinking more heavily in general.

Yale’s overall alcohol consumption rate was above the national average at other universities, according to surveys conducted by the Yale College Dean’s Office during the 2011–’12 academic year, and students at Yale took fewer protective measures, such as eating before drinking, than students at other universities on average. The majority of drinking at Yale takes place in dorm rooms, particularly during pregames, the surveys found.

At the same time, the Internet has allowed for the proliferation of fake IDs, said David Hartman, spokesman for the New Haven Police Department. The popularization of synthetic drugs, such as molly, further complicates the drinking landscape, he said.

Most significantly, the number of students at Yale who become so intoxicated that they must be taken to Yale Health or Yale-New Haven Hospital has increased in the past academic year, administrators said. Additionally, the severity of the cases has been increasing, said Hannah Peck DIV ’11, director of student affairs for the YCDO.

But Genecin said it was unclear whether the numbers indicated increased binge drinking because it could also be related to increased reporting.

Meanwhile, legal developments are increasingly holding colleges responsible for providing safe social environments. Universities including Yale are held liable for incidents for which they would not have been responsible in the past, Fiddler said.

Yale and other colleges now receive federal funding contingent on following national alcohol and drug guidelines, Fiddler said, including the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act Amendments of 1989 — which requires universities to establish alcohol abuse prevention programs.

“There’s no question that the law has forced a restructuring of administrative priorities,” said Peter Lake, director for the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University. “This is about the time [that] you can see the public mentality shifting away from students responsible for themselves and [now] universities play a greater role in protecting students.”

More recently, a change in Connecticut liquor laws in 2006 — which made it illegal for a person of legal drinking age to fail to halt possession of alcohol by a minor — has raised concerns over liability for event hosts, Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry said.

“The best defense an institution can present is to demonstrate it has made every effort to put in place evidence-based practices,” said William DeJong, former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention. “If you don’t do that, then you’re obviously in a weakened legal position.”

 

OVERCOMING HURDLES

Although drinking is an age-old problem, it took decades for experts to identify alcohol at colleges as a problem, said Jason Kilmer, assistant director of health and wellness for alcohol and other drug education at the University of Washington, adding that the term “binge drinking” was not used until 1994.

A 1954 essay from the former psychiatrist-in-chief at Yale’s Department of University Health Clements Collard Fry — “A Note on Drinking in the College Community” — tentatively suggested that the “first observation to be made is that drinking is a part, sometimes an important part, of the mores of the college society.” Until the 1990s, issues around college student drinking were still being defined, Kilmer said.

The University’s efforts to track and analyze alcohol usage — such as through the YCDO’s ongoing surveys about student drinking habits — is a new phenomenon. Thirty years ago, almost no formal research was conducted on effects of alcohol on college students, White said, and prevention was nearly nonexistent on campuses.

Experts say many problems associated with drinking are worsened by the 21-and-over drinking age, which has been in effect since 1985. The drinking age pushes underage drinkers to consume alcohol behind closed doors in dorm rooms, said Michael Haines, a consultant in social norms programs related to college drinking. The safest place to drink on campus would be public, school-sponsored events, because in public, students better monitor each other’s behavior and social cues prevent students from drinking too much, Haines said.

Prior to 1985, when the drinking age was 18, alcohol was served at school-sponsored events, said Sidney Altman, who served as Yale College dean from 1985 to 1989. The change in the drinking age elicited new regulations to prevent underage drinking at college-sponsored events, Altman said, forcing alcohol consumption underground and resulting in the death of sophomore Ted McGuire ’89 in 1986 due to alcohol poisoning.

Administrators must pick their battles, said Kate Carey, a professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University and a member of the UCC, and the project of policing underage drinkers is sidelined to focus on preventing high-risk behavior of a group of students of any age.

“I think there is that potential for learning how to drink responsibly, it’s just how to manage it,” Holloway said. “By the time you get to senior year, the education’s coming too late, they’ve learned the hard way.”

But teaching students how to drink appropriately is complicated because of the legal drinking age and also because undergraduates can be at vastly different stages in their social development, he added.

 

POISED TO LEAD

The University seeks to be at the forefront of alcohol culture reform as many colleges are confronting similar issues, said Paul McKinley DRA ’96, spokesman for the Dean’s Office.

“I very much want Yale to be a leader in reducing high-risk drinking and in campus safety more generally,” University President Peter Salovey said.

Administrators have taken a number of measures at Yale to increase the number of alcohol-related personnel. The hiring process for a director of alcohol and other drug initiatives began in 2008, but the position was put on hold due to budget cuts. The YCDO has hired three fellows since 2010 whose duties relate directly to alcohol safety. Faculty and administrators interviewed said Goff-Crews, for whom the position of vice president of student life was created in 2012, has spearheaded a number of alcohol efforts over the past year.

Under former University President Richard Levin, Yale signed onto the National College Health Improvement Program — an effort based out of Dartmouth that collects and shares data between colleges on best alcohol prevention practices. To participate in the initiative, NCHIP required a “particularly groundbreaking” commitment from university presidents of their full dedication, said Dartmouth spokesman and NCHIP faculty member Justin Anderson.

The NCHIP effort, led by former Dartmouth President Jim Yong Kim, has brought presidents of Ivy League schools to the table in the discussion around drinking practices, DeJong said. The field of alcohol prevention has not had such significant Ivy League involvement and collaboration in the past, experts said.

“One of the things working at Yale and Dartmouth — there are really smart people thinking about things that have plagued us as a society for generation,” Anderson said. “These are institutions that are agencies of innovation.”

Efforts at other institutions show that alcohol reform efforts require support from college presidents, coupled with a sense of urgency to be successful, Workman said.

Carey said she is optimistic that the problem of alcohol abuse on college campuses has a solution.

“I’ve lived through the social norms and culture change of smoking and drinking and driving,” she said. “At one point, everybody was doing it and you couldn’t really make a dent, but society did change.”

Right now the major determinant for Yale is still going to be recommendations from the UCC, Fiddler said, and “our breaths are still collectively being held.”

 

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