4 Campuses Respond to Risky Drinking

Cal State at Chico is trying to cool its reputation as a party school. (Dan Reidel, Enterprise-Record)

California State U. at Chico Changing a Party Culture

Chico State has been known as a party school at least since 1987, when it topped Playboy’s list. But a series of alcohol-related deaths two years ago prompted the university and the community to confront the problem.

“We have here in Chico what some people like to call the perfect storm of access and prices,” says Trisha Seastrom, program director of the Campus Alcohol and Drug Education Center.

Inspired by its involvement in the national Learning Collaborative on High Risk Drinking, the university is trying a variety of measures, including more regulation, parent education, and quicker intervention when trouble arises.

The efforts are yielding some success. With the support of the student government, the university persuaded the City Council to pass legislation with stiff fines, leading to fewer raucous house parties. Consistent messages from the university president that partyers are no longer welcome may have contributed to a reduction in the percentage of incoming freshmen who drink heavily, according to university surveys. But there have been setbacks, too, like the stalling of an attempt to get the municipal Planning Commission to control the number of bars in town.

The university still has more than a dozen plans under way. “There’s no silver bullet,” says Ms. Seastrom. “All of these things together will create a safer environment.”

Lehigh U. holds an alcohol-free orientation carnival in the fall. (Christa Neu)

Lehigh U. Keeping Tabs on Fraternities and Sororities

Lehigh’s struggles with alcohol are familiar to many small, residential campuses. Nearly 40 percent of students belong to a fraternity or sorority, long the source of much underage and excessive drinking. Twelve years ago, the university invested millions in the Greek system: improved living conditions, more staff, and leadership training. Campus officials also made every group undergo annual accreditation. The motto: “Be great or be gone (We’ll help either way).”

During the first accreditation review, a third of the chapters ranked poorly on the measures, which include community engagement and academic success. Today most are in the top two out of five tiers. Yet problems persist, and new ones arise, requiring the university to remain vigilant, says John W. Smeaton, vice provost for student affairs. Three Greek houses this year were suspended for allowing underage drinking. An increase in off-campus parties suggests that students are trying to get around the monitoring system.

Lehigh, which has participated in two national programs to counter binge drinking, continues to adopt new measures. Increased penalties for consumption of hard liquor, along with the scheduling of more alcohol-free social events, have helped cut down on the number of freshmen heading to the emergency room. “I don’t think it’s ever going to go away, given the nature of young people and their sense of invincibility,” says Mr. Smeaton. “I’m proud of the progress we have made. But it’s not a math equation.”

Yale U. Ivies Have Problems, Too

While Big State U. may forever evoke images of keg parties and tailgates, elite institutions have their own problems with alcohol. They just tend to keep them quiet.

Yale decided this year to start talking, to bust the myth of drinking not being an issue at such places. The proportion of students there who say they binge drink: 62 percent. Of those, the share who say they’ve drunk so much that they’ve blacked out: 24 percent.

Yale’s attitude is part of a new, public-health approach encouraging colleges to take a hard look at student culture. “Much of what we are learning flies in the face of common campus beliefs,” Yale notes.

Administrators are trying to bring people on the decentralized campus together to discuss alcohol problems, enforce rules, and encourage students to seek help. “Previously it was individual students who were helped through counseling services,” says Hannah Rose Peck, director of student life. “Now we’re helping Yale think about this as a community issue.”

The U. of Nebraska at Lincoln relies on a partnership with city officials to curb binge drinking. (Rianna Soukup, Lincoln Journal Star)

U. of Nebraska at Lincoln ‘24/7, 365’

Nebraska is widely considered a model of how to build strong partnerships with local law enforcement, policy makers, and nearby colleges. Such movement was possible there because of a coalition led by the chancellor and Lincoln’s mayor, says Linda Major, director of the university’s Center for Civic Engagement. Even then, she says, “it was five years before our binge-drinking rate dropped below 50 percent.”

Nebraska is precise in its approach, relying heavily on data. Local detoxification centers ask people where they had their last drink, helping officials identify problem bars. Through the local hospitality council, the university promotes peer pressure to stop some of the more outrageous cheap-drink specials. One bar owner had said that any customer who could drink a 13-shot concoction within an hour and then make his way out the door would be rewarded with a T-shirt and his name on the wall. “We sat him in the room with the other business owners and they said knock it off,” recalls Ms. Major. “And he did.”

The police now use a noise ordinance to crack down on landlords who tolerate wild parties. And on both local and state levels, administrators have successfully lobbied for laws and regulations to help reduce underage and unsafe drinking.

Coordination and technology are crucial, Ms. Major says, in focusing time and attention on trouble spots. “It’s really hard to keep that level of activity that we had in our early days of work. We were at it 24/7, 365.”

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