Culture Change Needed on Alcohol

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Alumni can set an example of moderation.

By Judith Rodin

ALCOHOL abuse is a major concern at colleges and universities nationwide. Several institutions have suffered the deaths of students from alcohol poisoning, and alcohol-related violence is increasingly common. A 1997 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found a significant increase over the past several years in the number of students who drink excessively and frequently; a significant increase in the number of students who drink to get drunk; a disturbing increase in arguments, injuries and property damage among students who drink; and increased instances of disruption (including in studying and sleeping) in the lives of non-drinkers by students who drink.
    Against this background, as the May/June Gazette reported, March 21 was a sad and solemn day for the family and friends of Michael Tobin C’94 and for Penn. Michael Tobin died in a tragic alcohol-related incident at a fraternity house, and the full gravity of alcohol abuse tore at the very heart of our University. With student emotions running high in the wake of Michael’s death, Provost Robert Barchi and I decided to impose a temporary suspension on the use of alcohol at registered undergraduate parties so that the University could take a collective breath and seriously reflect on the issue. Now, as I will explain further, we look to the entire Penn community, including our alumni, to help stem alcohol abuse on our campus.
    We announced the suspension only after two years of consultation with students and others in a serious effort to arrive at alternative solutions. Unfortunately, as Michael Tobin’s death and other alcohol-related incidents made too clear, more action was still required.
    At the same time as we announced the suspension, we formed a student-faculty-administration Working Group on Alcohol Abuse to give new and urgent consideration to long-term strategies that could more successfully curb misuse of alcohol among Penn undergraduates. Chaired by the provost, the working group of 15 student leaders (including the presidents of the Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils, representatives from the Undergraduate Assembly and the College Houses, and a co-captain of the basketball team) and seven faculty and administrators met intensively over five weeks. The wisdom and dedication of the group–particularly the students, who showed remarkable leadership and maturity even in the face of peer pressure–was most impressive.
    Equally impressive is their thoughtful and thorough product, which is published in full in these pages (see below). The working group struggled with difficult issues and long-held attitudes about drinking. They wrestled with how to diminish what is, in their words, “the sense of entitlement” that even legally underage students feel toward alcohol. Accomplishing this, the working group stressed, will require a large cultural change.
    To that end, the recommendations wisely suggest a comprehensive approach to alcohol abuse. Under the guiding principles of health and safety, the recommendations advocate increased health education; strict compliance with the law; ensuring a supportive environment for students; personal and collective responsibility and accountability; new ways to minimize the risk of alcohol abuse; and creating expanded social options that are seen not as “alternatives” to drinking, but as truly appealing.
    The overarching objectives of the recommendations were captured articulately in an editorial in The Daily Pennsylvanian: “We applaud the balance struck by the committee between two oft-contradictory imperatives–preserving the health and safety of students and complying with applicable laws and regulations–within the context of a third principle: that students are and ought to be responsible for their own actions.”
    I urge you to read the recommendations in their entirety and to share your thoughts on them. Our intention is to begin implementation by September. I am confident that the recommendations can create a significant change in campus culture.
    Fellow alumni, this is where your leadership is truly important. When the working group presented its recommendations to me, the student members emphasized that a change in campus culture–in the way the Penn community thinks about and uses alcohol–is crucial to effecting and sustaining a change among our undergraduates. And they specifically noted the example that alumni set for students today.
    All of us need to think about how much alcohol is and should be part of life at Penn. I do not suggest abstinence, but I do very strongly suggest a need for responsibility. If we are to create real change, we need to infuse our campus culture with a new set of expectations. As alumni, we need to think seriously about how we celebrate Penn and how we can exemplify the responsible use of alcohol at alumni events. Each of us, after all, is a University ambassador.
    Penn alumni set examples as leaders in business, science, the arts, government and a host of other fields the world over. We need to set an example right here at home as well. I encourage all alumni organizations to consider thoughtfully the issues of moderation in the use of alcohol and the need for a culture change at Penn. I welcome your suggestions and would be grateful for your participation in this important effort.
    The students in the Working Group on Alcohol Abuse have given the Penn community a challenge. We must all rise to the occasion.

Final Report of the Working Group on Alcohol Abuse

Recommendations Presented to President Judith Rodin on April 26, 1999 (


The Working Group on Alcohol Abuse was formed by President Judith Rodin and Provost Robert Barchi in response to a number of serious alcohol-related incidents involving Penn students and the death of a Penn alumnus on March 21, 1999. The Working Group of 15 students and 7 faculty members and administrators was charged by President Rodin on March 30, 1999. The President asked the group to develop practical, substantive recommendations regarding alcohol abuse among Penn undergraduates on both individual and community levels.

The Working Group and its subcommittees met intensively for five weeks. Its members determined that their work should focus on alcohol abuse, not use, and that their goal would be to produce recommendations that would effect significant cultural change among Penn undergraduates. They agreed that the University already has in place reasonable regulations governing appropriate use of alcohol on campus but that the current system of enforcement presents a number of problems, which perpetuate a sense of entitlement felt by Penn students and lead to additional problems. The Group concluded that stricter enforcement of current policies is needed, designed with the intention of creating a change in attitudes regarding acceptable behavior. Consistency should be the ultimate aim; uncertainty regarding what is acceptable and what is not contributes to the problems associated with alcohol abuse and with problematic behavior that often results from excessive drinking.

The Group quickly determined that the problem of alcohol abuse is not confined to the Greek system and that a more comprehensive approach to the problem is necessary. The Working Group strongly agreed that the primary responsibility for changing perceptions, misperceptions and, ultimately, behavior relating to alcohol abuse rests with individual students and student groups. The Working Group considered ways to prevent alcohol abuse in the context of Education; Ensuring a Supportive Environment; Responsibility/Accountability; Minimizing Risk; and Expanded Social Options. The Working Group strongly agreed that its recommendations should be proactive rather than punitive.


Health education is a crucial part of a successful strategy to prevent alcohol abuse. Education eradicates misperceptions about alcohol use among peers, creates opportunities for open, honest dialogue about alcohol use and abuse, and is critical to creating a change in campus culture. Recommended approaches to health education are to:

1. Establish effective primary and secondary prevention methods. Primary refers to those efforts that are designed to reach individuals/groups before they engage in “at-risk” behaviors. Secondary refers to those efforts that are designed to reach individuals/groups after they have engaged in “at-risk” behaviors, but before a pattern of usage has developed.

2. Ensure that every Penn student and parent or guardian receives alcohol health education from multiple sources when students are pre-freshmen (e.g., send the Alcohol 101 CD-ROM the summer before they arrive at Penn), during New Student Orientation (e.g., follow up with group discussions of the Alcohol 101 CD), and in each year of their undergraduate education.

3. Create more opportunities for students to “Speak Out” if they have had adverse experiences with alcohol abuse and want to share those experiences with their peers in public meetings, through websites and in other formats.

4. Create a student-driven social marketing campaign to correct student misperceptions about alcohol use and abuse, based on a survey of prior experiences at peer institutions.

5. Identify all existing University areas where alcohol education takes place, effectively market those areas, and ensure that those areas collaborate as appropriate.

6. Develop “Healthlinks” as a liaison to health services and information as part of the WHEEL program in the College Houses.

7. Create opportunities for curricular integration of alcohol issues in each of the undergraduate schools.

8. Support increased peer education efforts through DART and similar organizations, and expand initiatives such as the Greek Alcohol Education program to other student organizations.

9. Provide additional resources and/or personnel for the Office of Health Education.

10. Utilize available resources like the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, which provide support for campuses throughout the country.

11. Establish Penn 101 as a freshman seminar. Penn 101 would provide an innovative approach to dealing with the freshman experience in a practical, discussion-oriented setting, as well as with formulaic scholarly discussion of relevant topics like alcohol and other drug use/abuse. Undergraduate social mentors would act as teaching assistants to faculty members and facilitate conversation through a group listserv prior to the students’ arrival at Penn.

Ensuring a Supportive Environment

In order to inspire cultural change that will help reduce alcohol abuse, students must feel that they are supported by the University, are encouraged to take responsible actions and are understood to be critical stakeholders in the consultative process. Recommendations to achieve that end include:

1. A student seeking alcohol-related medical assistance and/or a friend that accompanies him/her should not receive a citation. In addition, to ensure that students will not hesitate to seek medical assistance when necessary, the University policy must be clearly written and well publicized.

The Alcohol and Drug policy from The Pennbook page 23, section C, should be modified as follows:

“In cases of intoxication and/or alcohol poisoning, the primary concern is the health and safety of the individual(s) involved. Individuals are strongly encouraged to call for medical assistance for themselves or for a friend/acquaintance who is dangerously intoxicated. No student seeking medical treatment for an alcohol or other drug-related overdose will be subject to University discipline for the sole violation of using or possessing alcohol or drugs. This policy shall extend to another student seeking help for the intoxicated student.”

2. To consolidate the education, counseling, and treatment of alcohol related issues, the position of Alcohol Coordinator should be created. This position should provide a confidential source to address all areas of concern related to alcohol and other drugs, to integrate policy and to enhance approaches to student education and treatment of alcohol-related problems. The Coordinator should also consult with the University police, discipline officers, HUP’s ER, Student Health and CAPS about the effective integration of relevant policies, enforcement and education.

3. The role of faculty and staff must be reevaluated to ensure the student/faculty/staff relationship is not jeopardized. The primary responsibility of faculty and staff should be toward helping students rather than policing them, specifically in alcohol related situations. Our College Houses, as well as our classrooms, must allow flexible solutions that will not compromise faculty, staff and student relationships.

4. A standing Alcohol Rapid Response Team should be constituted to advise the President and Provost on outstanding aspects of implementation that remain, with issues of interpretation of intent, and with any urgent, new issues related to alcohol abuse as they may arise. The Alcohol Rapid Response Team may coordinate its efforts or seek advice from the existing University Alcohol and Other Drug Task Force and from other relevant constituencies as appropriate.

Responsibility and Accountability

Individual Responsibility and Accountability

With the understanding that alcohol education will be ongoing, and that forums encouraging dialogue among Penn students will be more available and more widely attended, the University must reinforce its commitment to the following:

1. Recognition that the primary concern in this area, as in all others, is for the health and welfare of our students and the University community.

2. Acceptance and enforcement of University regulations regarding alcohol use on campus and support for full enforcement of local, state and federal regulations on and off-campus.

3. Assurance that violations of these regulations will result in adverse consequences consistent with policies of the University and its disciplinary processes. The University will also support enforcement of all relevant local, state and federal laws.

4. Adverse consequences will be consistent and specific and should appropriately escalate for students who repeatedly violate University regulations.

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