Presidential Task Force on Alcohol Abuse
To: The Campus Community
From: Randy Helm
CC: Trustees, Associate Trustees, Observers
Re: Presidential Task Force on Alcohol Abuse
Last Spring I appointed a Task Force to study alcohol abuse on our campus and recommend ways in which we could address this nationwide issue more effectively at Muhlenberg. The Task Force (co-chaired by Professor Hemchand Gossai and Counseling Director Anita Kelly and comprised of students, Trustees, alumni, coaches, parents, faculty, and staff) submitted its final report near the end of last semester. This report is below. All of us who love Muhlenberg and care for its future owe these individuals a tremendous debt of gratitude for their hard work, careful deliberations, and wise advice.
I have spent several hours reviewing the report and its recommendations with the President’s Staff, and we will be preparing a written response for the campus community later this spring. Along with that response, I will be consulting with The College Committee on Campus Life about the creation of an ad hoc working group to follow up on a number of the recommendations. We will be sure to keep the campus posted on the progress of this work as it proceeds.
PRESIDENTIAL TASK FORCE ON ALCOHOL ABUSE
Muhlenberg College is committed to providing an intellectually and socially stimulating environment characterized by critical thinking, reason, civility and respect, in order to shape the whole person both within and outside of the classroom. With this as a guide, Muhlenberg College seeks to educate students regarding the responsible use of alcohol and the making of responsible decisions. While Muhlenberg recognizes that the use of alcohol may be a part of the social life of the college student, it supports the choice of students not to drink and actively creates an environment that seeks to stem the abuse of alcohol.
The strength of this Alcohol Task Force is in the diversity of the people and perceptions represented around the table. However, the very diversity that makes the group strong also created difficulties to arrive at universal consensus about the issues surrounding alcohol use and abuse on campus. The Task Force wishes to acknowledge the difficulty of the issue, and the hard work of Campus Safety, the Residence Life staff, and the Dean of Students staff in wrestling with the issue. Given the hours of discussion and debate, and the fact that there never was full consensus reached on at least some of the findings and recommendations, the Task Force felt it necessary to acknowledge that this report represents what appeared to be a majority opinion in most instances, but often not a unanimous opinion. Moreover, given the charge of the Task Force to explore the issue of alcohol use beyond Policy, the Task Force discussed structural and programmatic themes as well. The Task Force further believes that ongoing education in the use of alcohol is essential. Given the variety of circumstances in which alcohol abuse manifests itself, a number of educational opportunities should be made available and accessible to students. Central among these opportunities must be programs that promote peer education.
Because of the somewhat systemic nature of alcohol use and abuse, it is apparent that the possible solutions must also be systemic. It is the nature of academic institutions that the student body is forever changing. Thus, there is an acknowledgement that the recommendations in this report are in no way a permanent panacea. As in all matters of substance regarding the life of Muhlenberg College the issue of alcohol use deserves ongoing attention by all constituencies of the College.
III. Overview and Charge of Task Force on Alcohol Abuse
The Presidential Task Force on Alcohol Abuse was constituted in Spring 2004 by President Randy Helm. With twenty-five members, the Task Force has met ten times to discuss and formulate findings and recommendations. In constituting the Task Force, there is an implicit recognition that the issue of alcohol abuse cannot be understood and attended to, entirely from one perspective. Indeed the challenge is to craft recommendations and institute possible solutions that reflect a community-wide wisdom and commitment. While alcohol abuse at Muhlenberg is hardly an epidemic, it is clear that it is an issue that continues to adversely affect the fabric of the community. From the data that the Task Force has gathered, together with personal experiences of staff members, it is equally clear that within the large percentage of students who use alcohol, there is a vulnerable minority of students on campus. For a variety of reasons this small group of primarily underclass students is unable to maintain a threshold of consumption that does not place them in danger. There is a consensus among Task Force members that the culture regarding drinking at Muhlenberg must be changed in both the short term and the long term. Although there has been a shift in the culture regarding tobacco, students are yet to make a similar shift in their attitudes toward alcohol. A cultural shift takes time, though we must begin at some point and create a new environment.
Included in this report are findings from the following: results from four Focus Groups of students conducted in Spring 2004 by the Council of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, and preliminary results from students who participated in the Alcohol.edu study. The Task Force met with a wide cross section of the Muhlenberg community and has incorporated their insights and suggestions in the discussion.
The Task Force catalogued a number of findings and responses by the College community regarding the nature and extent of abusive drinking on campus, recent trends in abusive drinking at Muhlenberg, and the context in which those trends have developed. The Task Force has also developed recommendations regarding how Muhlenberg’s educational and social programs and alcohol policies may be strengthened and improved in order to create a safer, healthier culture while addressing this problem. Further, the Task Force in acknowledging perceptions that have created a divide among various constituencies on campus recommends a number of ideas for implementation to be more inclusive of the entire Muhlenberg community.
IV. Findings and Results
- 1. There is unanimity among Task Force members that the principal concern of Muhlenberg College is for the welfare, safety and ongoing development of the “whole” student. In this regard, the use and abuse of alcohol is seen as part of the personal maturation of the student.
- 2. An acknowledgement and understanding of the fact that while only a small percentage of students might be described as vulnerable, this group must be attended to, and focused on in particular.
- 3. Based on national studies, e.g. the Harvard School of Public Health study on the use of alcohol on college and university campuses, it is estimated that 40% of students binge drink, with half of this number doing so frequently. While there is no substantiated evidence that this is the percentage at Muhlenberg, there may be as many as 200 - 400 Muhlenberg students who binge drink routinely.
- 4. There is a reported perception among some students that there is inequity in the manner in which athletes are treated for alcohol violations as compared with the rest of the student body. While a range of students have expressed this sentiment, both the Athletic Director and the coaches strongly suggest that this is not true. Coaches and a number of student athletes have expressed the opinion that athletes are treated more thoroughly in terms of consequences, not less. Athletic coaches noted that athletes are more visible on campus and in fact are held to a higher standard of accountability.
- 5. There is a reported perception among some students that they do not understand Muhlenberg’s current alcohol policy and judicial proceedings when there is an alcohol violation. While the policy is in the student handbook, it seems as though few students independently read it. For many students the alcohol policy and the judicial process is an enigma.
- 6. There is a reported perception among some students that the presence of Campus Safety in Residence Halls is routine and this seems to create more of an adversarial relationship with students. Campus Safety leadership has indicated that their presence in Residence Halls is generally requested.
- 7. There is a reported perception among some students that a number of RA’s are proactively seeking out students who might be drinking in their rooms. Under these circumstances the issue of invasion of privacy without due cause is cited. Many RA’s are perceived as executing disciplinary actions in a manner that is personal and arbitrary.
- 8. There is a reported perception among some students that it is difficult to have a fair hearing for an alcohol violation given a perceived conflict of interest between parties who bring charges and those who adjudicate in judicial hearings. Both Campus Safety and the Dean of Students Office have indicated that in fact there is no conflict of interest.
- 9. Both students and staff have expressed concern about the level of alcohol consumption in secrecy by students, thereby raising the specter of more acute danger of alcohol abuse and serious physical consequences. A number of students in particular, have attributed this behavior to two factors. First, there is an increased cultural shift in experiencing the “buzz” of intoxication in a shorter period of time. Second, more and more students are consuming “hard liquor” in secrecy for fear of being caught.
- 10. There is the perception among some students that if a student has an alcohol violation as early as first semester in his/her first year, he/she is likely to be barred from student leadership positions. While some staff members have challenged this assertion, the perception persists among students. There are no established uniform guidelines this regard.
- 11. Given the perception by some students that Muhlenberg’s culture has a punitive quality, students are reluctant to call Campus Safety in the event of a serious alcohol incident for fear of being penalized.
- 12. Members of the Task Force believe that it is necessary to have a cultural shift at Muhlenberg. Among other things it is seen that over time alcohol has come to be viewed as integral and necessary for social gatherings.
- 13. Several staff members from the Task Force spoke to the need for greater Faculty awareness and involvement in the area of student activity. They acknowledged the importance of furnishing Faculty with more information.
- 14. Some staff members on the Task Force suggested that Faculty are in no position to evaluate students’ social lives since they are unavailable to, and absent from students in the evenings when much of the alcohol abuse occurs.
- 15. There is widespread acknowledgement among students and Faculty staff that students begin their drinking on Thursday nights. Thursday night is College Pub Night in the neighborhood pubs. For many students Thursday begins the weekend as there are few classes on Fridays.
B. Task Force Recommendations
Programs and Provisions:
- 1. Hire one additional Alcohol Educator for the Counseling Center to be a liaison between the Counseling Center and the Muhlenberg College community. Presently Muhlenberg College has two full time and two part time counselors, who are working to capacity in terms of their availability to students. There is a need for a counselor to serve as a liaison with different groups, such as Fraternity/Sorority Houses and Athletic teams, as an ongoing resource visiting with these groups and working in partnership.
- 2. Appoint a standing committee that convenes at least twice a semester to evaluate the ongoing function of the various groups that work directly with student abuse of alcohol and the violation of the alcohol policy. This committee should report directly to the President with observations and recommendations.
- 3. Continue to send an annual letter from the President to the parents of incoming first year students informing them of campus alcohol policies, and speak to the culture at Muhlenberg. A number of reports from parents have suggested that acknowledgement of the issues surrounding the use of alcohol, and Muhlenberg’s attention to the issue in the overall development of students, has brought positive and supportive responses.
- 4. Continue focused alcohol education programs during Fall orientation and throughout the Fall semester of the first year. The consensus both among Task Force members and other members of the community is that ongoing educational opportunities that are required have greater force and are likely to be more effective. First year students need to have ongoing sessions to discuss the alcohol policy - its basic tenets, PA State law, the role of Campus Safety and resident advising, and the judicial process when there is an alcohol violation. This should not be a collective session with all first year students in a public lecture; rather, it should be held with students in their residence hall or some other formal designated small group gathering.
- 5. Expand the opportunities for, and promotion of alcohol-free on-campus recreational activities, and publicize such events. Institutional support of student sponsored events that are not focused on alcohol as the principal or central component will begin the process of a cultural shift on campus.
- 6. Have student-planned events off campus contract with a private taxi-service to be available to shuttle students to campus from the site. This is an opportunity for students and staff to work together on a “safe rides” program. This program has been used at other institutions with success. The program should be generated and planned by students. This will inevitably lead to greater ownership by students.
- 7. Have a course development grant that encourages faculty to focus on alcohol abuse in their course curricula. More specifically, the grant would encourage faculty to broaden and deepen our institutional commitment to notions of health education, alcohol awareness, public health, service learning, and is concomitant with existing College initiatives (e.g., Center for Ethics, Mellon grant for service learning, Faculty Center for Teaching).
- 8. Continue the program started in the Principles of Fitness and Wellness Classes this semester in that all first year students will take the online Alcohol.edu course in the first six weeks of the semester. In addition to the online course, the syllabus will include lectures and discussions on choices and decision making regarding alcohol, binge drinking and alcohol poisoning, sexual assault, the judicial process, and any other topic relevant to first year students. The new design of this course is working very well and is able to reach 95% on all first year students in the fall semester. This can become the foundation for all other future programming.
- 9. Have ongoing/sustained training and continuing education for staff members who are directly involved in student activities. Staff members who work closely with students should regularly participate in continuing education programs, as it appears that ideas and programs regarding the use and abuse of alcohol on college campuses are continuously evolving.
- 10. Create physical location on campus for students in alcohol recovery to gather for support and belonging. This would allow students who are in recovery to gather in a “safe” place where others will serve as resource and support. The idea is not to isolate or set students in recovery apart, but rather to have a place of belonging, where it is understood that alcohol will never be a factor.
- 11. Continue to explore the feasibility of a campus venue where students of “drinking age” might gather on Friday and Saturday nights for social gatherings in a BYOB environment. This would be an opportunity for students to work in partnership with staff to create a place on campus to legally and openly gather.
- 12. Make greater use of Bear Security, or some other independent security agency, at BYOB events and other events (such as 100 Days) in order to assist staff with managing the events. Publicize in advance that students who arrive inebriated will not be allowed to participate (and have the outside agency enforce the policy).
- 13. Establish a dialogue with pub owners in the neighborhood and work together in shared responsibility for alcohol use and abuse. One of the immediate issues in the dialogue should be pub owners and other patrons publicly make it known that they will not serve underage students. Publicize this relationship so that students are aware that the concern is community-wide.
- 14. Have students establish guidelines/expectations for their own social events - within the context of the College’s alcohol policy. All planned gatherings of students in which alcohol is served must have guidelines. If Muhlenberg staff is to be involved, the role and function of staff must be explicitly and clearly delineated. As it is presently, the staff’s role in social events planned by Seniors (e.g. 100 days, 50 days parties) is ambiguous and staff seems ill prepared under these circumstances, to function consistently and effectively.
- 15. Encourage coaches and advisors to other student clubs and organizations to speak with the students in their organization(s) about coach/advisor expectations relative to alcohol and drug use. Coaches and advisors should view their role as that of educator and work to establish a culture of positive campus citizenship and responsibility among the students in their respective organization(s). Part of this culture should be to actively discourage alcohol and drug abuse among members of the organization(s).
- 16. Develop a standard system for reporting and recording alcohol-related incidents so that the effectiveness of Muhlenberg’s efforts can be evaluated, and thus ensure that the system of adjudication is transparent. Establish and publicize a flow chart of authority for how alcohol violations are heard and adjudicated. For students this is a central area of concern in terms of a fair adjudication. Most students involved in an alcohol related infraction do not believe that they will get due process, since the office bringing the charge is directly connected with the office in charge of the judicial process. In this regard there should be a review by an external body to determine if the present model at Muhlenberg best suits the needs of the College.
- 17. Establish and maintain effort in the selection and training of RA’s more as mentors and floor counselors rather than as policy enforcers. RA selection and training is a critical component in reshaping the culture of residential life. This will serve in a preliminary way in alleviating the perception that RA’s are for the most part an extension of Campus Safety. Moreover, there must be ongoing evaluation of the RA’s, in particular to address any complaints or perceptions that arise. An examination of resident advisor training sessions reveals that there are many more elements to an RA job that relate to community development, rather than “enforcement” and “college policy”. Having sessions lead by administrators who have different investments in community development may allow resident advisors to be stronger leaders within their communities and not be perceived as merely policing student resident halls looking for violations to the alcohol policy.
- 18. Establish training programs for Campus Safety officers to ensure consistency in application of actions between the different shifts. Uniform guidelines should be established for all officers.
- 19. Involve students, faculty and staff in gathering data annually from among Muhlenberg students regarding their drinking habits. The partnership between students, faculty and staff working on a project that focuses on students’ health and welfare will generate greater credibility among students.
- 20. There was a consensus on the Task Force that the college should continue to involve parents in some meaningful way regarding the issue of alcohol abuse on campus. The nature of the parental involvement however, is open to further discussion. Certainly the 1998 amendment to FERPA allows colleges greater discretion and flexibility in involving parents in such matters.
- 21. Staff and administrative offices who employ students or have student volunteers should craft a uniform policy with regard to students who have alcohol violations. As it is, there are inconsistencies and the perception that one alcohol violation even as a first year student will disqualify a student from eligibility to hold positions of student leadership.
- 22. The Task Force explored the possibility of an Amnesty component in the report, but instead recommends the following. First, the college should closely monitor the progress and development of the other programs and policies recommended in the report, to discern whether the potential success of the recommendations would diminish or even eliminate the need for an Amnesty program. Second, explore models of Amnesty programs at other colleges and universities and study the manner in which these have been instituted.
- 23. Encourage personnel to travel to other institutions and have conversations and conduct interviews with students and staff regarding the manner in which their alcohol policy works. These visits will also provide an opportunity to explore the issue of perceptions among students.