University presidents wield their influence in the areas that matter most to their institutions. This can include academic direction, fiscal and resource decisions, and any number of other areas that have a strong effect on their institutions.
And yet, at the same time, many presidents and other campus leaders feel there is no way to influence the culture of high-risk drinking among our students. For various reasons, many seem to view this culture as an intractable by-product of college life.
I am here to say this impression is wrong, and that it is our leaders who will make the difference in changing this culture.
National data demonstrate the problem:
- Between 40 percent and 45 percent of college students drank to excess (five drinks or more in a row) at least once in the previous two weeks.
- Approximately 1,825 college students between ages 18 and 24 die each year because of alcohol-related activity, according to the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
- Alcohol consumption increases in the first six weeks of college. Students who already drink begin to drink more, and those who didn’t drink before college start drinking. Statistically speaking, young people in college drink more than their peers who do not attend college.
As I talk to my colleagues about binge drinking on their campuses, several of the same responses often come up, which I will paraphrase here:
- There is nothing we can do to stop it. It is part of the college culture.
- This is a student affairs issue. There is no reason to get faculty or community involved.
- Our alumni will rebel and cut off their giving if we change their beloved traditions.
Myths build on other myths, but those assumptions are not only false, they are dangerous. It is our responsibility as presidents to do all we can to save our students’ lives and futures.
In my first month at Frostburg state University (FSU) in 2006, I was presented with an alcohol-fueled tragedy. From then on, I knew we would need to make intentional efforts to address the dangers high-risk drinking posed to our students.
I created the Alcohol Task Force, a wide-ranging body that has given shape and momentum to Frostburg’s fight against the problematic culture of student alcohol abuse. The task force has evolved into a community coalition that engages many different people and groups, including students, faculty, community members, law enforcement officials, and business owners. All have different opinions on the issue, but fundamentally agree on the goal of keeping students safe.
Since the tragedy, we have created and implemented several policies and practices that have shown to be quite effective, both at Frostburg and in national research. We achieved these not with a large infusion of cash, but with an institutional shift in priorities and tactics.
Here are the results: According to the core survey, administered at Frostburg every three years since 1997, the number of Frostburg students who reported binge drinking within the previous two weeks fell from 59 percent in 1997 to 43 percent (the national average) in 2009, with the most dramatic decline between 2006 and 2009.
Likewise, more students are drinking less or not at all. In 1997, 90 percent of students had consumed alcohol at least once in the month before the survey, but in 2009 that number was 69.5 percent. Those who did drink are drinking less, down from an average of 9.5 drinks consumed in a week to 5.2 drinks.
Feedback we receive from other instruments, including AlcoholEdu and the National College Health Assessment, gives us hope that these data will continue to improve. Our AlcoholEdu results even indicate we are attracting more students to Frostburg who don’t drink at all, rising from 40 percent of freshmen in 2004 to 56 percent in 2010.
As for the reaction of our alumni, I offer this evidence: At the same time we ramped up our efforts to curb problem drinking, our FSU Foundation launched the public phase of a $15 million campaign. When the campaign closed this June, we had surpassed our fundraising goal by $1.7 million. And last year’s homecoming weekend brought a record number of alumni to campus, including many who were returning for the first time in years.
I have seen firsthand Frostburg’s success using proven prevention strategies, and I have committed myself and my institution to sharing what we have learned.
That is why I recently committed Frostburg to the national college health improvement Project’s Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking. This project provides a platform for member institutions to share what is working on our campuses, efforts that are dramatically expanding the pool of research-based strategies to address the problem. I also accepted the invitation to join the NIAAA College Presidents Working Group to encourage my fellow college and university presidents to act. Those who work for me tell me that my leadership makes them feel more empowered to act.
I urge my colleagues not to accept this myth. I challenge you to be courageous. Your leadership truly matters, and your students’ lives and well-being depend on it.
Jonathan C. Gibralter is president of Frostburg State University in Frostburg, MD.