Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Accepting Alcohol

Alcohol use on college campuses continues to be a challenge for me intellectually.  As I wrote here a while back, I honestly just don’t know what to say or do about this issue sometimes.

Students: you often want university administrators to see it from your perspective.  You claim that it’s unrealistic to expect college students not to drink alcohol.  Also, it’s a fool’s errand, you believe, for administrators to expect you to follow risk management guidelines, such as BYOB and guest lists.  In the world you live in, everyone is drinking and partying without policies, and it’s stupid for administrators to believe otherwise.  It’s like the speed limit.  People routinely go 5-10 mph over the limit and the highway patrol gives them a pass.  Alcohol and parties should be policed in the same way, right?

Some speakers and educators have joined in on asking administrators to simply accept that students are going to drink. I read a promotion for a Campuspeak Program entitled “Three things that administrators need to know about college drinking,” which makes some interesting points but argues that administrators should stop policing.   Basically, we should accept that students are going to drink and actively make sure they wake up with nothing worse than a hangover.  They’re going to get plastered anyway, so just make sure they are safe during and after.  Cynical stuff.

But, there is a reality to these sentiments, which is why they should not be dismissed.  Besides speeding, underage drinking is probably to most violated law in the country.  I don’t disagree that college students tend to react negatively to authority figures telling them not to do something.  I remember telling undergraduates not to drink until they’re 21, and receiving snickers and grins in reply. 

So where does this leave higher education?  Students and their “college kids are gonna drink” advocates want administrators to see it from their perspective.  Let’s take a minute to see the other side of the coin.

University administrators – many of them being state employees – lose their integrity if they ignore state law or create programs that make it easier for underage students to break state law.  Taxpayers, lawmakers, and even Joe Citizen, expect that institutions like colleges and universities won’t make up their own rules.  No university administrator would want to sit in front of a hearing and justify their actions with “well, your honor, they were just going to drink anyway!”

The 21-year-old drinking age is the law.  I think it should be lowered, but until that happens, why do we think colleges and universities are entitled to their own bubble?

Secondly, most university administrators I know, including myself when I was in that role, do not think it’s our job to create programs or policies that allow students to justify idiotic decisions.   “Don’t make us host events at bars or third-party vendors because that means we’ll have to pre-game and drink a case of beer before we go out!”  Or worse: “Not letting us have parties in our house will lead us to drink and drive!”  Really?  So, administrators need to change the rules to keep you from making a choice a 10-year-old would know is dumb.  Raise your game.

Lastly, many administrators are courageously clinging to the notion that colleges and universities are academic institutions that serve a societal purpose of preparing the nation’s next wave of productive citizens and leaders.  Alcohol (at least the way students engage with it today) is not a friend to that mission.  The college mission, purpose, and environment should not bend to the will of alcohol.  Sure – if the primary function of higher education was to create a safe place to booze it up each Tuesday night, then 8:00am classes probably shouldn’t exist and your tuition dollars should fund late night drunk buses.


The article referenced above also argues that using campus police to quell alcohol use makes it worse.  Yeah – I’ve seen that happen.  But remember that the campus police do not exist and are not deployed to stop drinking, but rather to protect the interests of those students who are using the college experience for its intended purpose. 

So, where does this leave us?  Where do the voices of the students and the voices of the administrators find common ground?

How about here: Students can expect administrators to remember their core function as student development specialists, which means they have a duty to educate students on the dangers of alcohol, and to inspire them to make safe and legal decisions.  Also, it means they will give students opportunities to learn from their mistakes.  Education and prevention strategies have been in place for decades, and will continue to be important. 

In return, administrators can expect students to be intelligent enough to know what the law is, to know that drinking can lead to all manners of consequences ranging from eating too many late-night tacos to death, and to understand that illegal behavior must be taken seriously by those who lead any institution.  Administrators cannot abdicate their responsibilities.  In other words, students should start accepting responsibility and stop asking administrators to turn their backs.

So yes – college administrators know that underage drinking happens.  They are aware that alcohol is a challenge for higher education.  You may want them to just give up, and surrender to this overpowering issue.  
College kids are gonna drink.  Let’s just accept that fact.  There are many honest reasons why administrators can’t.  And many important reasons why they shouldn’t.