Obtuse policies impair student awareness

May 3, 2010 

Picture this: you're a first-year college student spending time with friends on a Friday night. Your room has Christmas lights, a stereo and some vodka — when a sudden rapping at the door ruins everything.

Knock, knock. What began as a promising evening evaporates as you subsequently receive a citation for underage consumption of alcohol. Your companions storm off, irascible, while you, riled and frustrated, wonder what consequences you now face.

Questions pervade your mind (“Will this appear on my transcript; will my parents find out?”) and, heading to your laptop, you seek answers.

There’s just one problem. When you attempt to navigate the university’s Judicial Affairs website, you encounter a circuitous interface, roundabout links and several lengthy documents, but little helpful information.

It’s not that resolutions aren’t there; a policy concerning alcohol violations certainly exists. Unfortunately, every article you find appears neither cogent nor accessible and, eventually, you concede defeat. Ultimately, your concern fades.

Such an issue of clarification currently impedes Penn State students from truly acknowledging the restrictions and potential repercussions that the university’s alcohol policy dictates. For example, not only does the university’s Judicial Affairs website, www.sa.psu.edu/ ja, distinguish the policy itself from “sanctioning guidelines,” but the latter section is in the form of a 30-page PDF.

If a student wants to learn the specific ramifications of a dormitory citation, moreover, he or she would have to consult a separate set of guidelines for residence halls, which constitutes another protracted file of 36 pages.

Beyond an oblique website, the university also employs a generic, impersonal program to educate incoming students about alcohol use (and abuse) and fails to use its technological resources to augment awareness of its alcohol policy.

Although legal ignorance does not exclusively stimulate excessive consumption of alcohol, it seems that increasing the availability of the policy would ameliorate its familiarity and therein hold students more accountable for any contraventions. By formulating and publicizing lucid and comprehensive guidelines, therefore, Penn State may effectively reduce high-risk college drinking.

Elucidation is foremost fundamental for reform. Considering the extent of the university’s current predicament — more than 80 percent of students reportedly consume alcohol (not to mention the annual State Patty’s debacle) — it would be apt to assign more credence to its policy and sanctioning guidelines for alcohol alone.

Thus the creation of a unified, organized document that details regulations, consequences and multiple contexts (incidents in and out of residence halls) specifically for alcohol use would enrich not only the policy’s accessibility and relevance for students, but also its visibility. Penn State could then distribute this document (or advertise its general tenor) through various media, including posters, listservs and especially a first-year student handbook.

The comprehensive policy, moreover, could improve the university’s subpar alcohol education program and technological resources. Although AlcoholEdu, an online initiation to the “dos and don’ts” of drinking that incoming first-year students must complete, currently derives support from a triennial, $100,000 grant, its scientific and laissez-faire approach has not elicited statistically significant change.

Not only are other programs available and more tailorable to university students, wherein the university could insert a lucid policy, but one program, eCheckup To Go, costs substantially less ($975 a year) and would allow the university more funds once the grant period ends.

Finally, if Penn State were to supplement eLion, its online portal for scheduling courses and paying bills, with a Judicial Affairs report, students would constantly remain aware of their discipline record. The university could institute a color-coded banner system, changing from green to yellow or red, to indicate the severity of that record and visually notify students of any change in their judicial standing.

Overall, improving both the format and employment of Penn State’s alcohol policy arguably would reduce high-risk college drinking by increasing students’ knowledge of possible repercussions for their decisions.

Awareness in such an exhaustive matter is crucial, so let’s be clear: Through effective clarification and publication, the university can facilitate a more efficient environment than currently exists, one in which not conjecture prevails, but certainty.

Stéfan P. Orzech, of Lancaster, is majoring in comparative literature and English with minors in French and Latin. Readers can contact students in the Presidential Leadership Academy at hrcdpla@gmail.com.

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