One irony about the problem of dangerous drinking among Penn State students is that it can be either a wedge dividing town and gown or a common cause that binds our community as one.
It is easier to assign blame than to find solutions, and simpler still to think there is nothing more we can do. The actual complexity and subtlety of the issue are easily overlooked in favor of either a simplified “Animal House” worldview or the complaint that too little is being done.
But nothing is gained from pointing fingers or oversimplifying an endlessly vexing problem. We must choose instead to join together — town and gown, permanent residents and students, police and landlords, neighborhood associations and fraternity alumni, hospital administrators and tavern owners, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and local schools — one community drawn together by the single purpose of finding a more reasonable and civil relationship between our community and alcohol.
We must choose to partner rather than blame, to persist rather than surrender, to honor students lost to alcohol by aggressively seeking better outcomes in the months and years ahead.
To this cause we invite each of you, and we are grateful for the CDT’s willingness to devote its editorial page to this purpose. The opportunity for our community to join in an ongoing, constructive dialogue about better approaches to the problems related to alcohol is important.
Those problems are not limited to Penn State students, of course. In fact, nearly half of all arrests for alcohol-related crimes in our community involve non-students. Drinking is pursued even in our middle school populations, and binge drinking occurs among too many permanent residents in our community. Still, the high profile of alcohol issues involving Penn State students attracts more than its share of attention, and the data suggest that this attention is deserved.
We lead a group called The Partnership: Campus and Community United Against Dangerous Drinking. For more than a decade, this collection of university and local leaders has pooled its resources and insights in search of initiatives aimed at mitigating dangerous drinking in our community. The group has not yet seen the success it seeks, but as a model for a collective effort to stem the tide of alcohol misuse, it has few peers. There should be no question about the good intent and genuine effort this group has long represented.
Among the partnership’s contributions has been an annual report on its assessment of the alcohol problem in our community. The numbers in the most recent report are not promising. Heavy drinking among Penn State students is on the rise. Alcohol-related emergency room visits by students are increasing, and the average blood-alcohol level of those students is up. The number of student alcohol- related law violations has increased in three of the past four years, as has the number of alcohol- related cases processed by the campus judicial system.
Curiously, other important and seemingly related numbers have not demonstrated comparable increases. These numbers include noise complaints in the borough, assaults and arrests for furnishing alcohol to minors. Even self-reported, high-risk drinking among Penn State students has declined significantly since 2006.
In short, the problem of dangerous drinking in our community is real and increasingly troubling, but the growing perception that the issue is suddenly and unusually out of control is a misperception. The same can be said for the sense that the situation in State College is somehow unusual or even unique. It does not minimize the gravity of the issue in our community to acknowledge that this is a national problem, one that is found in virtually every major college campus community in the country.
As it happens, for instance, we both graduated from another Big Ten school — Indiana University, which in 2002 was named by the Princeton Review as the Party School of the Year. Our longstanding familiarity with the small town of Bloomington and its large university campus assures us that the circumstances in State College are far from unusual.
And therein lies the darkest truth. Despite limited claims of success with this issue by some, most notably the University of Nebraska, there is little empirical evidence that the decades-long efforts to minimize alcohol abuse among college students are working. Despite spending millions of dollars on hundreds of initiatives, nearly every university community acknowledges that dangerous drinking among students remains a growth industry.
Penn State is widely recognized as an early leader in calls to change the culture of alcohol among college students. But our community suffers from these issues despite the university’s substantial and ongoing efforts to address them.
Further complicating the search for solutions are the obvious differences between a campus with 23,000 students in a town of nearly a quarter million people — Lincoln, Neb., for instance — and a 45,000-student campus in a town with only 38,000 permanent residents — our own State College. Throw into that mix differences in the location and design of student housing, including fraternities and large apartment complexes, and you begin to see that differences matter.
What may work for one community is not necessarily going to work for another. Each situation serves up its own distinctive challenges. Comparison in this arena is often less fruitful than it may seem.
We may learn from others and steal good ideas where we find them, but the solution to our problem must, in the end, be uniquely our own. Still, there is much we could do and even more we should consider. With that in mind, we are reaching out to the many constituencies that constitute our community to invite their collaboration in the cause. Starting with student leaders and the students they lead and working our way to faculty, staff, parents, tavern owners, alumni, athletic administrators, media outlets, and on and on, we hope to enlist as many people as we can to this common purpose.
The first order of business is to define the success we seek and identify the metrics to be used to measure our progress. Should our focus be underage drinking or high risk drinking or both? Would increased caseloads in our respective judicial systems be seen as evidence of a growing problem or proof of a stronger response to the problem? Would greater use of emergency medical services for alcohol issues be seen simply as a negative development or as evidence of better recognition of critical situations and more responsible action in the face of them?
Such questions are many and are not easily answered, but neither can they be ignored. They speak to the complexity of the issue we face and the need to face it as one.
Minimally, our community should be able to answer the question: What would success look like? It is not clear that we have consensus on that point. Until we do, however, little additional progress will be made.
One thing is certain, though. More of the same will only promise continued disappointment or worse. We must be open to new approaches, willing to reconsider controversial proposals and quick to recognize repackaged versions of previously failed attempts.
A solution that truly mitigates the problem and sustains a more reasonable and civil culture in our community will require sustained effort. There will surely be more disappointment, loss and tragedy along the way. Patience is required — patience and mutual support and a willingness to accept incremental progress. Cultural changes are slow. Like eating an elephant, they occur one bite at a time.
It is important to note that simply because too many of our students share with others in our community an unhealthy relationship with alcohol does not make our students the problem. Those who may suffer the inclination to do so must resist the temptation to paint Penn State students in such broad strokes. But neither does their status as students grant those attending Penn State the freedom to exercise without consequence misplaced notions about rites of passage. Binge drinking and the incivility and risks that flow from it do not constitute a right, and the consequences for related misbehavior must be plain.
In the end, however, this issue presents a question of choice and personal responsibility. As members of the Penn State family, our students are responsible for themselves and responsible for each other. They must join together in building a successful learning community one choice at a time.
Those of us who are permanent residents of our community must be encouraged to move away from an us versus them dynamic, recognizing instead that it is our students who will ultimately make the personal choices that decide whether our community succeeds or fails on this front. After all, few among us are present in the wee hours of a night when the choice is made to have just one more drink, or buy a case of beer for a minor friend, or urinate in the yard in which one is standing, or let a friend climb behind the steering wheel when he or she clearly should not. It is in the community of friends and other peers that these choices are made, and those communities must establish and enforce, either formally or informally, expectations that discourage peers from bad choices.
The challenge we ask all of you to join will not be easy or brief. Nor are we certain of success. We are, however, optimistic that our community — a collection of permanent residents and students alike — has reached a tipping point in its relationship with alcohol. A student’s tragic death, disturbances in the Highlands neighborhood, the party school moniker — these elements and more have combined to propel the collaboration and common purpose we require if change is to occur.
Laws, rules, policies and enforcement may be part of the answer, but not all of it. Education will certainly be important, but education alone has proven inadequate to the cause. Counseling in certain instances will be critical, but resource limitations challenge our ability to scale personalized intervention to all of our students. Social marketing that promotes new attitudes and understanding may help, but only in concert with many other elements. More diverse social and cultural offerings in our downtown area must be sought, but for all their appeal they will not be the central solution.
In short, there is no single magic answer, no narrow collection of responses that will lead us to the end we seek. The causes are many, and the solutions must be many, too. Still, it has been said that no problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking and collective action. We ask only that you join us in that belief.
Damon Sims is vice president for student affairs at Penn State. Tom Fountaine is State College borough manager. This is the first of weekly columns and letters on this topic.