Since I was an undergrad in the early 1990s, Penn State has force fed "responsible drinking" by punishing select groups — first banning the Phi Psi 500 and then banning kegs at fraternities.
A keg ban at Beaver Stadium followed and more recently, consumption of alcohol in the parking lot during the games was also banned.
We went from a situation where students controlled the consumption of alcohol at fraternities and tailgates, to a scenario where anyone who brought their own alcohol could “party” at the fraternities and underage drinking at tailgates became a game of “hide and seek.”
The fraternity parties were huge, but the Interfraternity Council had the authority to fine and/or shut them down for underage drinking, excessive noise, fights, etc. Fraternity officers were required to attend and inspect other fraternity parties.
Sure there was corruption and students were hesitant to drop the hammer on other fraternities for fear of retribution, but the process established that there was a definite limit to acceptable fraternity behavior.
To get a beer at these “frat parties,” you had to wade through a sea of people with an empty 8- ounce plastic cup and a hand stamp that said you were 21.
When Penn State banned keg parties at the fraternities in 1991, the university instituted a policy of BYOB — anyone who was 21 could bring a 12-pack of 16-ounce beers.
The unintended consequence was that Penn State effectively took enforcement away from the IFC and the fraternity. Allowing an individual to carry 192 ounces of beer into a “frat party” as an alternative to kegs was incredible.
Penn State has spent more than two decades flailing against “excessive drinking” with prescriptive policies to stop students from
abusing alcohol. The bottom line is that we’ve only succeeded in creating an entrenched environment where the students feel little responsibility to police their own. We have failed to educate our student body on the expectations and social norms of our community because we insist on treating them like children.
And it’s our fault. If we would never allow a student to graduate from Penn State while failing a required course, then why are we allowing students to fail the requirements of life with little consequence to graduation?
As a leader of Marines, every Friday I gave a “liberty brief” prior to the weekend. Recently, I said, “Do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. If you are underage, don’t drink. If you are of age, drink responsibly, and don’t drink and drive.”
The last thing I told them was this: “If you do something stupid that gets you killed, your family will receive a folded flag; if you do something stupid that kills someone else, you’ll spend the rest of your life paying for it. Nothing that you could possibly do this weekend is worth that kind of tragedy. Have fun, but be smart and take care of each other.”
Changing the culture of excessive drinking is not something Old Main can ever accomplish. Just like the Marines, you have to address these issues at the lowest level possible. If professors, coaches, counselors and mentors don’t take the initiative to educate their own students, we won’t accomplish anything.
Talk to your students, treat them like adults and hold them accountable when they falter; they will graduate from Penn State as people possessing great potential.
If you keep passing the buck to the administration and let them do nothing more than issue edicts of prescribed behavior and keep rubber stamping their education, we’ll graduate professionals inept at succeeding in the job of life.
We are the educators. We are Penn State. It is our responsibility to ensure “success with honor.”
Mike Hendrickson, a State College native and 1996 graduate of Penn State, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He returned to Penn State's Applied Research Lab in 2006 after leaving the active duty Marine Corps. He is an Afghanistan veteran and currently serves in the Marine Corps reserve as the assistant operations officer of 3rd Battalion, 25th Marines in Brook Park, Ohio.