College convenes to discuss alcohol policy

By Middlebury Campus

Around 200 students packed into the McCullough Social Space on Tuesday night, May 3 for the open student forum “Alcohol: Use, Abuse, and Disrespect for Community.”

The all-student email announcement for the forum provoked strong student reactions and helped boost turnout with the tagline “Is a Dry Campus the Only Answer?”

President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz opened the forum by assuaging student fears.

“The email was not sent to scare people and there is no intention of a dry campus here, at least not on my watch,” said Liebowitz. “The issue was how to get students to come to the forum and actually share their opinions.”

Thirty-six students took the microphone to voice their opinions during the nearly two-hour open discussion, which Liebowitz and Dean of the College and Chief Diversity Officer Shirley Collado moderated.

Before opening the floor to discussion, Executive Director of Health and Counseling Services Gus Jordan and Assistant Director of Custodial Services Linda Ross gave PowerPoint presentations outlining alcohol use trends and dorm damage at the College. Jordan’s presentation used data from the College Alcohol Study distributed in November 2010, the AlcoholEdu survey taken by incoming Middlebury students every year since 2007 and national responses to the AlcoholEdu survey.

Jordan emphasized the increase in alcohol consumption by first-years visible in the data during his presentation. Thirty-two percent of students in the class of 2014 were considered high-risk drinkers — having five or more drinks in one sitting — when they arrived at the College. But six to eight weeks later, 55 percent of students in the class of 2014 were high-risk drinkers. In comparison, the national average of high-risk drinkers entering college this fall was 24 percent, and 31 percent were high-risk drinkers six to eight weeks later.

Between September 2010 and January 2011, of the 25 visits to the emergency room for alcohol, 16 were first-years, data that the administration thought lent credence to their concerns about underage drinking — especially heavy drinking among first-years.

Some students suggested that alcohol abuse is related to the stress of academics at the College.  Although Collado agreed that the heavy workload creates stress that may lead to drinking, stress cannot be used as the sole explanation.

“There shouldn’t be an excess [of work], but there also can’t be a disconnect between work and behavior,” she said. “If you want to be treated like an adult, you need to be able to balance your work and be accountable for your drinking.”

Lucas Alvarez ’11 agreed with Collado. He attributes alcohol abuse and dorm damage to a certain level of immaturity among some students.

“The workload problem is a problem in and of itself, but I don’t think it’s a reason for our decisions in drinking, for the alcohol problem on campus or for destroying something,” Alvarez said. “Saying that’s the problem is a cop-out because we are responsible for our own actions, and we are responsible for how much we drink or if we take a chair and break it.”

Hudson Cavanagh ’14 believes that increasing alcohol education for incoming students during orientation will lower alcohol abuse rates.

“Sacrificing academic work time for a long-term education regarding drinking is not only a good investment of time and money, but it sends a great message from the administration’s perspective,” Cavanagh said.

The cost of dorm damage has also steadily increased in recent years. Through April of this academic year, the College has incurred $104,500 of dorm damage, a record amount. The damage has been highest in sophomore and senior housing and relatively low in social houses, which Matthew Hedgpeth ’12, president of Omega Alpha (Tavern), relates to a lack of concern for temporary housing. The social houses might avoid the excessive damage that occurs in places like the Atwater suites because students build a home and a history with their social house.

In the dorms, students are “only living there for a semester or for a year and then they’re gone,” Hedgpeth said.

Ashley Litzenberger ’12, a member of Omega Alpha, agreed.

“Respect [for] the space you live in is something unique to social houses because you’re there from the day you pledge,” said Litzenberger. “You know you’re going to come back there, so it’s really a place you become invested in.”

Hedgpeth and Litzenberger both suggested fostering the kind of community and accountability present in the social houses as one potential approach to the issue of dorm damage. Scott Klenet ’12, treasurer of Omega Alpha, also emphasized the role social houses play in providing social spaces for students, especially safe, regulated places for students to drink. The suggestion that students should undergo the same crowd control and alcohol safety training that social house members do in order to host suite or house parties came up more than once.

Liebowitz said that of all the reforms proposed by students, generally improving the protocols for registering official parties with the school would be the most likely to be implemented at this point.

“The bureaucratic red tape is problematic and prevents or inhibits students from having official events,” Liebowitz said.

As with all aspects of the College’s alcohol policy, however, Liebowitz stressed that Middlebury must comply with Vermont State alcohol laws, which are some of the strictest in the country. Peter Weinberg ’11 challenged the administration to institute a “progressive” alcohol policy in defiance of “ineffective” state laws, similar to other colleges and universities around the country, but Liebowitz quickly dispatched the argument.

“Students have to understand that they may come from Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts or California, but this is Vermont and the world we live in,” Liebowitz said after the forum.

Students repeatedly criticized Public Safety during the forum for excessively issuing citations for minor offenses such as having an unopened beer in their room, but Associate Dean of the College and Director of Public Safety Lisa Boudah also pointed out that her hands are tied.

“If I see a beer next to you and you’re under 21, [I can’t] just go walk away,” Boudah said. “The College can be held civilly liable for not intervening to stop drinking.”

Collado emphasized that student involvement will be important going forward, and she circulated a sign-up sheet throughout the crowd during the forum. Twenty-eight students had signed up at press time.

Liebowitz also asked students to stay involved by getting in touch with him.

“We [the administration] don’t want to act until we talk to students,” he said. “I’m willing to hear students out and consider changes to everything we do as long as it’s inside the confines of the law.”

Despite the disagreements among students and administrators alike, Jordan hailed the forum as a great success. According to Jordan, a similar alcohol forum two years ago without any accompanying survey data drew only 20 students.

“It’s great to get a dynamic conversation like this going when students are talking to students and the administration is talking to students, and we’re all listening to each other,” he said.  “That’s where we have to be.”

Some students complained that the administration was ‘babying’ them and accused Old Chapel of trying to step into the ‘parent’ role by regulating the College’s social life.

But Liebowitz said he and the administration are looking out for the welfare of students.

“You can ask my wife — every single night I worry about my students,” he said. “If that means being accused of parenting, then so be it.”

 

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