After the sixth alcohol-connected student death in two years, Charles Sorensen had had enough.
Sorensen, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Stout, penned a memo to the entire campus on March 30, informing students that he planned to redouble efforts to curb alcohol abuse on and around the campus: The university would increase the number of classes held on Fridays in order to discourage Thursday drinking; empower the dean of students to deal more harshly with underage drinking (and its abettors) as well as other alcohol-related offenses; and step up its efforts with local law enforcement to crack down on off-campus house parties, which he considers havens for underage students looking for access to booze.
Health experts and parents might applaud these steps. But on a campus where drinking is deeply ingrained in the social culture, the chancellor is facing a backlash.
His memo prompted outrage from a number of students, who expressed their displeasure in a variety of ways. Some students embarked on binges explicitly aimed at defying Sorensen’s hardened stance. Others took to Facebook: One group, called “Who Is the chancelor[sic] trying to kid? This is Stout!!!” has attracted more than 1,460 members. On the group’s wall, a student senate presidential candidate called the decision “rash” and proposed to “take back the campus.”
Since Wisconsin is culturally permissive as far as alcohol use, Sorensen knew his decision to publicly lower the boom on underage drinking — which is permitted in the state when minors are accompanied by a guardian — would provoke a backlash. But he said that as Stout transitions into its new role as a polytechnic institute, with an emphasis on courting high-quality employers, the campus is due to shed its reputation as a party school.
Sorensen said blowback from students does not trouble him. The chancellor described the organized drink-ins as “idiotic” and the Facebook protests as “a game” that he expects will give way to more “sober” responses in time. “While [student] responses are important, we have a greater issue to deal with,” Sorensen said. “And that’s changing our culture.”
But some students are worried that by focusing on stricter enforcement of a federal age threshold that is considered pliable by the local zeitgeist — and that many in higher education see as counterproductive to containing alcohol abuse on campus — the administration is punishing students for what they consider typical and usually harmless behavior.
Jerad Maplethorpe, a senior, was one of the students to publicly rebuke Sorensen, posting on Facebook an open letter to the chancellor in which he argued that strong-arm tactics aimed at preventing underage drinking are likely to have the opposite effect
“The university has the right to punish students who participate in illegal activities,” Maplethorpe said in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “However, if they abuse their power and suspend or expel too many students, there is bound to be another rebellious outburst amongst the student body, which will ultimately counteract their entire objective. The university should aim to prove a point but not completely cripple college life, which many would claim undoubtedly includes underage drinking.”
A better strategy, Maplethorpe said, would be to orient the chancellor’s initiative to discouraging binge drinking rather than policing any drinking by students under the age of 21. “More law enforcement may result in more people getting caught, but it won’t solve the problem,” said Maplethorpe. “Abusive and excessive drinking is the issue, not drinking in and of itself.”
Jason Hausler, lead prevention coordinator at Arbor Place, a substance-abuse organization near campus, acknowledged that “as a public good, binge drinking is by far the biggest problem that plagues the state of Wisconsin” — bigger than underage drinking. But Hausler added that many of the reforms proposed by Sorensen, which include harsher consequences for students with higher blood-alcohol contents, will probably work to combat both issues.
The task of changing the drinking culture at Stout, and in the surrounding town of Menomonie, is a daunting one, Hausler said. Drinking culture is deeply ingrained, and kids grow up to view habitual drinking as a rite of passage and conventional part of being a college student and an adult.
Paul Feine, a former Stout student who produced -- shortly before the latest alcohol-related death (and Sorensen’s subsequent memo) -- a documentary short on the “police state” attitude the university and the town take toward underage drinking, said he believes the best way to combat alcohol abuse is to take a more permissive tack with minors, allowing moderate alcohol use and punishing excess. In his piece, Feine sympathizes with the Amethyst Initiative, a coalition of college and university presidents that advocates reducing the legal drinking age to 18 in order to bring drinking above ground, where it would be easier to monitor.
“Kids don’t learn how to drink,” Feine says . “They don’t learn how to drink with parents, with their professors. There’s a culture that teaches you how to behave yourself… you do run into a lot more problems when young people learn how to drink on their own.”
But Hausler said leaving it to parents to teach proper drinking habits to underage kids might not work in a state whose adult population is plagued by alcoholism. He defended Sorensen’s strict enforcement program as a necessary complement to alcohol education — which he said he thinks the university does relatively well with its Smart + Healthy program, which seeks to fight the perception that everybody binge-drinks.
As for the memo, Sorensen said the version that went out -- and provoked resistance from so many students -- was actually more light-handed than his original draft. The university is committed, he said, to jettisoning its hard-drinking reputation while continuing to reinvent itself as a polytechnic school that turns out responsible graduates.
No policy can purge all abusive drinking, Sorensen said, and the university’s new efforts contain no silver bullets.
Still, “If we do nothing,” he said, “nothing’s going to change."