About 100 college administrators gathered Friday in Hartford to kick off a new Connecticut program to combat alcohol abuse and to promote healthy behaviors by college students. After five speeches, it was Walter Harrison's turn to talk and he decided at the last minute that a different approach was called for than to cite statistics or institutional resolve.
Harrison, president of the University of Hartford, talked about himself -- and how he had nearly lost his life one night in college because of drinking. Harrison said in an interview Monday that he had never previously spoken in public about the incident, but the reaction he received convinced him that presidents would have more credibility in talking about student drinking issues by being honest about their own pasts.
Some of Harrison's recollections of his college days -- at Trinity College in Hartford, from 1964 to 1968 -- were ironic, given the purpose of Friday's session. He talked, for example, of being part of a student group that responded to a ban on alcohol in dormitories by marching to the State Capitol to demand their right to booze. But the story that got the most attention concerned a party he attended at a residence near a cliff on the campus. Like many students at the party, he had had a lot to drink even before arriving there, and at one point he left the party, walked to the top of the cliff, and -- in a drunken state -- thought about throwing himself over the ledge.
Obviously, he didn't do so. But Harrison said Monday that the recollection of how easily his life could have been ended by decisions made while drunk struck him as a point that needed to be made.
"As a president, you have three functions: articulate a vision, set a tone, and always remember what it was like to be a college student," he said.
Harrison said that he doesn't think his college friends would have thought of him as a heavy drinker, and that he drank in a way that was perfectly normal at the time. "I think, like most college students, I drank on social occasions, because it was part of the culture of the institution, and in some ways to soften the sharp edges of a lack of self-confidence in social situations." Harrison said that the fact that he came that close to serious harm without being a constant drinker just shows how much potential danger exists.
Students weren't in the audience last week and don't start classes until this week. So while Harrison's comments received extensive coverage in the Hartford press, he's not sure students have heard the message. But he said that the reaction has convinced him that he should be equally personal with students in talking about his own experiences. "I think I have to talk about it," he said.
Michael P. McNeil, co-chair of the American College Health Association's committee on alcohol issues, called Harrison's remarks "very refreshing" and said he thought it was significant for a president to speak so personally.
Harrison's remarks also noted that he drinks from time to time now, in moderation, and McNeil said Harrison was right to note that as well. "Like many students, he matured over time and has found a way for alcohol to be a part of his life without being the focus. It is my hope that his example can set a positive tone for students on his campus and perhaps across the nation," said McNeil, coordinator of the Health Empowerment Office at Temple University.
As president at Hartford for eight years, Harrison said that the worst part of the job has been dealing with three student deaths that were in some way probably related to alcohol, although two of the events were off campus and the precise role of alcohol isn't clear. In the event on campus, a student was found dead in his car, having overdosed on a variety of substances. Harrison was the person who informed the parents.