A Sobering Challenge

Lacrosse scandal leads Duke to try to change a broader culture of campus drinking. Is that realistic?
May 4, 2006

It’s finals week at Duke University, and here’s one question that won’t appear on any test: What can -- or should -- be done to address the university's so-called culture of student drinking?

That subject has become particularly ripe for discussion after reports published in recent weeks   brought to light what some residents of Durham, N.C., have known for years -- that the Duke men’s lacrosse team has a history of hosting raucous parties that include no shortage of alcohol.

In response to the now widely publicized lacrosse episode, in which an exotic dancer alleges that she was raped by members of the team at an off-campus party where alcohol was present, Duke President Richard Brodhead created five groups charged with assessing campus culture and exploring issues that have been brought forth by the incident.

On Monday, two Duke committees released simultaneous reports -- one of which reprimanded the lacrosse team for being “socially irresponsible when under the influence of alcohol.” But the faculty committee didn’t limit the scope of its comments to the lacrosse team, or even to athletics in general. It took a broad view of the situation, saying that “Nevertheless, [the lacrosse team's] conduct has not been different in character than the conduct of the typical Duke student who abuses alcohol." (The committee, it should be noted, was asked to review the behavior of the lacrosse team only prior to the now-infamous party in March).

The actions taken thus far by Brodhead and the initial reports coming from the university committees indicate that discussions about alcohol at Duke will address the bigger picture of drinking on campus and not just the perceived drinking problem of one team. “It’s certainly a big issue to tackle, and it’s certainly not something that’s limited to one group of students or even one campus,” said Joe Fore, executive vice president of the student government at Duke.

Fore, a junior, said the university has an opportunity to seriously evaluate its drinking policies while the lacrosse incident is in the public eye. But he said some students are upset at the administration for casting this as a campuswide problem when they see it as a narrower issue involving lacrosse players.

Rachel Toor, an author and former Duke University admissions officer, said that making sweeping changes to the social landscape at Duke is difficult because the “work hard, play hard” mentality has become such a part of fabric of student life that “the culture is self-perpetuating.” “For some students who want to come, the anti-intellectualism appeals to them,” she said.

Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs and vice chair of the Campus Cultural Initiative, one of five groups Brodhead has created, said the president “isn’t looking for any quick fixes." The university is looking to improve communication between student affairs and athletics, for instance, to ensure that policy violations are reported and dealt with more effectively, Moneta said. 

Aaron M. White, an assistant research professor in the department of psychiatry at Duke, said he is skeptical when he hears administrators promising broad reform on alcohol issues. “When I hear rhetoric from the university president, my first question is, why wasn’t that done before?” White said. “All these changes should have been made several years ago. Duke has been impotent in its attempt to deal with alcohol issues on campus.” Added Toor: “This is not a new issue at Duke. The administration has been unable to effectively change the culture in the past.”

White said the university is in a difficult position because it cannot police all students, particularly those who live off the campus, yet it must do something to hold students accountable for their behavior. Hoyt Alverson, an anthropology professor at Dartmouth College, said that a university exploration of the drinking practices of its students that doesn't look at the overall cultural context misses the point.

Over a three-year period, Alverson asked students at Dartmouth to study the social life on campus and report back with their findings. He then took the information and created a report, given to administrators, explaining that "it's not a culture of drinking, but a culture of student life where drinking has a role to play.

"If you don’t understand the total phenomenon, an intervention will boomerang,"  he said.

Both Toor and Fore said that in the case of the Duke lacrosse saga, focusing most of the attention on drinking problems deflects attention, intentionally or not, from the other factors at play, namely race, class and gender.

Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center at Northern Illinois University, said that college officials should acknowledge that behavior associated with Duke lacrosse is outside the social norm. “It’s not typical of what most students do when they drink, and it’s not typical of what most athletes do when they drink,” he said.

Alcohol education is one way to dispel myths, said White, who helped develop an online education program called AlcoholEdu that is being used by a number of colleges, including the University of Colorado at Boulder. Freshmen there are required to take the course in order to enroll in spring semester classes, said Robert Maust, chair of the university’s standing committee on substance abuse. Colorado also implemented a somewhat controversial “three strikes” policy, which has since been tweaked, that called for a one-semester suspension for any student who violated substance abuse policies three times.

Haines said that Duke should pay attention to the majority of students who are following university policy, and craft policies after talking to them about their behavior. “It’s important for [administrators] not to alienate students with a knee-jerk, blanket crackdown that punishes everyone for the mistakes of a few. That is ineffective, and it will only make things worse,” he said.


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