U. of Evansville President Arrested for Drunk Driving

For third time in two years, a college's leader faces DUI charges. Other 2 didn't last in office.
July 7, 2008

Stephen G. Jennings, president of the University of Evansville, was arrested and jailed Wednesday night for driving while intoxicated. He has admitted guilt, was released from jail and agreed to participate in a program for first-time offenders.

Jennings released a statement in which he said: “I have obviously made a very serious mistake, and I apologize to the campus community and the community at large. I will take every necessary action to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Because this is my first offense, I have been offered enrollment in the DADS (drug and alcohol deferral service) program and have taken that step this morning. I assure you that I will successfully complete this program, and I will work with the university and any other appropriate organizations as may be requested or necessary."

The police report in the case, published online by The Evansville Courier & Press, describes police seeing his car "weaving badly between lanes" and "drifting into the median." When stopped, police "smelled a very strong odor of alcoholic beverages coming from the driver," Jennings. The report describes how he failed several sobriety tests, first denied having had any alcohol and later admitted to having two beers, and how his blood alcohol level was later determined to be .14 (.08 is the minimum level where it is illegal to drive).

Jennings has been a college president for 25 years, and has been in charge at Evansville since 2001. Previously, he led Oklahoma City University, Simpson College, and the College of the Ozarks.

Niel Ellerbrook, chair of the Evansville board, issued a statement indicating that he was aware of the arrest and praising Jennings for his performance as president. "The board feels he has done a wonderful job for this university and this community, and it is our intention to do whatever is needed to help Steve.”

In the last two years, two other college presidents have been arrested for driving while under the influence, and their presidencies ended fairly quickly. Evelyn C. Lynch resigned as president of Saint Joseph College, in Connecticut, in December 2006, two months after she was arrested for driving under the influence and went on a medical leave. The Hartford Courant reported at the time on an e-mail she sent to those on campus in which she said that her decision “appears to be in the best interest of the college.”

Last year, the board of the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia, fired William J. Frawley as president several weeks after he was charged with two DUI incidents. In December, Frawley wrote an article for The Washington Post, "I Needed Help, Not Ostracism," in which he criticized the university's response to the incident.

One complicating factor for Jennings may be that his campus is officially dry. While Jennings was off campus and not on university business, university policy at Evansville is strict and bans the use or sale of alcohol anywhere on the campus, including dormitories, and including people of legal drinking age.

That rule is being cited by many of those commenting online at Indiana newspapers' Web sites about the case. One of those who wrote to The Indianapolis Star said: "In other words, students, do as I say, don't do as I do! His credibility is gone. He made a mistake that could have been fatal! An accident that may have injured or even killed someone. Why didn't he drink in the privacy of his own home? Neither he nor the university would be in the news today." Others writing in praised Jennings for his work at Evansville, but many cited the issue of whether he could ever have credibility again.

Raymond Cotton, a Washington lawyer whose practice focuses on presidential contracts and who said he wasn't familiar with specifics of the Evansville case, said that he wasn't surprised that three college presidents in two years have been arrested for DUI. "Presidents consistently tell me that the job of the president is a pressure cooker," he said. If you combine the stress involved with any tendency to abuse alcohol, an incident is possible, he said.

Further, he said, many of those who deal with college presidents in various ways expect alcohol as part of the meetings. "I had a board tell me that they were not going to meet in the president's home any more because the president did not serve alcohol," he said.

How boards react to a DUI depends on many things, some of them chance, Cotton said. For example, a board may feel it has less flexibility if a DUI led to deaths in an accident (as was not the case in any of the recent incidents involving presidents). A private university, like Evansville, may also have more latitude and be less subject to political perceptions, Cotton said.

How should boards respond? Cotton said the key question is whether the president in question is an alcoholic. If a president is an alcoholic, even if that diagnosis only comes about because of a DUI, alcoholism "should be treated as a disease and not as willful bad behavior," he said. The message should be the same to a student, professor or president with alcoholism, he said: If you get help, we'll support you. "If you have a disease, you shouldn't be treated like a criminal," he said.

What's more complicated, he said, is if alcoholism isn't a factor. Then, he said, it is appropriate for a board to consider DUI "very serious bad behavior," and to act accordingly.

Judith Block McLaughlin, director of the Higher Education Program at Harvard University and education chair for the annual program Harvard runs for new college presidents, said that while DUI isn't talked about explicitly there, one session in the program is on "the personal side of the presidency." A theme, she said, is that "you are never off duty. It's not just a job but a role and a life, whether you go to the grocery store or church or to a restaurant or a jog, you can never get away from it all."

That creates tremendous pressures on presidents, McLaughlin said. One reason many presidents like to have vacation homes far from campus is so that they can have some genuine down time that is pretty much impossible where they live.

With regard to alcohol, she said that new presidents talk about how "you have to be careful" in settings where others are drinking. Presidents are frequently in such settings, and even with friends, can't assume that it will be OK if they drink much at all. "People talk about the need to hold on to one glass of wine," she said.


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