Dealing (With) Drugs at Elite Colleges

After three major drug busts at highly selective colleges shatter student stereotypes, institutions are left to ponder what they will -- or won't -- do next.
February 16, 2011

Now that the dust has settled from the string of high-profile drug busts at elite colleges -- Georgetown University in October, and Columbia and Cornell Universities in December -- administrators have had time to reflect on what this means for the Ivy League and other highly selective institutions. While officials say this is the perfect opportunity for institutions to reinforce their anti-drug messages, it appears that few have taken such measures.

The busts were unusual not only because they occurred at top-tier institutions within a short time frame, but also because of their scope. In late October, police found a drug lab on the top floor of a Georgetown freshman residence hall. A little over a month later at Columbia, a five-month police investigation (dubbed “Operation Ivy League”) ended in the arrest of five students who sold $11,000 worth of various drugs out of dorm rooms and fraternities. And two weeks after that, police arrested a Cornell student off-campus in possession of $150,000 worth of heroin.

On Friday, the two Georgetown students who were arrested for creating the drug lab pleaded guilty in federal court to manufacturing the hallucinogen DMT. Their sentencing is scheduled for next month. And while Columbia would not comment on the status of Harrison David, the 20-year-old student who allegedly led that drug operation, his lawyer told the university's student newspaper that David has been suspended and will probably be expelled if convicted. His next court date is March 1.

Following the busts, students and others registered their shock. But the widespread surprise about such activity unfolding in the Ivy League may have just evidenced the public’s naïveté. “It suggests what I think is a pretty common misperception, and that is that those sorts of things don’t happen at elite schools. They happen at all schools,” said Tom Workman, fellow for the Education Department's Higher Education Center for Alcohol Drug and Prevention Program. (A recent "Saturday Night Live" skit conveyed as much, if somewhat less seriously.)

In fact, Workman contends, not only are elite colleges more likely to enroll students whose race (white) and favorable socioeconomic status make them more likely to engage in risky behavior such as alcohol and drug abuse; the competitive nature of such institutions also creates a high-pressure environment in which students are more prone to substance abuse.

“Despite the fact that we are very aware of elite, wealthy criminals, especially in the banking system, we actually have a different image of [these students],” Workman said. The clean -- and sometimes cleaned up -- image of Ivy League institutions and their students encourages the assumption that they couldn’t possibly be involved in drug activities, he added. “Pop cultural representation makes it look like this is a ghetto activity. It’s really not. It blinds us a little bit to the fact that this can occur in these settings as well, and we have to be as mindful.”

Now that everyone knows drug operations do exist in the Ivy League, it’s a question of prevention, said Mary Anne Nagy, chair of the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education’s Alcohol and Other Drugs Knowledge Community. “You have to be clear and speak out early and often about what your stance is,” Nagy said. “That students who are involved in this kind of activity are not welcome and if you are involved, here’s what’s going to happen.”

That’s what Columbia did. Kevin G. Shollenberger, dean of student affairs for Columbia College and the university's engineering school, sent an e-mail to students the day of the arrests reminding them of the university’s drug and alcohol policies. “It is the university’s expectation that all students are familiar with and adhere to the policies outlined therein,” Shollenberger wrote. “Please consider the potential impact of your actions on both your individual lives and the University community at-large.”

But nearly all the other Ivy League institutions declined to comment on whether they had taken their own steps to address the subject, such as revisiting their drug policies or reinforcing them to students.

Despite Columbia’s expectations for its students, 9 percent of college students nationwide don’t know whether their institutions have alcohol and drug policies, according to a 2008 survey (the most recent available) by the Core Institute, a national alcohol and other drug database at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. (What’s more, 0.3 percent of students say their colleges don’t have such policies.)

New Jersey's Monmouth University, where Nagy is vice president for student services, sends new students Monmouth’s alcohol and drug policies -- and the penalties for violating them -- at the start of each semester. This is the perfect opportunity for other campuses to do the same, she said.

But in some cases, drug activity extends far beyond a campus. Just because dealers are operating on campus doesn’t necessarily mean the students are buying what they’re selling, Workman said, and just because students are using drugs on campus doesn't mean dealers are selling there. In urban areas like New York City, student buyers can tap into operations in the outside community. The same can happen in a smaller place like Ithaca, where Cornell is located; the drug networks might just be larger, with highways extending the operations from city to city.

“We tend to think of Ivy League schools as much more being separate from their communities, when in fact students don’t know those boundaries,” Workman said. “The student simply sets up shop at campus but finds within the community the larger market, if you will, to sell. And the opposite is true as well: Students find their dealers in communities. It’s one of the reasons why campuses and communities have to work so closely together in all issues of substance abuse.”

And, as recent events suggest, students probably won’t be able to secretly maintain operations of this magnitude successfully. At least, not forever.

“It is very, very difficult at the modern university ... to operate, especially on campus, and not have that get revealed. It’s certainly near impossible,” Workman said. “This would be in your College for Dummies book. Creating a meth lab in your dorm room? Not so smart.”


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