College students like to drink. Sometimes they drink too much. And sometimes they pay the price – academically, socially, and sometimes, with their lives. No matter how well-intentioned they are, educational prevention methods like posters and lectures alone will not stop all this from happening.
Students know this. Administrators know this. Yet, according to new research, the vast majority of colleges, when it comes to prevention, are leaving an extraordinary resource untapped – the students themselves.
If not for the recent online buzz about whether or not President Bush has resumed drinking, most of us never would have heard the allegations. The story was, after all, broken by The National Enquirer – a paper not taken in this household, you may be sure. We are loyal to the Weekly World News instead.
The cover of the Enquirer is always full of the faces and first names of celebrities, very few of which I recognize -- while the reporters at the News do the kind of hard journalistic digging needed to reveal, for example, Saddam Hussein’s efforts to clone dinosaurs for use as weapons of mass destruction. Some years ago, there was an off-Broadway musical inspired by WWN coverage of the amazing saga of the half-human Bat Boy. I’m always keen to read updates about that brave little guy.
But a scoop is a scoop. More interesting than the Enquirer story itself has been the response to it -- not just its prime spot in Slate’s roundup of trash news, but the loud blog feedback, followed by the metacommentary by Jonathan Dresner at Cliopatria, which was remarkably sober. (Didn't see that one coming, did you?)
A decade has passed since the earliest syllabus was prepared for a course called “Tabloid Culture.” Now it’s a regular area of scholarly specialization ( with conferences), so it’s hard to know how anybody keeps up with all the secondary literature, let alone the two-headed alien babies.
As it happens, the first paper on cultural studies by an American academic I ever came across -- more than 20 years ago, in fact -- was a pioneering study in the field of tabloid hermeneutics. Stephanie Greenhill presented “ The National Enquirer: A Secret Method for the Mastery of Life” at the Southwest Graduate Student Conference in Comparative Literature, held in March 1982 at the University of Texas at Austin. The proceedings were published the following year by UT’s Comp Lit program -- using what appears to have been a very, very early desktop publishing program. The volume provides no information about the contributors. Nor is there any trace of Stephanie Greenhill’s subsequent career as a scholar available online. [See update below.]
But a vague memory of her argument has been at the back of my mind ever since the current Enquirer story began pinging around the blogosphere. It took some digging, but I’ve located my copy of the proceedings and reread Greenhill’s paper. And so, in the spirit of honoring a forgotten pioneer, here is a precis of her work, and an application of it to interpreting “Bush’s Booze Crisis.”
My recollection had it that Greenhill must have been one of the first American academics to draw on the first generation of cultural-studies scholars – the early theoretical work of Stuart Hall and others at the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in England. (The center closed three years ago.) But in fact, rereading her paper now, I see that Greenhill was actually looking at the tabloid from within a completely different framework: that of folklore.
An interesting rewriting of things, given the subsequent fate of each discipline over the following two decades. By the 1990s, the American version of cultural studies was on the rise, while folklore programs were shutting down. If the stereotype had it that someone with a background in cultural studies wore hipster eyeglasses and a complicated haircut, the other field had a much less flattering icon: namely, the Comic Book Store Guy on "The Simpsons," responding to one of Bart’s pranks by saying, “I do not deserve this! I have a Ph.D. in folklore and mythology!”
With understandable frustration, some folklorists have insisted for years that they were doing cultural studies long before anybody thought to call it that. And rereading Greenhill’s paper after all these years, I’m inclined to think they have a case. Her analysis stresses how the Enquirer -- which is, arguably, as debased a piece of mass-produced junk as ever issued by a printing press -- actually replicates some features we associate with oral or traditional forms of culture.
Not that you’d notice it right away, of course. “It can be a very disturbing experience to read the Enquirer,” she writes. “The physical layout encourages the feeling of alienation. One’s eyes are forced to search up and down in order to find everything on the page. One cannot even look only at headline-sized materials to get an overview; there are a number of single-line quotations which force the eye constantly to refocus. Perhaps it is this format, rather than the content, which is the source of the subjective sense that the Enquirer is a fragmenting rather than a communal force.”
But the ads, and perhaps especially the articles, recycle many of the basic themes found in folklore. “Collections such as Flanders and Brown’s Folk-Songs from Vermont,” notes Greenhill, “deal with many of the subjects equally beloved of the Enquirer: illicit love, the bizarre, violence, death, satire, and religion.”
Furthermore, many of the stories in the tabloid’s pages lend themselves to exactly the kind of structuralist analysis that Claude Levi-Strauss performed on myths gathered by anthropologists. In short, they are efforts to resolve binary oppositions such as that between nature and culture, male and female, life and death.
Consider, if you will, “Miracle Baby: Love Overcomes Incredible Odds for Paralyzed Wife and Her Gentle Giant” -- recounting how a very tall bodybuilder and his very small, paralyzed wife created their happy family. Their small child is, as Greenhill puts it, “obviously the symbolic synthesis of the two.... By creating a balance between these opposites, a state of normalcy will result.”
The classical balance typical of the Enquirer may explain my own preference for the rather more surreal landscape of the Weekly World News, in which normality is constantly menaced by (for example) self-replacing androids who “breed like flies.” And it was WWN that revealed that undergraduates aren’t the only ones spending all semester on drinking binges. So do 8 out of 10 of their professors!
And now our Commander in Chief is staggering down the same path. Or so we are told by the Levi-Straussian structuralists at the Enquirer. I think Greenhill’s paper helps clarify some things about the response to this news (if that’s what it is) -- and, in fact, elucidates some things happening between the lines of the story itself.
Her analysis emphasizes that a folkloric work (song, legend, tabloid) serves to help hold a community together. And it can play that role whether or not everyone in the community quite believes it to be literally true. That point has been made more recently, with great force, by the Pennsylvania State University-Hazleton folklorist Bill Ellis, whose papers in the book Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live (University Press of Mississippi, 2001) deserves to be better known.
To sum up the point as Ellis makes it: The important thing to understand about any form of contemporary folklore (for example, the urban legends constantly making the rounds of e-mail and conversation) is that the debate over its truth or falsity is part of how it circulates. Such folklore helps define the limits of what a community believes. Or rather, what it hopes or fears might be believable.
That certainly applies to the online conversation over “Bush’s Booze Crisis” – in which some very fine hairs have been split over the epistemological question of whether something might be true even if it’s in the Enquirer.
That story can be read as a criticism of the President, in keeping with a populist distrust of power that Greenhill finds operating throughout the tabloid. But it is also, at the same, time, a negation of the image of him that has emerged in recent months as someone utterly out of touch with the news about Iraq and Katrina. It shows him, rather, as wounded to the core. What might look like ignorance and indifference are actually the signs that awesome responsibility has left him in unimaginable pain. He is human, all too human.
Does this have any political consequence at all, in the real world? I don’t know. But it does tend to confirm the basic insightfulness of Greenhill’s paper – tucked away in a scholarly publication now forgotten, probably, by everyone except the contributors. And maybe even by them. The final line of her essay sums it up nicely: “The attractiveness of the Enquirer could be that its readers can pick and choose both their tales and their morals from a certain range of possibilities, and know that others are doing the same thing.”
UPDATE: The mystery regarding the fate of the author of the 1982 paper has now been cleared up -- for it turns out that her name was actually Pauline (not Stephanie) Greenhill. I regret the error, without being quite responsible for it. As luck would have it, a glitch from 23 years ago has come back to haunt us.
In an e-mail note, Ms. Greenhill explains that she was indeed the folklore grad student at the University of Texas at Austin "who wrote the article on the National Enquirer, published in the student conference proceedings so many years ago." But she wasn't actually there to present her paper. "My friend STEPHANIE Kane gave it on my behalf, and somehow the editors mixed up our two names.... The conference organisers did put in an errata sheet correcting the mistake, but we all know what happens to those sorts of things."
Today "the not very mysterious" Pauline Greenhill, as she signs herself, is a professor of women's studies at the University of Winnipeg. A list of her scholarly publications since 1993 is available at this Web page.
The café, located one block west of the University of Texas at Austin, was called Les Amis. Which, when pronounced with a certain drawl, or after a few Shiner Bocks, sounded like “Lazy Me.” It was just around the corner from the house where, as legend has it, Janis Joplin had lived during her student days. It would be nice to imagine that she might have visited Les Amis, but that is a stretch: It only opened its doors in 1970, about the time she died. In principle, though, yes, it was her kind of place. The café was the definitive landmark of the area known as West Campus.
Like any real neighborhood, West Campus was not just a place but a state of mind. It was a pole of attraction for people who endured living in Texas only by going into a kind of internal emigration. And Les Amis was a vital part of the cultural infrastructure. For one thing, the food was cheap. Generations of semi-successful musicians, struggling artists, and would-be writers budgeted their lives around the bowl of beans and rice (with cheese, if you paid extra). And because the entire wait staff seemed to be on perpetual cigarette break, it never felt like you were being rushed out the door. You could read a book without being hassled. Or write one, for that matter.
It was not, strictly speaking, a part of UT. But in no sense did it exist apart from the university. Les Amis was, so to speak, a non-academic outcropping of what Pierre Bourdieu called skhole -- that is, the open-ended space-time of scholastic life, in which questions can be raised and explored in a free discussion that evades any outside demands.
It's not that Les Amis was a unique outpost of this. On the contrary, any decent campus must have such pockets of creative impracticality -- places where people mingle, where loitering is permitted, even encouraged. They are the laboratories where conversation becomes a kind of experiment, and where you can opt out of normality for a while. (Maybe forever.)
Many a dissertation got drafted at Les Amis, or at least studiously procrastinated over. In the corner sat Rock Savage (at any given time, the drummer for five different bands) having breakfast at two in the afternoon, inscrutable behind his shades. At a table facing the sidewalk -- a few feet from the skinheads with skateboards -- you might find a Habermasian and a Derridean making an elaborate show of tolerating one another’s pathetically inadequate arguments. Meanwhile, inside, the ambience was forever that of an unwashed ashtray. In the booth near the door was a young couple that had recently broken up, doing a post-postmortem on their relationship, in lieu of burying it and moving on.
Such a life has its own tempo, its own logic. It can be liberating, but it can also be stultifying. You might leave it with a sense of relief -- only to find, years later, that a moment of nostalgia will blindside you.
I left Austin in 1988. Ten years later, meeting a fellow Les Amis alum at a party in Washington, D.C., I learned that the café had gone out of business in 1997. It was a shock to hear this: In some vague way, I always expected to return one day for a visit. There had been something sustaining about the fantasy of once again ordering the rice and beans with cheese, and the pot of coffee they brought to your table -- then spending the afternoon trying to get the bill from the waiter.
Now that was impossible. I felt grief, but also disgust and anger. There was no imaginary escape route from a life of ambition, responsibility, and deadlines.
And things got worse. The spot where Les Amis had once stood, my friend reported, was now occupied by a Starbucks. Fate was really laying it on thick.
But thanks to the efforts of Nancy Higgins, a young filmmaker in Austin, some of the memories have been preserved in a documentary, "Viva Les Amis." For now, the film doesn’t have a distributor, though it is available for purchase on DVD through a Web site. Higgins also indicates, in an e-mail note, that she is selling it “out of the trunk of my car.”
I can well believe she means that literally: "Viva Les Amis" has the feel of a labor of love – something made without much thought for whether it could be marketed. Higgins spent four years and something close to $40,000 making it. “No one ever got paid for their time,” she says, “including me and the people who helped me shoot it.”
Breaking even on the project would be nice, but it may take a while. “I have debt from the movie,” Higgins told me. “But I’ll pay it off someday.”
For now, though, she has earned the glory that goes with retrieving something valuable from the wreckage of progress, so called. Drawing on interviews with staff and customers, video footage shot during the 1980s, and a series of beautiful black-and-white photographs taken by Alan Pogue across the café’s three decades, Higgins evokes the feeling of community that, for many people around the university, made Les Amis a home away from home.
Almost literally so, in some cases. One of its denizens indicates that his record for hanging out there was 12 hours. Another interview subject recalls sleeping on the floor after it had closed for the night. The inner mysteries of Les Amis are revealed to outsiders. There was, for example, a walled-in area behind the café where the staff enjoyed beer, various smokable substances, and the occasional moment of fornication. (That would certainly tend to explain some things about the service.)
Higgins clearly has a feel for the place, so I asked her how she came to make the film. As a philosophy major at UT, she says, she spent a lot of time at the café, whether studying or otherwise. After graduating in 1994, she faced the perennial question of what you do with a liberal arts degree. You can probably see where this is going: For the next three years, she waited tables at Les Amis.
“My parents were so pleased,” she recalls (sarcasm mode on). “I took history and theory film classes at U.T., and read and did yoga and lived the relaxed Austin life. I stopped thinking about the future and just lived for awhile.”
She then headed to Emory University to do graduate work on avant garde and documentary film -- returning to Austin in 1999 with a master’s degree. After two years of watching other people’s films, she wanted to make one of her own.
“So,” she says, "I began working on a documentary about Les Amis -- a place that I missed terribly upon returning to Austin. Sometimes it's just the perfect night to go there, and you can't. That makes me really sad. I just wanted to preserve some of Les Amis before it disappeared from everyone's collective memory. I knew I wasn't the only one who grieved the loss.”
While various still photographs and home videos helped document the history of the café, nothing really captures the mood of the place like Richard Linklater’s " Slacker," which was a breakthrough independent film when it was released in 1991. That film had the misfortune to get swept up in the whole “Generation X” phenomenon, which had the effect of making the quiet and idiosyncratic enclave of West Campus seem like some kind of prefabricated lifestyle.
A few of the most memorable scenes in "Slacker" were shot at Les Amis -- and Linklater gave Higgins permission to use those clips in her documentary. “He knows how hard it is to secure rights,” she says. “At the time I asked him, he owned the rights to "Slacker," so we signed the paperwork and he let me use the scenes.” Linklater also included an extensive promotional spot for "Viva Les Amis" when the DVD edition of "Slacker" was released.
Higgins has done more than put together a video scrapbook. "Viva Les Amis" is also an essay on development -- on how the texture of life changes when a small business disappears, replaced by a corporate chain.
She interviews employees who work at the Starbucks that now occupies the block. They’ve heard rumors that another coffee shop once existed in the area, but don’t know anything about it. Sic transit gloria mundi, of course -- no surprise there. But it is certainly striking to listen to the young baristas as they describe what it is like to work there: the exacting dress code, the precisely formulated rules for interacting with customers, the system of corporate spying that makes sure each drink is served at the same temperature.
You can’t imagine a poetry reading taking place in such an environment. No doubt it is more efficient and profitable than Les Amis ever was. But the drive to uniformity and perfect top-down control seems joyless, no matter how much Bob Marley they play over the loudspeaker. I kept thinking of a scene from "Slacker" in which a local eminence named Doug the Slug stared into a video camera, announcing: “Every commodity you produce is a piece of your own death!”
I haven’t been back to Austin, and wondered about the changes reflected in "Viva Les Amis." It seemed like a good time to reconnect with Michael King, who was an assistant professor of English at UT when I met him in the early 1980s. Today King is the news editor for The Austin Chronicle, the local alternative weekly.
He remembers long lunches and late nights at the café, “drinking and talking with students and friends or other faculty, talking in the way that only a college community can do. I miss it.” But the city has grown, and the university helped drive the transformation.
“Austin and UT were simply much smaller then,” he says. “Although 30,000 students were plenty, they did not overwhelm the UT area in the way that 50,000 do.... It meant that sidewalk life around the university was a little sleepier, a little friendlier.... West Campus in particular has just been overwhelmed by numbers. The high-rise private dorms pour out students, night and day, and the street crowds can seem like Manhattan, without any of the amenities.”
He points out that there are new venues with something of the old Les Amis feel, such as Ruta Maya or Café Mundi -- the latter, for example, being the scene of a recent literary reading/oil-wrestling contest. But such places have, he says, “been physically pushed away from the campus, which, close in, is very much a crowded, rushed, gritty place.” In "Viva Les Amis," Nancy Higgins interviews the proprietor of Café Mundi, who says she worries that Starbucks will decide to open a shop down the street.
So far, the documentary has not been screened at film festivals -- and Higgins says she can’t afford to apply to any more, because doing so is expensive. It seems like a film that will find its audience, over time. “I like the idea of taking it on a tour of campuses,” she told me, “mainly to college towns like Austin that may be experiencing similar growing pains. But I haven't had a chance to try that yet.”
There's been a fair amount of attention over the last week to the issue of hazing and women's college sports teams. The Web site badjocks.com published a number of photos depicting the Northwestern University women's soccer team conducting an initiation for new players. The women are shown being forced to chug beer, give lap dances to members of the men's soccer team, all while various words and pictures are drawn on their bodies. Then the same site followed up with pictures from a dozen other colleges and universities, almost all of which focus on hazing/initiation rituals involving various women's sports teams. All of the colleges involved have anti-hazing policies, and all (naturally) prohibit underage drinking.
In the national media, the faces of the women involved are obscured, but on badjocks.com, they are in full view. Though it was obviously foolish for the teams involved to photograph their hazing rituals and post the pics on the Internet, I grieve for the embarrassment the young women involved must now be feeling, and I have no interest in staring pruriently at the various details of their humiliations. We must remember the intent of those who uploaded the photos to sites like webshots.com; these pictures (often showing students in their underwear) were for the enjoyment of a select few, not a huge national audience. Foolishness on the part of those who don’t know better doesn’t excuse leering on the part of those who do.
What I've seen tells me what I already knew: the kind of hazing that takes place on contemporary college campuses is more or less identical to what happened when I was an undergrad 20 years ago. The essentials, then and now, are these: forcing the pledges/initiates/rookies/frosh to undress (at least to their underwear); forcing them to consume large amounts of alcohol; asking them to "perform" sexualized dances in front of members of the opposite sex. The Northwestern women were required to give lap dances in their underwear in front of members of the men's soccer team -- while the Quinnipiac College men's baseball team is shown on the site stripping and dancing for a group of unidentified women.
As an adult who struggled with problem drinking for years, I am of course greatly concerned by any ritual that requires that folks consume large amounts of booze in a short period of time. I have no sympathy for those who see binge drinking as an essential rite of passage; I've seen the damage it can do to lives and bodies.
As a feminist, I'm grieved to see that ritualized sexual humiliation is still such a vital mainstay of initiation practices. It's not new, of course. When I was a freshman at Cal, I flirted with the idea of joining a fraternity (one to which my grandfather, a great-grandfather, and numerous uncles and cousins had belonged). In the end, I decided not to, both for reasons of principle and because I worried that I wouldn't fit in with the fraternity culture. I had lots of friends in the Greek system, however, and I heard their initiation stories. One of my former wives was a Pi Phi in the late 1980s; she told me that she had never gotten over her hazing. She recalled being stripped to her underwear, at which point all the "actives" (members) of her sorority took magic markers and wrote on her body -- circling areas that they thought "needed work" and writing commentary about her attributes. She said she laughed at the time -- but years later, she would still sometimes gaze at those parts and think about the criticisms and obscenities she had seen written there.
I'm a fierce fan of intercollegiate sports. With the possible exception of golf, I love to watch men and women play any NCAA sport. I know the good that sport has brought to my life, and I've seen it bring discipline, health, camaraderie, and character to a great many young people. I'm not one of those professors who "goes easy" on the jocks, but I'm not someone who wishes that intercollegiate athletics would disappear, either. And as a fan of sports -- and former athletic department tutor at UCLA -- I've got at least a passing understanding of how vital it is to build close community on a team.
I think initiation rituals can be very valuable. Requiring frosh or rookies to go through a series of steps before they are accepted as full-fledged members of the team is healthy. It is axiomatic that to suffer together is one way to build community. But not all suffering is the same. Forcing the frosh to run extra laps or do extra push-ups or go through a weekend of brutal fitness camp can build community and fellowship just fine -- all without a drop of alcohol and without a single lap dance. Requiring frosh to put on silly skits that don't involve vulgar humor, nudity, or intoxication (or asking them to memorize all the verses of an ancient school fight song) can have a similar bonding effect. The problem is not with the nature of sports teams/fraternities/sororities, or with initiation rituals -- the problem is with a culture that connects that valuable process of initiation to ritualized sexual degradation and binge drinking.
Too many university policies (such as Northwestern’s) confuse the positive effects of team-building exercises with destructive and humiliating hazing. As quoted on the badjocks Web site, the NU policy reads in part:
The university defines hazing as any action taken or situation created intentionally, whether on or off university premises, to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule. Such activities and situations may include but are not limited to paddling in any form; creation of excessive fatigue; physical and psychological shocks; quests, treasure hunts, scavenger hunts, road trips, or any other such activities carried on outside the confines of the university; wearing apparel that is conspicuous and not normally in good taste; engaging in stunts and buffoonery; requiring sleepovers or morally degrading or humiliating games and activities.
Banning all treasure hunts, quests, and road trips along with underage drinking and strip shows demonstrates a complete disregard for the potentially positive aspects of initiation rituals. There are countless physical challenges that can be offered to frosh that allow them to retain their clothes, their dignity, and their sobriety -- all while pushing them beyond their limits. Hazing can degrade, but healthy and constructive games and rituals go a long way to building that precious sense of camaraderie which is such a vital part of the college experience.
But a call to recognize the positive aspects of some traditional initiation rituals is not a defense of what we apparently see in the pictures from Northwestern. This sort of hazing troubles me so much is because it is so fundamentally antithetical to what sports can be in women's lives. The beauty of sports for women, at the high school or college level, is that it teaches women that their bodies are not merely decorative objects to be gazed at. It teaches women that their sexuality and their potential reproductivity are not their greatest assets. Sport -- at its best -- teaches girls that their bodies are strong, and powerful; it teaches the athlete that she can transform and control her flesh for her own delight as well as for the good of the team. It turns objects into subjects, turns the passive active. I've seen sports from softball to track to soccer to basketball do that for countless women and girls in my life, and I rejoice in it. And thus I grieve when I see young female athletes forced to use their bodies so differently -- as objects of public, sexualized ridicule -- all for the sake of creating community that could so easily be created in a different way.
Hugo B. Schwyzer teaches history and gender studies at Pasadena City College. He teaches and blogs about such issues as the interplay of faith and sexuality, American history, and masculinity.
The late Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University professor who famously gave “The Last Lecture” on September 7, 2007, describes in that talk a sports metaphor called “The Head Fake.” Athletes use the head fake to mislead their opponents into heading one direction, while they run the other way. In life, a head fake is when we lead people to one conclusion about our goals while trying to head in another direction.
This July, the same month in which Pausch died, a group of college and university presidents began to collect signatures on a document called “The Amethyst Initiative” -- a move that appears to be a “head fake” of its own. There are two seemingly related parts to this document. The first states that “the 21 year-old drinking age is not working, and, specifically, that it has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking on their campuses.” The second calls for an informed and unimpeded debate by elected officials to weigh the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas. As of August 25, 2008, there were 128 presidents and chancellors who had signed the agreement.
The head fake seems to have worked; the Amethyst Initiative has created a flurry of media interest -- suddenly and dramatically increasing the visibility of this issue. Many of the college and university presidents and chancellors who initially signed have since had to defend their actions. Many said they signed the Amethyst Initiative not to change the drinking age (after all, it isn’t theirs to change), but to spark a national debate. I do believe that those who have signed are deeply concerned about the extent of binge drinking nationally and the number of deaths of college students every year. Close to 1,700 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol related injuries, according to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence. And that is in addition to the thousands of injuries, assaults, rapes and wrecks that happen to young people who binge-drink and to those around them.
However, the legal drinking age won’t be changed by college presidents; lawmakers must take that step. I declined to sign the Amethyst Initiative. And I wouldn’t advise lawmakers to change the drinking age.
I do not believe that lowering the drinking age will do much to decrease drinking-related deaths, and there are dozens of studies supporting the 21 drinking age and suggesting that reversing this law will lead to more drinking-related deaths and injuries. I do, however, agree that there should be a national debate, and it should be about binge drinking.
This is where the presidents of colleges and universities must act; the college culture of drinking truly is an issue for leaders in higher education. Full-time college students on average drink more heavily than their non-college peers, according to a study cited by AlcoholPolicyMD.com, and around our community, the beer-brand signs in bars and liquor stores shouting “Welcome Students” are clear evidence of the attention paid to this population by alcohol advertising. Traditions among fraternities and sororities, athletes and the “Animal House” mystique further add to the pressure to drink to excess.
The argument has been made that if one can join the military and vote, why can’t one buy a beer, but binge drinking is a very different issue. The college students who die every year do not die from buying a beer. They die from drinking so much that they pass out, choke on their own vomit or lapse into a coma. Or they get into a car and kill themselves or someone else by driving while intoxicated. This issue isn’t about buying a beer. This is about high risk behaviors like funneling, beer pong, keg stands, body shots and the myriad other drinking games whose sole purpose is to get the participants as drunk as they can as fast as they can. And contrary to conventional wisdom, according to a study of binge drinking among the U.S. and 34 European countries, where the drinking age is generally lower, 33 European countries have higher binge-drinking rates among youth than does the U.S.
Frostburg State University is like most other residential institutions of higher education: Some students drink, sometimes to excess and sometimes with tragic consequences. But we refuse to throw our hands up in exasperation. Instead, we are attacking the problem from many angles. We have an alcohol education program that we require of freshmen and offer to their parents, as well. We have enlisted our local community in the fight, asking liquor stores to check IDs more carefully, bars to end the deep discounts on drinks, and local police to break up large parties. When students are issued alcohol citations, we tell their parents. And student groups who themselves are trying to fight the problem of binge drinking apply social-norming principles and good old fashioned peer pressure in the process. I told students not long after I came to Frostburg two years ago that I never, ever wanted anyone to have to place a call a students’ parents and say, "I'm sorry, but your child has died as a result of drinking too much alcohol." But even though we have made progress, I know there is no guarantee that we will be spared that agonizing duty.
If the intent of the Amethyst Initiative was to “head fake” the nation into a serious debate on the issue of binge drinking, then I say congratulations. This has been necessary for a very long time. College and university presidents like me have to deal with the issue of their students’ binge drinking and its risks every year, even every day. I only wish it didn’t take some 1,700 deaths a year to get us talking. Let’s review the evidence carefully before making a decision, then move this dialogue beyond this specific notion toward a truly comprehensive, sustained set of initiatives, policies and strategies to address this issue.
Jonathan Gibralter is president of Frostburg State University.
Submitted by Kevin Brown on September 24, 2010 - 3:00am
Previously in these pages, I wrote an essay about my not having a cell phone and what I try to teach students about my choice. I have written online articles before, but I was not prepared for the responses I received. Almost all of them were negative, with some people asking me how I felt about the horseless carriage or suggesting that I begin wearing underwear on my head. What I found most interesting about the debate in the comments section, though, was the overall belief that I should not be trying to change the students’ behavior in any way, that I am not a role model for anything other than my discipline (and perhaps not even there).
I have been thinking about this experience over the past year, as there have been several colleges and universities in the news for trying to adjust their students’ behavior outside the classroom, especially as it relates to health. Last year, Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, planned to require its incoming students to have their BMI (Body Mass Index) calculated. They proposed a plan where the students would take a course to help them get in better shape. Though Lincoln ultimately rescinded its plan, the University of Texas at Arlington did put into place a course that officials there believed would help encourage students to get in better shape. This plan seems to be working well, as students were so interested that the university had to add extra sections and instructors.
In May, the University of California at Berkeley announced a health-related plan of its own. Berkeley hoped to obtain DNA samples from incoming freshmen, then notify those students about their alcohol and lactose tolerance, as well as their need for folic acid. After a state Department of Public Health ruling, though, they adjusted the program, making it voluntary for students to participate; and the university will not release information to individuals, instead only revealing aggregate results.
All of these stories raise a question that comes from the Lincoln University case, as shown in an Inside Higher Ed article from last fall. In that article, James C. Turner, then-president of the American College Health Association, argued that Lincoln’s requirement “raises questions about personal rights and which trumps, personal rights or university policy.” It is this question that intrigues me and relates to my experience about the role of professors and universities.
I would guess that most professors would be unable to recite or reference any portion of the mission statement of their institution. Most professors argue that it is their primary job to communicate their discipline to students or to engage in research, depending on the type of school. Beyond that, they might argue that they are to be involved in shared governance, advising, and possibly the community. However, I wonder if taking the time to look at our mission statements, which we at least theoretically agree with, might remind us of a larger role that we might play in students’ lives.
I teach at a primarily undergraduate, church-related, teaching-focused institution, all of which one can find in our mission statement. Thus, I decided to look at other colleges in our area that are decidedly different from mine to see what their statements might say on issues that go beyond teaching. At the local community college, they say that their institution “delivers developmental education, university transfer programming, workforce training, and community services”; as one might expect the emphasis is on practical goals that will help students move on to their next stage of life, be that a four-year school or work.
The flagship university for the state system lists its first goal as wanting to “advance the community of learning by engaging in scientific research, humanistic scholarship, and artistic creation,” moving the focus to research and scholarship, not teaching. The preeminent private institution in the state lists only three goals: “quest for new knowledge through scholarship[;] dissemination of knowledge through teaching and outreach[;] creative experimentation of ideas and concepts,” goals that are similar to those of the larger state university.
However, out of the four institutions, three of them also mention some aspect of students’ lives that goes well beyond the idea of academic training and moves into the area of changing their lives in some rather drastic ways. The community college, for example, says that it will “enhance quality of life, and encourage civic involvement,” while the state university will “prepare students to lead lives of personal integrity and civic responsibility in a global society,” “conduct research, teaching, and outreach to improve human and animal medicine and health,” and “contribute to improving the quality of life.” Here at Lee, in addition to the spiritual goals we have for students, we hope to foster “healthy physical, mental, social, cultural and spiritual development.” Only the private institution does not go beyond the basic academic goals in its mission and values.
I’m guessing that, at this point, most professors would respond that these goals are perfectly fine for the institution, but that they have no part in them. They can be handled by the student life function at the school. Let students play intramurals or serve in student government if they are worried about their physical development or want to learn how to become better citizens.
However, these same professors have no trouble attempting to change students’ lives in other, equally dramatic, ways in the classroom. Gerald Graff, former president of the Modern Language Association, wrote in his presidential address from December 2008, “All this [complaint about classroom indoctrination] might be the end of the story if it were not that since the 1960s ‘transforming’ the political consciousness of students has been widely defended in print as a legitimate goal of teaching, as is seen in such self-described trends as ‘the pedagogy of the oppressed,’ ‘critical pedagogy,’ ‘teaching for social justice,’ ‘radical pedagogy,’ and ‘anti-oppressive education.’ ”
The way we approach these subjects and others too numerous to mention does not convey a neutral statement to the students, and most of us have long since ceased claiming that our teaching does. If that is true, then, our approaches to cell phones in classrooms and students’ weight, health, and self-image, among other issues, are also not neutral.
In the same way that a literature class that ignores female authors (or even ignores the fact that it ignores female authors) would be seen as a political act, though no political statement is ever made, an institution that ignores other issues that affect our students is also political. Thus, colleges and universities take a political stance by a lack of action as much as by acting one way or the other.
Of course, such an approach can easily lead to a school becoming Big Brother, watching students’ every move, waiting for them to light a cigarette, go binge drinking, eat an extra doughnut, or spend all of their free time online playing video games or texting their friends. In the same way, though, that we try to educate students about both smoking and drinking, often creating tobacco- and alcohol-free campuses, we can also educate students about health and the importance of face-to-face community.
The real problem is not, though, that professors do not want students’ quality of life to improve; they are afraid that they will then have to be role models for those students. We, like Charles Barkley, do not want to be role models. It smacks of the image of the spinster teacher from the early 1900s who had to have chaperones on dates and bring in coal for the fire in our one-room schoolhouse. It’s old-fashioned to think that students are watching us to see what we’re doing, to see what we value.
They are, though, as those who respect us want to take from us as much as they can. Thus, we must watch not only what we say, but what we do not say, and, perhaps most importantly, what we do.
Kevin Brown is an associate professor of English at Lee University.
A recent survey of college and university officials found that 66 percent of institutions now collect criminal justice information about would-be students, usually through self-disclosure on the application. The survey revealed that a wide range of offenses can get an applicant additional screening that can lead to rejection, and that less than half of the colleges that use this approach have written policies to guide admissions officers or train those employees.
As the head of the Center for Community Alternatives, the organization that asked the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers to conduct the survey, I am troubled by the survey’s findings. CCA’s core mission is removing the barriers to employment, education and full community reintegration faced by individuals who have been involved in the criminal justice system, and we know, from both the research literature and from our own experience, that access to a higher education can have a profound effect on individual lives. If past criminal convictions are preventing significant numbers of young people from going to college, then we all lose out.
That’s why these colleges’ policies concern us. Seventy-five percent of schools consider any drug or alcohol conviction negatively in spite of how common those offenses are among the college-age population. And one-third of schools consider pending misdemeanors or even misdemeanor arrests in a negative light.
Also disturbing is the ad hoc quality of the procedures used by many of the schools that collect this sensitive information. At the 40 percent of colleges that train staff on how to interpret criminal records, the training is most often provided by campus security or “other staff.” The lack of in depth-training is troubling because criminal records are often inaccurate and almost always more complicated than they may seem at first blush.
A major complication in interpreting criminal records is that state laws vary so greatly that two college applicants from different states, convicted of the same offense at age 15, could end up with entirely different criminal history records. One may end up with an adult record while the other will have no adult record whatsoever. In some states anyone older than 16 can be prosecuted as an adult and end up with a permanent record. In other states the cut-off age is 18, and those who are younger will be processed in the juvenile system, which protects them from a permanent conviction. Without training, admissions officers will not be aware of the vagaries of state criminal records and will be more likely to make arbitrary decisions based on inaccurate facts.
There are important public policy reasons to eschew the collection of criminal history information from college applicants. The fact that African Americans and Latinos are overrepresented in the criminal justice population is no longer open to question. Racial profiling and the heavy concentration of police in low-income, urban neighborhoods have led to high rates of arrest, prosecution and conviction among communities of color. An African American in the city of Los Angeles is seven times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, a misdemeanor, as a white person is. A Latino in the same city is twice as likely to be arrested for that offense as a white person. Yet government studies show that whites use marijuana more than either blacks or Latinos. Based on these facts, screening for criminal records cannot be a race-neutral practice.
Are there serious risks involved in not conducting criminal background checks? There is no empirical evidence that students with criminal records present a threat to campus safety. Only one study has investigated the link between criminal history screening and improved safety on campus; no statistical difference in campus crime was found between schools that screen and schools that don’t.
The U.S. Department of Education has concluded that “students on the campuses of post-secondary institutions are significantly safer than the nation as a whole.” The most horrific campus crimes, like the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings, are committed by students who don’t have criminal records. Rape and sexual assault are the only crimes showing no statistical differences between college students and non-students, and those offenses are most often committed by inebriated students who have no prior criminal records. Thirty-eight percent of the respondents in our survey reported that they did not use criminal justice information in their admissions processes, and none of them indicated that they believed their campuses were less safe as a result.
Colleges and universities can responsibly refrain from collecting criminal background information about applicants, and by doing so will be able to attract a diverse student body and maintain a safe and secure campus. But if criminal history screening is done, it should be done according to reasonable, fair and written policies and procedures:
Remove the disclosure requirement from initial application for admission and ask for criminal justice information only after conditional admission.
Limit the disclosure requirement to convictions for felonies (not misdemeanors or infractions) that were committed within the past five years and that were committed after the applicant’s 19th birthday.
Establish admissions criteria that are fair and evidence-based, e.g., remove barriers to admission of individuals who are under some form of community supervision and provide an opportunity to document personal growth and rehabilitation.
Base admissions decisions on assessments that are well-informed and unbiased by developing in-house expertiseand performing an assessment and multi-factor analysis to determine whether a past criminal offense justifies rejection.
Establish written procedures that are transparent and consistent with due process. Applicants should be informed in writing of the reason for the withdrawal of an offer of admission and should be afforded the right of appeal.
Offer support and advocacy including on-campus support services for students who have criminal records.
Evaluate the policy periodically to determine whether it is justified.
There are great social benefits associated with a more educated citizenry — more informed voters, better parents, and a more skilled workforce, to name a few. A college education is a crime prevention tool: colleges and universities promote public safety in the larger community when they open their doors to people with criminal records who demonstrate the commitment and qualifications to pursue higher education.
Marsha Weissman is executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives. The organization’s full report, "The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered," can be downloaded from its website.