Alcohol and drugs

Risk Springs Eternal

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed reported the efforts that colleges and universities are making to put a stop to the ritualized mayhem on assorted campuses, typically as a rite of spring, that is as deeply embedded in campus lore as any sanctioned event. These range from a singular event, like Tufts University's Naked Quad Run, to a multi-day event like the University of Connecticut's infamous Spring Weekend, a four-day informal but well-known series of un-sponsored parties in various locations on and near campus that took place last weekend.

Each of these events leads to predictable results: multiple cases of severe alcohol poisoning and hospital transports, physical and sexual assaults, vandalism, increased personnel and equipment costs, embarrassing media coverage and cries of outrage from the general public about why colleges "allow" these things to happen. As far back as 1998, the higher education press was reporting on the intractable nature of UConn's Spring Weekend, chiding administrators for not doing enough to prevent the mayhem.

I spent four years as dean of students at the University of Connecticut, and thus had a front-row seat at both the multiple strategy meetings held by various administrators in advance of Spring Weekend and at the events of Spring Weekend themselves, and I can tell you with absolute certainty: "allowed" is not a descriptor that applies to these events.

Two years removed from that position, and now at a small college with its own Spring Weekend (and its own challenges), I've had the opportunity to ponder the lessons I learned during those four years. While I was not part of the conversations that led to the most recent request by UConn administrators for a moratorium (soundly rejected by the student government), I empathized with my former colleagues in their efforts to respond to demands that the event be "canceled." I can hear the familiar plaint now: "How can we 'cancel' something we don't put on in the first place?"

Spring Weekend at my current institution, despite having the same name, is on such a different scale as to not even warrant comparison to the behemoth that is UConn's event, but, as I often observe, students on most campuses are similar in some fundamental ways, and I've tried to apply what I learned at UConn to my understanding of this weekend. Some of those lessons are ones that some of my colleagues on other campuses learned long ago, and perhaps offer some insights into why the management, or, even more extreme, the cancellation of these events, is so problematic.

Observation 1: A lot of students like to drink.

Not all students like to drink, and not many students like to drink to such excess that they poison themselves, but a pretty darn high percentage like to drink to the point where they feel a little buzzed, a little uninhibited, a little more edgy than they feel during the day. Any current research on student alcohol use will tell you that drinking is a very popular co-curricular activity, and any student activities professional will tell you that the presence of alcohol is the flame to our student moths. If an “event” promises the availability of free or cheap alcohol, students will show up. You cannot fight this attraction with non-alcohol events, no matter how much fun they might appear to be.

Observation 2: Students like spectacles, especially dangerous ones.

Like most of us, students like big crazy events, even if it's more to observe them from a safe distance. I knew many students who attended Spring Weekend events at UConn not to participate in the mayhem and destruction themselves, but to witness it and to be able to say, "I saw this kid from my calculus class, butt-naked, standing in the bed of a pickup truck, pounding on his chest." Or something similar. And if they can capture that image in some way and post it on YouTube or Facebook, all the better.

The important distinction is that they don't want to be the butt-naked guy in the truck (well, most of them don't, but there are always a few who will accommodate the masses and the media). They just want to see him. They want to see the fights, but don't want to fight. They want to see the arrests, but don't want to get arrested. In this way, they are not unlike the general population. For me, one of my most unsettling experiences at UConn was when I found myself following another administrator through the crowd to stand on the edge of the medical triage area and observe the falling-down drunk and bleeding students being carted toward the medical trailer. I realized that the group I was with had the same rubber-necking motives as many of the students in attendance.

Observation 3: Students like to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Anyone who's ever attended a football game at one of the true "big houses" of NCAA football understands this. When you are one of a hundred thousand screaming fans at a Michigan or Alabama home game, you feel connected in a unique way to the rest of humanity (at least that part of humanity that roots for the Wolverines or the Tide). You are one of thousands dressed in the right colors, singing the right songs, cheering at the right moments, and it's simply transcendent.

It is this most basic human desire, to be connected to a cause and powerful with promise, that has led nations into battle. College students recognize that these are the moments they will carry into middle and old age, moments replete with color and noise and a level of outrageousness that no night in a campus coffee house or bouncing around, relatively sober, on an inflatable obstacle course will match.

Observation 4: Threats don't work.

In the recent Inside Higher Ed piece, an administrator was quoted as saying that students need to "understand how important the reputation of their school is to the integrity of their degree" and that these huge embarrassing events damage the value of their diploma. Nice try, but I don't think many students make decisions about attending or supporting these events based on this reasoning. I'm not even sure I believe it anymore.

Harvard and Yale have some over-the-top events that involve excessive drinking. Dartmouth has its famous Winter Carnival. I have not seen evidence that the bad behavior of some students has soured employers on these institutions. It's different, obviously, if a job candidate has an arrest record because of a campus incident, or if that student drank so excessively throughout college that he or she ended up with a mediocre GPA. But most employers are savvy enough to know that schools that have big spring weekend parties or nude footraces also produce capable employees and will not dismiss an entire institution out of hand because of the deeply rooted, though troubling, traditions of its student body. Besides, most employers were college students themselves, and some probably stood on the sidelines cheering on the butt-naked guy in the pick-up truck, and know it didn't destroy their integrity or work ethic.

Observation 5: Parents help. A little.

One of the things I love about my students, though it puts them at risk more times than I like to think about, is their ongoing love affair with immortality. Students rarely think about consequences. Recent research on brain development explains this as the not-quite-finished adolescent brain being unskilled at thinking through all the possible outcomes of specific actions. Students do not, like those of us of a certain age, make connections between things like, say, attendance at an event where there are a lot of law enforcement personnel and getting arrested. Or, maybe, attendance at an event where there are a lot of drunk people with beer bottles in their hands and ending up with 25 stitches in one's scalp. Frankly, they don't often see the connection between parking in a fire lane and getting a ticket.

So the students who attend this year's UConn Spring Weekend events are unlikely to think about the classmate who was killed last year by a random punch thrown by a drunk partygoer and connect that kind of risk to their own actions.

Their parents, however, think about all of these things, all the time. They read the press coverage of students' arrests, injuries and deaths on campuses all year long, and at the conclusion of each article, feel a wave of sympathy for the parents of that student and a flood of relief that it was not their child. So when Spring Weekend or a similar event rolls around on their child's campus, parents can, and do, say things like, "Come home." Or, "Here's a hundred dollars. Visit your high school friends on another campus." Or "I'm coming to visit that weekend. What do you have planned?" For many students, the executive function their brains lack can be substituted for by their parents, and that can literally be the difference between life and death.

Observation 6: It eventually gets old.

One thing we knew at UConn was that first-year students participated most heavily in Spring Weekend events, and that each successive year saw fewer students involved. For most students (not all, unfortunately), vomiting in front of friends, flashing their breasts to a crowd of drunk men armed with cameras, risking their scalp, and taking a ride in a paddy wagon to the local police station are not activities that warrant repeating.

And this is what comforts me, if anything does, when I think about these events: most students eventually figure out the difference between a buzz and alcohol poisoning, and learn to moderate their intake. What's frustrating for all of us — administrators, parents, law enforcement — is that there is very little we can do to speed up this process, or keep them out of harm's way in the meantime. Which brings me to my final observation.

Observation 7: They are better at taking care of each other than of themselves.

The best strategies, I believe, are those that focus on helping students identify the signs of alcohol poisoning in others and knowing what to do when they see those signs. Students believe themselves to be immortal. They don't ascribe such a trait to their friends. And you only need a couple of reasonably sober people in a group of drunk friends to realize someone is in trouble and then to get help.

That's where the second important strategy is important: help needs to be nearby. It is easy to criticize the staff members at campuses who are less aggressive about confronting students holding "open containers" during these events than they would be at other times. But personally, I would rather have my students within view, and have public safety officers within reach of those students if needed. We may be accused of “looking the other way,” but I think it’s actually the exact opposite: we are looking right at them, and I believe that kind of presence can change their actions in a positive way.

And the truth for me is, I can live with the accusations of hypocrisy and inconsistency more easily than I can live with the death or serious injury of a student. For that reason, I have supported the recent efforts of our alcohol task force to implement a policy they call "SAMM" (Safety Always Matters Most). On some campuses, this is known as a "medical amnesty" or a "good Samaritan" policy, but I asked the group to be as straightforward in its nomenclature as possible. These policies, under whatever name a campus chooses, are similar: get help for someone in need of medical assistance, and we'll mostly forgive whatever transgressions you might have also committed. I say "mostly" because we will, at the very least, have a conversation with you about the situation. But our message is clear: safety matters more than rules, policies, consequences.

If I can keep my students safe, I figure, through whatever version of Spring Weekend they choose to participate in, there will be time enough for them to figure out the ways adults are expected to behave in the world. This is a bargain I make that few outside my profession seem to understand. To those critics, I suggest that you trust we care more about our students than about liability, and that we understand them, from years spent up close observing them, in ways most people don't.

If there was a way to "cancel" Spring Weekend, Spring Fling, Fountain Day, Fool's Fest, or whatever a campus calls its out-of-control student-led party, we would have done it. Without that option, we will employ the strategies we think give us all the best chance of surviving a rite of spring as deeply embedded as commencement, another busy weekend on our campus, but one we want all of our students to be around to enjoy.

Lee Burdette Williams
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Lee Burdette Williams is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.

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