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Why haven’t efforts worked to stop dangerous drinking at college?

December 12, 2014 at 6:45 PM EDT
More than 1,800 students die each year in the U.S. from alcohol-related incidents, and nearly 100,000 sexual assaults have been reported that were linked to intoxication. How do we address the dark consequences of excessive drinking on college campuses? Gwen Ifill talks Jonathan Gibralter of Frostburg State College and Beth McMurtrie of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s a growing recognition about the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses, and it seems new headlines each week, including the high-profile investigations currently under way at the University of Virginia.

One major factor that’s getting less attention, and yet accompanies many cases, is the volume of drinking happening on or near campus.

That’s our focus tonight.

Gwen has a conversation we recorded earlier this week.

GWEN IFILL: The scenes you find of college parties on the Web and in the movies play up the fun, the rowdy moments, the sheer “Animal House” craziness of campus life.

But a recently renewed discussion about rape allegations has thrown a fresh spotlight onto the dark side of problems associated with excessive drinking at institutions of higher learning. More than 1,800 students die each year from alcohol-related incidents; 600,000 students have been injured while drunk and nearly 100,000 sexual assaults have been reported that were linked to alcohol intoxication.

We talk with two people who have seen the problem close up.

Jonathan Gibralter is the president of Frostburg State University in Maryland, which has about 5,000 students. He’s the co-chair of a college presidents working group to address student drinking. And Beth McMurtrie is with “The Chronicle of Higher Education” and she’s part of a team that just finished a special series, “Alcohol’s Hold on Campus.”

Welcome to you both.

JONATHAN GIBRALTER, Frostburg State University: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: We just talked about death, injury, sexual assault, President Gibraltar. Of those three, which would you say are the biggest consequence of excessive drinking?

JONATHAN GIBRALTER: I think all of them are the biggest consequence of excessive drinking. And excessive drinking is the thing that I think brings about a lot of these related harms to a lot of college students today. And I consider even one of them to be extremely serious.

GWEN IFILL: Beth McMurtrie, wasn’t this declared a problem in the 1990s? I am certain this is not the first conversation we have had about drinking on campus, yet here we are again.

BETH MCMURTRIE, The Chronicle of Higher Education: I know.

And I think that’s the thing that struck me as I was reporting this story. If you go back in time to the ’90s and even earlier, you see that this was part of a national conversation. And millions of dollars and hundreds of task forces and so many efforts have been put into this issue over the years to try to address the problem of dangerous drinking on college campuses.

But when you look at the data and you look at the binge drinking rates among college students, not a whole lot has changed.

GWEN IFILL: So, why didn’t the problem as identified turn into action?

BETH MCMURTRIE: Well, I think there has been action over the years.

And I think what did you see among colleges is that they tend to focus on education as a means for changing students’ behavior, this idea that if you give students the right information, that they will make wiser choices. But the research has shown education without enforcement and without intervention, without trying to control the flow of alcohol on campus, really has a very limited and a very short-term effect.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s ask president Gibraltar about that.

You have been part of this commission, but you also have to see this every single day in your job.

JONATHAN GIBRALTER: I think — and Beth is exactly right. I think that the important thing to recognize is that, in colleges and universities every year, you have a new group of freshmen. So it’s a new educational process.

Beyond that, though, just educating young people alone isn’t enough. It’s got to be a comprehensive initiative to approach this problem. And that includes both working with a local community, working with your college or university community, working with your alumni, but it also has to include deterrents.

At Frostburg State, we have a collaborative law enforcement agreement and our university police work closely with several different law enforcement agencies to work off campus and be able to work — you know, to really get at adjudicating these young people who get citations for off-campus behavior.

GWEN IFILL: And yet, Beth McMurtrie, in the series that you did in “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” there’s a term which — that caught my eye called the Organized Collegiate Drinking Infrastructure. That’s to say, the fraternities, the sororities, party culture, tailgating, you name it.

How do you tackle that, especially when it’s so much a part of the identity and even an Ivy League school like Yale, where 62 percent of students said they binge drink?

BETH MCMURTRIE: Right.

Well, I want to start out by saying this is a huge cultural issue. It’s not just a college issue. And so colleges do inherit this problem. But, as you pointed out, there are a lot of constituencies that are kind of actively working against efforts to control alcohol.

I think the simple answers is it, requires leadership, because this is in some ways a political — a political issue.

GWEN IFILL: On campus.

BETH MCMURTRIE: If you’re going to take on the fraternity system, if you’re going to take on the tailgating structure, the booster structure, you really have to — or if you’re going to go out, as Frostburg did, into the community and look at what is happening off campus with bar owners and liquor stores, you really need high-level support to be able to tackle these very complicated and sometimes political issues.

GWEN IFILL: So is it just a matter that the colleges or the law enforcement are just looking the other way? The laws exist. The rules exist. Are they just looking the other way?

JONATHAN GIBRALTER: I don’t think they’re looking the other way.

I think that these are just incredibly difficult issues. You know, you deal perhaps with a fraternity or a sorority perhaps off campus and there is a culture around these organizations that makes it extremely difficult for law enforcement to actually walk in and be able to have an impact.

I think that — I mean, at Frostburg State, when I arrived in 2006, the reported high-risk drinking rate was at about 59 percent; 59 percent of all students said they drink more than five drinks in any one sitting. We have been able to…

GWEN IFILL: Five drinks.

JONATHAN GIBRALTER: Five drinks in — over a period of two or three hours. Now it’s down to 41 percent. We have been able to move the mark below the national average.

GWEN IFILL: How?

JONATHAN GIBRALTER: Through a combination of deterrents, education, and working with local bar owners, working with landlords, and really trying to provide a comprehensive program for our students.

GWEN IFILL: When it comes to campus sexual assault, which we have been talking about a lot involving the University of Virginia and the flawed story that “Rolling Stone” ran, but still raised questions about behavior.

Is drinking — does drinking contribute to the inability of a woman to defend herself, especially if she drinks, is drunk, becomes a victim in one way or another, and looks like she — and the blame then shifts to the victim?

BETH MCMURTRIE: Well, you raise a very interesting issue.

Studies have shown that about three-quarters of sexual assaults on campuses involve alcohol, so we know that they’re closely correlated. But, historically, colleges have not talked about drinking or not talked about alcohol when they talk to students about preventing sexual assaults.

And I think the reason is they’re worried that they’re going to end up sounding like they are blaming the victim. They already have trouble getting victims to come forward, and so they don’t want to send this message that, well, it’s up to you to, right? It’s up to you to — if you drink too much, you might be putting yourself at risk of assault.

And, yet, that is a fact. And so colleges are wrestling with how to talk to students about the reality of dangerous drinking without sounding like they’re blaming them.

GWEN IFILL: Well, President Gibralter, how do colleges attack this now and avoid the issue fatigue that stopped the conversation from moving to some better place last time?

JONATHAN GIBRALTER: I — again, every year, it’s a new group of freshmen, so it’s a new conversation every year.

And for me, taking a leadership position on this at my campus is extremely important that empowers other people to be able to do their jobs. And so I don’t — neither I nor my university faculty and staff become fatigued of me talking about this topic. It’s important.

GWEN IFILL: But if I’m a parent, I’m a little fatigued or at least scared of sending my child to your school, if I think that that’s what’s going to happen.

JONATHAN GIBRALTER: And you should be concerned, because it is a cultural part of many colleges and universities.

And what I do during our orientation programs and during our open houses, where parents and their sons and daughters visit, is I tell parents that they need to be a part of this conversation. We need their help and support.

GWEN IFILL: President Jonathan Gibralter of Frostburg State University and Beth McMurtrie of “The Chronicle of Higher Education,” thank you both very much.

BETH MCMURTRIE: Thank you.

JONATHAN GIBRALTER: Thank you.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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