It’s a sad but recurring campus story: This autumn, students are again drinking themselves to death.
Colorado State student Samantha Spady had consumed as many as 40 drinks when she was found dead at a fraternity house in September. Lynn Gordon Bailey Jr., Gordie to his friends, had been taken to the mountains near the University of Colorado with fellow Chi Psi fraternity pledges and told not to leave until several bottles of whiskey were finished.
At a University of Oklahoma fraternity house, Blake Hammontree had a blood-alcohol content more than five times the legal limit. Bradley Barrett Kemp of the University of Arkansas had downed a dozen beers and, friends said, possibly other drugs.
Those deaths — three of which have been officially ruled alcohol poisoning — are only the most prominent. The vast majority of the estimated 1,400 alcohol-related deaths each year among college students come in automobile accidents and go largely unnoticed.
The episodes leave college leaders with a persistent question: Is there anything they can do?
“I don’t feel hopeless. I do feel frustrated at times, because the problem does continue,” said Thomas Burish, president at Washington & Lee University in Virginia, a school that lost two students in an alcohol-related automobile accident in 2000. “No college president I know of says what he or she is doing is solving the problem.”
Dangerous drinking has been a feature of campus life since medieval Europe. Experts say it’s simply inevitable that alcohol will be one way college students choose to push the boundaries of their newfound independence. And it’s inevitable that some, with nobody to make them stop, will go too far.
Administrators remain hopeful
But college presidents interviewed recently insist they aren’t helpless. While tragedies are inevitable, they believe the policies and tone they set save some lives.
“What a college president can do is affect the atmosphere and climate,” said Thomas Hearn, who has been actively involved in alcohol issues during his long tenure as president of Wake Forest University. “We think of it as a cultural, not a local, problem. We’re not going to solve it by anything we do, but we will have some measurable effect depending on how far we go.”
But will any anti-drinking programs work consistently? The evidence is mixed at best.
For instance, proponents of a popular strategy called “social norms marketing,” which tries to persuade students that binge drinking isn’t as common as they believe, recently presented preliminary research from 130 college campuses claiming the strategy is showing results. But Harvard University expert Henry Wechsler has published another study that critiques social norms, claiming it does little good.
Wechsler found modest success for schools that aggressively pursued comprehensive partnerships with nearby communities to limit alcohol access, punish lawbreakers and reduce the influence of alcohol on campus culture. Schools he studied took different approaches, but they included parental notification of offenses, requiring kegs be registered and requiring servers to charge for each drink.
“It’s not about telling kids to be more careful and giving them a brochure and CD-ROM,” said Alexander Wagenaar, a University of Florida professor of epidemiology and health policy research. “Changing the environment that fosters it, that’s the key.”
But the more comprehensive strategies that discourage excessive boozing demand more time and energy from college leaders. They also often force administrators to confront a culture of tolerance toward excessive drinking that is often propped up by visiting alumni and cozy relationships between the alcohol industry and college athletics.
Wechsler believes many college presidents recognize the complex problem they’re facing but “I don’t know how committed they are to a long-term, difficult approach” to solving it.
Problem looms off campus
Another huge challenge is that many of the most serious incidents take place beyond the universities’ area of immediate oversight.
Many students “live off-campus and in apartments,” said University of Mississippi Chancellor Robert Khayat. “That becomes really problematic for us. There’s not much we can do about it.”
Khayat said midweek drinking by students at Mississippi is down in recent years, but “Thursday, Friday, Saturday, there’s as much drinking going on as I’ve ever seen.”
Unable and unwilling to constantly monitor students, several college leaders said they’re increasingly convinced the best bet is to have students make and enforce their own rules. Colgate, for instance, has students in some residences write their own behavior contracts, said president Rebecca Chopp. The idea is to make students answerable to the people they live with.
Washington and Lee is moving to a similar philosophy, Burish said, and trying to bring its fraternities and sororities on board.
“That empowers them, instead of having to live under a 10-page list of rules that the dean hands down,” Chopp said.
It’s also a strategy aimed at pushing hard without pushing students away — a delicate balance for schools and, for that matter, parents.
“Nothing’s easy to change at institutions, but adolescent behavior is more resistant to change than much adult behavior,” said Marlene Ross, director of the American Council on Education Fellows program, which helps train college presidents. “It’s something adults are presenting so it’s automatically irrelevant.”
Amanda Havekost, a Colorado State sophomore who was a close friend of Samantha Spady, said that since many students will inevitably drink, rules and policies have their limits. In the wake of her friend’s death, she’s working on a number of projects geared toward educating students about their limits — something novice drinkers may have trouble with.
“Obviously, the drinking age is 21, and the people that have passed away have been under 21,” she said. “The policy and the rules haven’t worked. (We need to) give them the education of knowing their limits and what their body can handle.”
“I think this culture that has developed on campuses, it may take as long to change that,” she said. “I hope not. We just feel somebody needs to do something.”
Meanwhile, the problem continues, with three more alcohol-related deaths recently in Colorado alone. On Oct. 21, Amanda Morrison fell her to her death from a Colorado College dormitory window with a 0.22 blood-alcohol level. Preliminary tests showed Jason Bannick, 19, of Fort Lewis College had been drinking when he was killed Oct. 24 by an SUV as he walked down a highway.
And just three days later, 24-year-old Colorado Mountain College student Joseph Michael Osborne was found at an off-campus house, killed by heart and lung failure due to alcohol poisoning.