More Colleges Struggle to Cap Beer Culture

Death of MIT fraternity student underscores campus alcohol-abuse crisis.

The statistic is sobering: College students spend $5.5 billion on alcohol each year - more than on books, soda, coffee, juice, and milk combined.

It points to a deeply ingrained culture of student drinking in America - a vexing problem that is forcing more campuses to experiment with aggressive new ways of curbing alcohol abuse.

* The State University of New York in Albany has worked out an agreement with off-campus tavern owners to stop happy hours and avoid selling to minors.

* Ohio State University in Columbus suspended a dozen students after a drunken post-football-game riot in 1996. The president called each student's parents to explain his actions.

* The University of Rhode Island at Kingston has banned alcohol at all campus activities. While booze-related incidents such as student brawls have not lessened, police say students are less aggressive toward authorities.

As college officials weigh their options, a debate is arising over how well "dry" campuses curb student drinking - and whether they merely push the problem into surrounding communities.

The issue is becoming more urgent in the wake of recent alcohol-related tragedies, including the death this week of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student. Some experts say the real solution lies in changing the culture of campuses and their host cities.

"Local providers of alcohol have to be involved, as well as athletic departments and student leaders," says Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. If colleges simply ban alcohol, he says, "you'll just drive it off campus."

If MIT freshman Scott Krueger were the only student to die from overdrinking, his story would be an isolated incident of lost potential. But in fact, binge drinking has become a sad fact of life on most college campuses. This year alone, three students have died from alcohol poisoning, and more have died from injuries sustained while drunk.

The scale of college drinking is immense. According to a 1995 nationwide survey of college students, 44 percent admitted to drinking in binges (meaning that men drink five or more drinks at a setting, and women drink four or more). Members of fraternities and sororities are among the most likely to binge, at 86 percent and 80 percent, respectively, according to the Harvard University study

"In the past 15 years, I think [binge drinking] has gotten worse," says Robert Carothers, president of the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. "The rites of societal passage keep getting earlier, and very high numbers of college freshmen come to us with a drinking habit." The Harvard study underlined this problem, he adds, with 37 percent of students admitting to having a substance-abuse problem.

"Every campus in the country looks at what happened at MIT and says, 'There but for the grace of God goes any one of us, at any week, despite our best efforts,' " says Dr. Carothers. "We all need to exert our best effort on this problem, because the risk is all too high."

Unintended consequences

To be sure, campuses that have taken a strong stand have had their setbacks. At the University of New Hampshire in Durham, where alcohol has been banned, students often drive elsewhere for alcohol and some return drunk. Tensions reached the breaking point last month, when police broke up an illegal house party off campus, and hundreds of students pelted police with rocks and bottles.

Even so, student and fraternity leaders are trying to restore some sense of civility to the debate and are drawing up new rules of behavior. The national organization of Theta Chi, for instance, has advised all its chapters to become substance-free.

The call for sobriety is sometimes rejected. Last month, the National Interfraternity Conference pushed a new conduct code to reduce binge drinking, but the idea was rejected by member fraternities. But some frats, like Sigma Phi Epsilon at the University of Vermont in Burlington, are moving ahead on their own. For Sigma Phi, the decision came easily. It had been closed down after a 1993 hazing incident involving alcohol.

"A bunch of us said, 'We're not going to take this stuff anymore,' " says Michael Languasco, president of UVM's Sigma Phi Epsilon. "Now your parents can visit, and you're not climbing over people to get in the front door, and you're not dealing with 400 vagrants in the house."

"We want to revisit what fraternities used to be," he adds. "They were groups of young men ... bringing out the better parts of themselves, exerting positive peer pressure on each other to do well."

The new rules - no alcohol in the house, no functions, and no parties - were attractive to sophomore Marshall Keener.

"It's a huge difference," says Mr. Keener, who joined this fall. In his old dormitory, "every night, the whole floor would be drunk. It's didn't really bother me, but I didn't get much work done either."

Although substance-free frats like Sigma Phi usually allow members to drink elsewhere, many activists say they are grateful for a step in the right direction.

"We need to change the college environment into a place where binge drinking is no longer acceptable," says Roseanne Deucher of Ohio Parents for Drug-Free Youths, just as Americans now frown on smoking in offices or a restaurants.

Glorifying the beer culture

To be sure, changing the campus culture will be hard. Many colleges sell alcohol at sports events. Few professors schedule tests for Friday mornings, knowing that students are prone to getting a head start on the weekend. One college bookstore even sells T-shirts of a yellow caution sign with a stick-figure person crawling, beer can in hand. The caption reads "Student Xing."

Many residence counselors cite concerns about enforcing the stiffer rules, saying they risk being sued if they step in and something bad happens to a student. As a result, these days, underage drinking occurs "in private and out of public view, and we really have lost control of this," says Bill Bossert, master of Lowell House, a dormitory at Harvard University.

But whether colleges embrace abstinence - or at least encourage moderation - most experts say the key is enforcement. "I would prefer to have a few rules about drinking and then enforce them," says Marianne Lee, who managed the Harvard study. "I'm tired of kids dying."

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