A Texas college battles the party culture

Not too long ago, Southwest Texas State University had a reputation as the state's "party school." On weekend nights, beer flowed from dorm-room and fraternity kegs like the cool waters of the nearby San Marcos River. Grades - and graduation - were sometimes an afterthought.

But on Feb. 6, 1999, after the death of one fraternity pledge and the near death of another student in separate alcohol-related incidents, university officials acted swiftly. They suspended all 12 fraternity houses and ordered them to be alcohol free by September 2000 in order to regain university recognition. They also vowed to make the entire campus dry by the same year.

It's the kind of strong-armed policy that draws praise and grumbles from students, and a mixture of resignation and relief from fraternity leaders across campus. But SWT president Jerome Supple knows his hardest task - changing the campus culture - is only beginning.

"The problem we have had with the abuse of alcohol is a systemic problem at universities around the country," says Dr. Supple, from his corner office overlooking the sprawling oak-lined campus. Banning alcohol at SWT won't solve the problem overnight, he admits, but along with raising admissions standards to attract more serious students, it will help much. "And then we can hope that this 'party school' thing will go away."

SWT is not the first large university to confront its party image by banning alcohol, but it serves as an interesting case study for the growing number of schools that are taking on parental roles, bucking popular culture, and discouraging excessive drinking.

Critics, primarily students, say it's an experiment that is doomed to fail, much as Prohibition failed to halt alcohol consumption after World War I. But supporters call it the only way to ensure student safety and bring colleges back to their original purpose: education.

"The issue of where students will party and how they will party is a big challenge, which has to be met head on, because to ignore it or avoid it is foolish and irresponsible," says John Koonradt, dean of men at Hillsdale College, an elite 1,200-student private college in Hillsdale, Mich.

Like SWT and other alcohol-free campuses, Hillsdale has stiff consequences, including hefty fines, for underage drinking and drinking of any sort in college dorms. Those who violate underage-drinking or drunken-driving laws off campus must perform community service, in addition to court penalties. After more than one alcohol infraction, parents are notified.

Like Hillsdale, SWT will apply stiff fines to those who drink in dorms, in frat houses, or who are publicly intoxicated. First-time violators will have to pay a $50 fee to see a campus counselor for a four-hour seminar. Second-time losers will pay a $75 fee for individual counseling, and their parents will be informed. Three times is it: The student gets sent home.

Of course, controlling a small college like Hillsdale is one thing. Tackling a 21,000-student behemoth like SWT, in a town with only 34,000 residents, is quite another.

Alcohol bans on large campuses, from all-out bans at Utah State University to the abolition of fraternities at Dartmouth College, have met with mixed results. Consider the experience of Michigan State University in East Lansing. Last fall, when administrators banned alcohol at campus events, like football games, students rioted in the streets. Similarly, University of Colorado at Boulder has had to call in riot police to quell booze-fueled protests.

San Marcos law-enforcement agencies say there's no sign of organized protest at SWT, but there's no change of culture either. "To be honest, our arrest stats have been very high overall," says Sgt. Dennis Gutierrez, leader of the Alcohol Enforcement Team, which combines officers from different law-enforcement teams to keep tabs on local college parties. "If the culture is going to change, it will change" when the ban takes full effect.

Byron Augustin, a veteran geography professor, says the culture has changed mostly for the worst over 30 years. In the old days, he says, kids would come to college and experiment with drinking. Today, "kids are already practitioners of binge drinking when they get here."

Bearing the brunt of SWT's rule changes are the school's 12 fraternity houses, which administrators say had developed a reputation for low grades and wild parties. But it was one tragic death on Feb. 6 that forced the administration to suspend all frats and bring them back this fall under probation.

Nick Anderson, a pledge at the "Teke" (Tau Kappa Epsilon) fraternity, was beaten to death by a former SWT student who was turned away from a Teke party. Frat members note nothing could be done to stop such a violent outsider, who later committed suicide, but administrators say alcohol was clearly a contributing factor.

For his part, Teke president John English, head of SWT's Interfraternity Council, says the Tekes are recruiting pledges in different ways, emphasizing brotherhood, leadership, and after-college connections instead of wine, women, and song.

Alcohol will continue to be served at off-campus parties, English says. Even so, holding parties outside of the frat house is "going to help with risk management and limit our liabilities," Mr. English says.

For now, SWT student protests have tended to be more muted and rhetorical. "You're going to end up forcing people off campus [to drink] and then drive while they're drunk," says Chad Potter, a senior finance student. Other students, like Erinn Durham, president of the Panhellenic Council of sororities, are more favorable. "It's sad that someone has to lose their life over this," she says, "but it was a huge wakeup call for the Greeks, and the Greeks are not going to stand for it."

*Stephen Humphries contributed to this report in Boston.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.