Seminar on high-risk drinking draws 17 schools to campus

Students, faculty and staff from 17 other colleges and universities gathered at Princeton Thursday and Friday, April 2-3, to exchange information and share best practices on addressing high-risk drinking.

The 130 participants were here at the invitation of Princeton's Alcohol Coalition Committee (ACC) to attend a seminar titled "High-Risk Drinking: Catalyzing a Culture Change," the first of its kind offered at the University. Following a dinner and keynote address by University of Michigan professor Barry Checkoway on Thursday evening, those attending participated in a workshop on Friday morning modeled on the workshops the ACC has conducted on campus during the past year.

"Inviting 17 of our peer schools to participate in a seminar on high-risk drinking, using the successful ACC workshop model of engaging faculty, students and staff in conversation, was a great success," said Amy Campbell, director of campus life initiatives and co-chair of the ACC with junior Chris Chandler.

"The ACC executive team did a superb job of identifying the key questions to discuss, inviting Barry Checkoway to introduce the topic of culture change at the dinner preceding the workshop and creating an environment that encouraged open and honest conversation among faculty, staff and students from 18 different institutions," she said. "This cross-institutional, cross-layer of roles created an opportunity to think about high-risk drinking and the culture that supports it in a way that we hope permits each school to take away good ideas, and also to value the paradigm of engaging all campus constituents in the discussion. We also hope to create an understanding of the importance of moving beyond thinking high-risk drinking is an issue that can be fixed solely by focusing on policies affecting student behavior, but rather as an issue that is reflective of a complex set of social, institutional and individual factors."

The other schools attending were Brown, Bryn Mawr, Columbia, Duke, Franklin & Marshall, Georgetown, Haverford, Johns Hopkins, Lehigh, NYU, Penn, Swarthmore, Ursinus, Rider, Rutgers, the U.S. Naval Academy and Yale.

"I was extremely pleased with the turnout for the seminar. The schools that attended were able to bring a mix of perspectives and experiences that really allowed for productive discussion," said Helen Chen, a Princeton sophomore who co-chaired the team of faculty, staff and students that planned the seminar with Janet Finnie, associate director of University Health Services. "One of the only challenges we faced was trying to end each of the breakout sessions during the workshop -- everyone was just so absorbed and engaged in their conversations! This even more than the positive feedback I received was proof that we accomplished our goal of encouraging people to share ideas about high-risk drinking."

On Friday morning, participants arrived to find the Frist Campus Center Multipurpose Room filled with round tables labeled with numbers that pointed to a key with 10 questions projected on screens: "Why do smart students do stupid things?"; "Is real culture change possible?"; "What will change produce? Creating an appealing and realistic vision."

Those attending could choose a discussion topic/table for each of two one-hour breakout sessions. At a table on "What works/what doesn't," the ideas were coming before the moderator said, "Go": more Friday classes, additional funding for nonalcoholic programs, unique social events where there is no drinking, events where students of age can drink responsibly, events for mixed ages with wristbands.

At the end of the two sessions, the moderators for each table reported out the two best ideas that each group had developed. These were written on large pieces of paper and posted around the room. During lunch, participants could "vote" with stickers for what they considered the best ideas.

Common themes were voiced across the tables: the importance of students taking the lead in changing the culture with support from administration as well as the need to involve all stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff and community members.

"One of the things that needs to be done is collaboration among student leaders and people who are motivated," said one student. "But the ideas need to come from the students, and they are there only four or five years. So the upperclass students need to work with the administration to instill a lasting change."

The schools have been asked to prepare a one-page report on what they have taken away from the seminar and to indicate whether they are interested in sustaining the dialogue through a listserv or additional gatherings. Princeton will consolidate the reports and distribute them to the schools.

"It was a great first start in sharing best practices and in sharing the challenges we all face," said one faculty member from another school.

"It's been a big part of my year this year, working with my college and trying to make changes" said a junior from one school. "My friend passed away in the fall [in an alcohol-related incident] and that's how I got so into it. I really enjoyed hearing what other people had to say, and also having them listen to my ideas and hearing what they thought of those. I think the big consensus we've come to is involving the students and moving up from that. I'm really glad to hear that's what other colleges are trying to do as well."

Another staff member commented, "It was very interesting and very helpful getting comments from students as well as faculty and staff. A lot of times we don't have all those voices in the room at the same time when discussing important issues."

The seminar is one of the five areas on which the ACC has focused this year. The others are: education concerning pre-orientation and orientation programs and curriculum; party registration for students over 21; a workshop in December titled "The University's Alcohol Policy and Discipline Process: What Works and What Doesn't"; and structures to identify campus partners to address pre-gaming. More information is available on the ACC's website.