Sobering Facts
UVM tackles challenge of student drinking

For a large percentage of students on campuses nationwide, the freedom and independence of college life leads them to stray into alcohol abuse.


In August of 1997, John* realized a long-held dream. He went off to college. A first-year student at UVM, he carried a full load of classes, was developing an exciting social life, was making his own way in the world. But a taste for parties and alcohol started him on a downhill course. By mid-semester, John was cutting classes, failing tests, and waking up most mornings hungover. According to John, by mid-year his life was so out of control that his friends were beginning to suggest that maybe he ought to “lighten up on the drinking.” By the end of the academic year, he had been cited several times by Campus police and ultimately was suspended from the university for violation of UVM’s alcohol policy. A year later, having successfully come to terms with his alcohol abuse, John is now re-enrolled at UVM and doing well as he continues his education. His story has a happy ending. Many do not.

For a large percentage of students on campuses nationwide, the freedom and independence of college life leads them to stray into alcohol abuse. At the University of Virginia, for example, every weekend between three and ten students arrive in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning or an alcohol-related injury. In September 1997, after three days in a coma, an M.I.T. freshman died of alcohol poisoning after downing sixteen drinks. A month earlier, a student at Louisiana State University died under similar circumstances. In the same year, students died in alcohol-related accidents at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), the University of Virginia, Fordham, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth, Louisiana State, Penn State, and several smaller colleges. Nobody knows the number of rapes and assaults, or the amount of property damage incurred on American campuses in which alcohol plays a part.

The University of Vermont may not have the massive tailgate parties and drinking bouts of some of the nation’s major sports universities, but it is no stranger to the problems of alcohol. UVM has long struggled with its image as a “party school,” an ethic with serious consequences. This past October, two UVM students were arrested during an alcohol-fueled confrontation between Burlington police officers and nearly 200 college-aged revelers. In the early 1990s three UVM students died during drinking and/or pledging activities with university fraternities.

“College presidents rank alcohol abuse as the No. 1 problem on campus,” wrote Dr. Henry Wechsler, a lecturer in social psychology who recently conducted the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study. His study, of 17,000 students at 140 American colleges, showed that UVM ranked in the top third of universities where students went on a drinking binge three or more times in the past two weeks. (Binge drinking was defined as drinking five or more drinks in a row for men, and four or more for women, during the two weeks prior to the study.) In virtually every category of things drinking had caused students to do — including missing classes, getting behind in schoolwork, arguing with friends, engaging in unplanned sexual activity, not using protection when having sex, damaging property, getting injured, getting into trouble with campus or local police — UVM had more problems than other public colleges with 10,000 or fewer students.

A Culture Within A Culture
The numbers are alarming, but perhaps even more alarming is the social context identified by the Harvard study. First, the study shows that drinking is a habit usually ingrained before the student even arrives on campus. Fewer than a quarter of UVM’s students reported drinking more after arriving on campus. Most simply keep up the binging they’ve already learned. The study demonstrated that UVM doesn’t so much create a problem as inherit one.

Moreover, research shows that college drinking takes place within the context of a city, a state, and a region, each with its own attendant traditions and problems. Dr. Wechsler explained that his study showed, for example, that one factor which correlates highly with binge drinking is the number of “outlets” — that is, places where a student could buy beer or liquor — within a mile of campus. Burlington has 22 bars and restaurants and 55 stores that sell alcohol within that radius. “You’re surrounded by them,” he said. One study estimated that there is one bar stool or seat for every three residents of Burlington. The state of Vermont has an above-average binge-drinking rate, and ranks seventh in the nation per capita in drunk-driving deaths. The Northeast in general is high in binge drinking, and the majority of UVM students grow up in the Northeast. At UVM, as in society, alcohol abuse is a complex problem defying simple solutions.

A Step In The Right Direction
In October 1996 UVM was one of six American universities awarded a share of an $8.6 million “Matter of Degree” grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to work in partnership with their local communities, and with technical help from the American Medical Association, to curb binge drinking. (The others were Lehigh University and the universities of Iowa, Colorado, Wisconsin and Delaware; and this year Georgia Tech, Louisiana State, Florida State, and the University of Nebraska were awarded funding to support their initiatives to curb student drinking.)

UVM was chosen by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in part, because of its demonstrated willingness to look squarely at the evidence and make changes. Unlike some schools, which, according to Dr. Wechsler, all too often would rather shred the results of the survey than share them, UVM invited him to campus to discuss the findings. “They had an administration that was concerned about the issue and was motivated to attempt to change it,” he says.

The foundation grant, then, has the notable effect of selecting leaders in the fight against alcohol abuse in the nation as a whole. But how can one institution succeed in addressing a problem that the nation as a whole suffers from, and has signally failed to resolve?

Changing the Culture
In his article, “Alcohol and the American College Campus,” Wechsler reminds readers that binge drinking has been a part of college life since colonial days. “A local sheriff,” he writes, “still leads Harvard University’s graduation procession, a tradition that began in colonial days, not for ceremonial purposes, but to control drunk and rowdy celebrants.” He says that alumni recall fond memories of alcohol use and alcohol-related pranks, but filter out “memories of illness, insane risk, unwanted consequences, and friends who never made it out of the hole they had dug for themselves.”

Drinking has deep roots, Wechsler concludes; it’s not a behavioral but a cultural problem. Further, he estimates that at least one four-year cycle is needed before any college or university can expect to realize measurable results. At UVM, that process has begun.

In the first half of the 1990s, the culture at UVM began to change, often as a result of initiatives from the students themselves. The Cynic staff voluntarily moved away from beer and liquor ads, and for several years now the back page has been reserved for non-alcohol advertising. Residential Life and Student Affairs began enforcing existing policies about alcohol advertising. When enforcement began, the staff collected virtually a poster a day that explicitly promoted drinking. (One recruitment poster for the Top Cats, the UVM a capella group, read “Can you sing high? Can you sing low? Can you sing drunk?” One student running for SGA president called herself the Absolut President, and promised “Vote for me and you’ll know where the best parties are next year.”) In the past year, Student Affairs received just a couple of posters in all nine academic months.

More recently, roughly thirty students each year choose to live in the Substance and Alcohol Free Environment (SAFE) program in Redstone Hall. “I’m not into drugs and alcohol — never have been, never will be,” says Alison Fuller, who participates in the program. “I’d seen enough of people doing drugs and alcohol at my high school, and I just didn’t want to have to deal with it.” She has been involved in organizing some of the program’s substance-free activities such as a Haunted House and a movie night, but what she likes most about SAFE and Redstone Hall is its sense of safety and community. “It’s nice to know you’re not going to have someone staggering into the hall,” she says. “This dorm feels more of a community. It feels more like a family.”

Other students have set up OPT, a Living/ Learning program in which they pledge to be substance-free within the halls, and organize alcohol-free activities and cultural programs for other students who prefer their entertainment to be substance-free. “A lot of us started thinking about the need for OPT last year when we were first-years,” explains Beth Ruzansky, one of the founders of OPT. “I was bored. I was getting tired of doing the same old things every weekend. It was so hard to meet people [who were] low-risk users....The expectation was that you go out to party or else there’s nothing to do, which is obviously not true.”

For Beth and other members, OPT is as much about communication and developing low-risk communities as it is about organizing substance-free events. The organization has developed a 70-member electronic mailing list that not only informs its members what events are going on, but organizes groups to go. “We’ll say ‘There’s a group meeting at such-and-such a time in the Fireplace Lounge,’” she says. “There are plenty of students who don’t party all the time — you just don’t hear about them that much.”

Even among fraternities, which Wechsler identifies as a major source of binge drinking, self regulation is beginning to take shape. Five national fraternities have declared their intention to be substance-free, the first four by July 1, 2000. (This doesn’t mean brothers won’t drink, it means that they won’t drink in the fraternity house.) Two of those five are represented at UVM: Phi Delta Theta (see page 21), which was substance-free even before the national announcement; and Fiji, which will follow the national lead.

The long-range solution may be to help the fraternities define a new and more responsible role in the academic community. UVM has recently instituted a set of criteria that will help fraternities take on this responsibility. First, fraternities will answer directly to UVM, rather than through the medium of the interfraternity and panhellenic councils. Second, each chapter will be reviewed annually and must meet a new set of minimum standards (these include academic standards by which the chapter’s average GPA must meet the average GPA for all male students, community service standards, and educational programs concerning fire, safety, good neighborliness). Third, each fraternity must establish and meet a set of voluntary higher standards to achieve recognition for excellence. These include meeting or surpassing the all-student GPA, three or more activities of community service per semester, campus involvement, non-alcohol alternative social programming, and sound fiscal management.

A Community — College Partnership
The key word in UVM’s “Coalition to Create a Quality Learning Environment” is “coalition,” says Rick Culliton, assistant to the Vice President for Student Affairs. More than anything else, the foundation award is about building coalitions, rather than designing and implementing programs, which may be cut as soon as the grant money expires, and which may wither away unless they’re actively supported by all the parties involved.

Culliton is a key UVM link in developing the relationships between different departments at UVM and the Burlington and statewide communities. An important principle of the coalition concept is shifting responsibility for solutions from one office or single health educator to a shared responsibility among the community. As a result the steering committee for the projects work is comprised of students, staff, faculty, and members of the community. In addition to the changes on campus, the university has formed a partnership with Leadership Champlain, a coalition of business leaders hoping to raise awareness of the effects of alcohol on the business community, and to develop a half-day seminar to help business owners understand the impact of alcohol on their businesses and their employees.

The university is also working with the Vermont Department of Health’s Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs, whose “Healthy Vermonters 2000” program recognizes all too well that Vermont as a whole has its drinking problems. (Almost one-third of Vermont high school students binge drink.) Shortly after the foundation grant was announced, the state was awarded a $9 million grant to create a similar statewide coalition.

For a long time, enforcement of alcohol regulations on campus was fragmented: it came down to a hall advisor out on a limb, trying to cope with any disturbance on his or her own. Such an approach simply doesn’t work. Now, there’s a clear and professional support protocol. The hall staff can often deal with a violation themselves, says Gary Margolis, chief of UVM Police Services — “there are a lot of people at Res. Life who do a great job ensuring students comply with alcohol policies” — but if they think a student is incapacitated (in other words, he can’t make decisions for himself or maintain his own safety) or if they feel themselves to be in any danger, they call Police Services.

When a student seems to pose any threat to others or to him or herself, police officers will take that student straight to Act 1, an off-campus residential facility where an alcohol treatment staffer will make an evaluation: if the student is incapacitated but poses no danger to anyone, he or she will be given a bed and will spend the night under supervision for his own safety. “If they act out, threaten to run away or pose a danger to themselves or anyone else, we take them straight to the Correctional Center in South Burlington” where they’ll spend the night in a special detox area — a drunk tank, in effect.

Alcohol use is now seen as one part of a student’s relationship with the rest of the community, and treated accordingly. Sanctions for violating alcohol policies may range from education (perhaps an assigned research paper on a relevant alcohol issue) and community service (working at a local community agency or cleaning residence halls on weekends with the houskeeping staff) through fines to mandated attendance at a Substance Use Reduction Education (SURE) class. SURE 1 involves one two-hour meeting with a certified alcohol and drug abuse counselor in which “we ask students to develop viable plans for reducing their risk of future alcohol-related problems,” explains Kate Maynard, a counselor for the Center for Health and Wellbeing. “We stress...personal responsibility and accountability.” SURE 2 meets on three consecutive weeks for two hours a time, is more intensive and requires assignments in self-examination. The costs of the program are paid for by fines levied on the students who attend the classes. Beyond SURE lies the possibility of extended one-on-one counseling through the Center for Health and Wellbeing.

“Something is working,” says Sindy Craig, UVM’s Judicial Affairs Officer: between 1995-96 and 1996-97 the number of students charged with possessing or consuming alcohol under 21 was down. And 1997-98 statistics show a 25 percent decrease in alcohol-related judicial cases over the previous year. Being dangerously intoxicated and/or taken into protective custody was down. Possessing/consuming alcohol in public was down. Possessing a common source of alcohol — in other words, a keg, a punch bowl or the equivalent — was down more than 50 percent.

More importantly, though, enforcement is being seen as a task that goes beyond campus and involves the entire community. One anomaly, for example, was that until 1995 the toughest sanction used by residence hall staff was to throw a student out of the hall. As many first-year students would prefer to live off campus (“Students would ask, What do I have to do to get thrown out of the dorm?” Craig says), this suspension came as a reward, and UVM was merely flushing its problems downtown. Now if a student isn’t meeting the standards of the community, he or she faces suspension or dismissal from the university.

Any progress will be only brief and temporary, though, without substantial change in the community’s attitude toward alcohol, explains Sandra Hoover, the Matter of Degree Project Administrator at the American Medical Association. One campus participating in the Matter of Degree program looked at the surrounding development over the previous decade and found that although the population had increased two and one-half fold, the number of liquor licenses had increased eightfold. This kind of information can be taken to the city council, she says, and considered when new applications come in for liquor licenses. In fact, a city might ask itself, what kind of downtown do we want? What will it do to the safety and appearance of our community to have more drinkers attracted downtown?

UVM and Burlington link arms through the Noise Task Force and the Good Neighbor Program — initiatives to improve the quality of life for all in the parts of the city where many students live. The Noise Task Force is a cooperative effort between Burlington Police Department (BPD) and UVM police to put officers out on the Hill and in the student apartment areas where noisy parties occur, one of the most commonly reported alcohol-related community nuisances. The Good Neighbor Program was proposed by UVM students. During two sessions in the fall and spring, a uniformed BPD officer and a UVM student volunteer canvas the neighborhoods door-to-door to explain (among other things) the noise ordinance, listen to complaints and comments, and begin a conversation between the community, the students within the community, the police and the university.

Incoming Students are The Key
One of the key factors in making the transition away from a party-school identity may lie with first-year students, and the initial impression the campus gives them — an impression that in turn gives them a sense of what it means to be a student at UVM. Incoming students’ behavior is highly influenced by what they perceive to be the values of the campus on which they have arrived, explains UVM President Judith Ramaley. “You have to be intentional,” she says. “Over the last year or two we’ve gotten more serious about how we welcome them to campus.” It’s important, she argues, to let it be seen very early that we talk about important issues, that we engage in challenging intellectual work, that we believe that ideas do make a difference.

Pat Brown, Director of Student Life, explains how this thinking is transforming students’ first impressions of UVM. At new student orientation, in June, even though students are on campus for 24 hours or so, “We’ve gotten stricter with regard to managing behavior: we’ve busted students for alcohol violations before they have spent a night on campus.” Meanwhile, there’s a move to stress student involvement in the campus community. Student Life also surveys student interests and passes the information on to the appropriate clubs and activities so that when the students arrive on campus they’re contacted. To address the fact that most incoming students don’t yet know to look in the local papers for things to do (and consequently may rely more on word-of-mouth activities such as parties) Brown sends “Campus Weekend Update,” a phonemail message listing a variety of forthcoming alcohol-free activities, to every residential extension on campus.

Similarly, on Move-In Day Student Life recruits a hundred student and staff volunteers to help people move in and feel a welcoming sense of community. The first weekend, when first-year students have the campus more or less to themselves, is devoted to the Connections program, which combines academic advising, floor and residence hall meetings, alcohol-free entertainment and panel discussions that address difficult issues incoming students may face, such as the peer pressures to abuse alcohol. At the same time, the Trek program brings together about 150 students in small groups, hiking in the Adirondacks, sea-kayaking on Lake Champlain or engaging in community service work for six days and five nights before school starts. These bonding activities redefine in an alcohol-free way what it means to be a student at UVM. But projecting a sense of serious academic purpose is a greater challenge.

Jane Kolodinsky, an associate professor of economics, is in charge of organizing the Academic Connections part of move-in weekend; her aim is to provide “a university-wide program for every first-year student, one that is aimed at setting an academic tone and building community.” At June Orientation 1998, each student chose an area of interest corresponding to an academic area and were sent a package of readings to be completed by move-in day. Then students watched the film Koyaanisqatsi, which presented a critical look at the modern world. “The idea was to select a film broad enough in scope to provoke thought and discussion from the perspectives of a wide variety of disciplines,” says Kolodinsky. The students then formed discussion groups of 20-25, each led by a faculty member, and plunged into the film’s issues from these diverse approaches. In part this is to assert the university’s academic seriousness from the student’s first day on campus; in part, she says, it’s also designed as a university-wide experience to say “It doesn’t matter what your major is: you are a member of the UVM community.”

Meanwhile, individual colleges, departments and programs are also designing academic welcome packages. Last year the College of Education and Social Services invented “Community Plunge,” a kind of nature-walk-cum-total-immersion program that made it clear that the city was the students’ textbook. The college’s entire cohort of more than 200 incoming first-year students was led in a dozen groups along six walks from the UVM campus down to the Burlington Community Boathouse, then caught the bus back up to campus for a debriefing.

The purpose in one sense was to start the students meeting each other and the faculty, but in another it was to prompt conversations about the social, economic, and educational issues in the community. Passing down Colchester Avenue, for example, leaders pointed out the succession of doctors’ offices, and asked, “What do you think happened to the families who lived there?” And from there: “How would that change have affected the population in the nearby schools? The tax base? Is there any connection between the series of doctors’ offices and, a couple of streets later, the series of social service agencies?”

First Steps Toward The Future
Perhaps colleges are like alcoholics: wanting to get better is the first and most important step. If so, there is reason for hope at the University of Vermont, its sister institutions taking part in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation initiative, and at other colleges and universities bold enough to meet student alcohol abuse head on.

As this magazine went to press in mid-December, a coalition of Boston-area colleges and universities – including Harvard and MIT – announced a cooperative plan to curtail underage and binge drinking on their campuses. “We’re not looking to come down on young people like a ton of bricks here,” said Richard Freeland, president of Northeastern University and task force chair. “We’re looking to educate them, to take a more adult and mature stance toward behavior that may have been acceptable thirty or forty years ago, but no longer is because a lot has changed and the consequences of drinking are far scarier.”

The coalition built in Boston seeks solutions to alcohol abuse that rise out of the same philosophy that guides UVM and its Robert Woods Johnson Foundation cohorts. At UVM, the diverse community – police, faculty, students and university neighbors – understands the seriousness of alcohol abuse and is working together to find ways to solve the problem. UVM’s approach to this work comes from this simple belief: whether it affects an individual or an institution, a problem complex as alcohol abuse cannot be faced down alone.

The editors welcome your thoughts regarding alcohol use among students at UVM and across the nation. Let us hear from you. Address your correspondence to Editor, Vermont Quarterly Magazine, 86 South Williams, Burlington, VT 05401, or e-mail your letter to