President's Perspective
This issue of the Vermont Quarterly frankly and directly examines the issue of alcohol abuse - a serious problem at UVM and at colleges and universities across the country. Alcohol abuse in general — and binge drinking in particular — is connected with a broad array of other problems including poor academic performance, vandalism, depression, acts of violence, sexual assault, sexually transmitted diseases, injury and even, in unfortunate and extreme cases, death. Anytime we have a problem that affects the health, safety and academic strength of our students, it is a critical concern.

As you will read in the article by UVM facluty member, Tim Brooks, and Vermont Quartery editor Kenneth Schexnayder, there is evidence that students arrive on UVM’s campus with established drinking patterns, higher than the national norm. What the numbers also show is that nearly all UVM students, whether or not they drink, are negatively affected by binge drinking. So are our faculty and staff who must deal with the consequences of this behavior when students arrive in class unprepared because they have been partying excessively, or worse yet, don’t show up at all. Our neighbors in Burlington are affected when students fail to act appropriately in the community due to the influence of alcohol. Our alumni also are affected when they are asked about the “party school” image of their alma mater. As UVM’s president, I am affected when I am expected to control the behavior of students whose habits were formed long before they arrived here.

Interestingly, UVM emerges statistically similar to a selective private university with regard to student “partying.” But attendant “party school” rumors, whether accurate or not, tarnish our reputation as a high-quality national university. The data show that student alcohol abuse is a serious concern for universities everywhere. It is important to keep this perspective in mind as we grapple with the problem at UVM. Part of it is reflective of our culture, which perpetuates the “image” of college drinking, and part is reflective of the age group developmentally. College, and increasingly high school, has become known as the time to test out newfound freedoms, indulge curiosities, and take risks. What is clear in all of this is that student “partying” is not unique to UVM.

This is neither a time for denial or defensiveness about this subject. We should be proud that UVM, unlike many campuses, has acknowledged the problem. We are being honest, pragmatic, and are taking concrete steps to solve these complex issues. In the short run, this approach will cause discomfort. But UVM students will benefit greatly as a result of our efforts.

Underlying all of our efforts is a critical foundation: a strong and comprehensive reaffirmation of the academic priorities of UVM. Consistent and strong practices and messages from all of us demanding excellence in teaching, research, and learning will serve as the underpinning for other policy changes and co-curricular programming to reduce binge drinking. This approach, combined with increasingly high expectations for responsible student behavior, is already achieving positive results.

But if there is one thing I have learned it is this: alcohol abuse is an entrenched and complex problem that does not lend itself to simple solutions. The problem of alcohol abuse is more serious than we think and has more profound consequences than we realize. Traditional responses to problem drinking have not worked, and the problem is growing bigger. Society is contributing to the problem by allowing an atmosphere of tolerance about excessive drinking. If we are to have an impact, our expectations and societal norms about drinking and anti-social behavior will have to change dramatically. At UVM, we are taking this challenge very seriously.

In sum, the UVM community is doing the right thing by acknowledging and owning a problem and then working together to solve it. The abuse of alcohol and other drugs is endemic on campuses nationwide, as well as in our larger society. In the spring of 1997, the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and other Drug Prevention formed the President’s Leadership Group to develop policy recommendations to address underage and dangerous drinking. Their report, which has recently been issued, was built around three key ideas: 1) Be vocal; 2) Be visible; and, 3) Be visionary. These are concepts that must not be limited to college campuses. It is incumbent upon each of us to recognize the roles we can play in our families, our organizations, and our communities in confronting this very serious problem.

As someone who cares deeply about UVM, I hope you will read Professor Brookes’s article, and send along any ideas or feedback you may have. We need your help, your understanding, and your support.