University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Changing the College Culture

President Tom Sullivan
Photograph by Sally McCay


Changing the College Culture

Creating an engaging environment within which our students develop as creative critical thinkers and as emotionally and physically vital public citizens ranks as the topmost priority at UVM. Campus-wide initiatives undertaken over the last five years—from transforming our educational facilities to developing interest-based residence halls such as the Wellness Environment and implementing a four-year Plan for Career Success—all have been directed to this overarching goal. 

One critical initiative making a noticeable impact on our campus culture is the   University-wide effort to reduce high-risk drinking and drug abuse by our students. In speaking with other educational leaders across the country, I have increasingly recognized the high-risk use of alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs by college students to be a critical national public health issue, one that must be addressed by our entire community. Every college across the country faces this crisis. From the national data, and through results of the AlcoholEdu course that our incoming students complete before arriving to campus, we know that many are already engaged in these high-risk activities before coming to college. 

From my arrival at UVM, I committed to engaging this issue publicly and forthrightly. I supported our campus joining the National Health Improvement Project in 2012, where we committed to better assessing our student behaviors regarding alcohol and drug use. In the spring of 2014, I appointed a seventy-two-member task force from across our community—including students, faculty, staff, high-school counselors, parents, and alumni—to more broadly and effectively address this public health crisis. 

We began by systematically collecting and scrutinizing data, deploying a simple monthly questionnaire on alcohol and marijuana use—both personal use and perceived use by others. This anonymous survey, sent to a random sample of 2,000 undergraduate students each month, is composed of a few nationally researched questions regarding frequency of use in a given two-week period and harms that may have ensued, from skipping class or not studying to more personal harms to self or others. These data, along with other quantifiable information such as police incident reports and Student Health Center intakes, began to paint a picture of use among our students and specifically identified times when the incidences of these high-risk behaviors climbed. 

Our task force—the President’s Committee on Alcohol and Drug Use—met regularly and still continually reviews these data and makes recommendations about systemic strategies to shift the student culture away from high-risk behaviors. Several changes have so far been employed to significant success. 

One of those changes involves outreach to parents. Research conducted by Pennsylvania State University shows that when parents talk to students about their expectations, students are more likely to refrain from drinking and substance use. Our Vice Provost and Dean of Students Office reaches out to parents frequently now, identifying high-risk weekends and encouraging conversations between parents and students. Another change involves creative campus programming to increase positive University-wide social events throughout the academic year, especially on weekends.

Proactive educational programs aimed at varsity teams and fraternity and sorority members through UVM’s Center for Health and Wellbeing include BASICS—the Behavioral Assessment Screening for College Students—and group meetings for raising prevention awareness. The Center’s Living Well Program, housed in a cozy corner of the Davis Center, offers myriad programs and drop-in opportunities for students to manage stress, and provides several pathways by which students can connect with others for substance-free socializing. 

So far, our data show that these efforts are eliciting the positive changes we are seeking. Student rates of high-risk drinking are dropping year over year—UVM is poised to fall below the national average very soon, as trends continue in this direction. Our efforts at culture change are receiving national recognition. This past October, UVM was honored with the prestigious Prevention Excellence Award by EVERFI, the educational technology company behind AlcoholEdu, for our comprehensive, systemic, evidence-based initiative that is rendering such significant results. Other recent national awards from the NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education and the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors acknowledge UVM’s diligent prevention efforts with fraternity and sorority chapters on campus. 

The perception that drinking and recreational drug use must be a part of the college experience is misguided and, indeed, not correct! The truth is that these behaviors impede students’ engagement and ability to learn, to be actively and positively involved in academic and extracurricular life, and to fulfill their dreams and goals following graduation. 

Our systemic and ecological approach recognizes that the health and well-being of our students is everyone’s number one priority on this campus, and that everyone in the UVM community has the means to help us shift the student culture away from high-risk behavior and toward students who are engaged in every positive opportunity the University has to offer. We will continue promoting student well-being academically, culturally, and socially, creating the healthiest environment within which UVM students can thrive.

—Tom Sullivan

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