Duke University Alumni Magazine

Alcohol: Pushing the Limits

President, Duke University

t eighteen, we were all immortal. Post-adolescents often assign different probabilities to various risks than they will ten or fifteen years later; they tend to be less risk averse, more willing to test their wings and boundaries and to challenge received wisdom. Thus they learn about freedom and the social responsibility that accompanies it. That's healthy and to be encouraged. But sometimes they push those limits beyond the pale-as is true for those who drink themselves into oblivion, for instance, every weekend.

That's not healthy, and needs to be discouraged. Thirty thousand American students each year are treated for acute alcohol poisoning; some of them die. Last year at Duke, for instance, we lost a student who died from the aftereffects of breathing his own vomit while he was unconscious. In 1998, 41 percent of Duke students reported binge drinking within the previous two weeks; 37 percent admitted having done something they later regretted as a result of alcohol use. Twenty-eight percent reported memory blackouts, while almost 20 percent remembered having driven a car while drunk and nearly 10 percent remembered having been taken advantage of sexually while drunk.

Like it or not, drinking is part of the Duke culture. It is also part of American culture. That 13 percent of Duke students never drink might come as a surprise, but it's the surface of a sea-change with a dangerous riptide. As more students become teetotalers, perhaps motivated by religious or spiritual beliefs, those at the other end of the continuum diverge dramatically, even to the point of courting disaster.

An ancient Chinese proverb says that the beginning of wisdom is calling things by their right names. Ask any alumnus or alumna to define the Duke culture as he or she remembers it, and sooner or later you will hear about alcohol. Graduates often have fond memories of socializing at parties where alcohol was served, bonding with buddies, feeling empowered as adults. For many, it was the first time they had lived away from the watchful eyes of parents in a society that remembered Prohibition only too well.

Ask that same alumna if her habits included "front-loading"-having several quick drinks in her dorm room before heading for the party, just to make sure she got really drunk really early-and you'll probably encounter a shocked denial. Ask the alumnus if he remembers urinating on the floor of the room where the party was held, or having nonconsensual sex, or drinking with the explicit intention of passing out. Ask if Duke parties routinely included 100-gallon trash cans with plastic liners intended to receive vomit.

Things have changed. It's a sign of the times that this generation isn't satisfied with Division I athletics or even the Olympics-today we need the X-Games, where the physical risk and adventure are, at least for me, beyond belief. And they've changed legally: North Carolina law now specifies a drinking age of twenty-one, and there is a constant tug-of-war about whether and how well a university is supposed to enforce it. Duke is in an awkward policy position from the start. On the one hand, the days are gone when deans might routinely inform parents if a student had a failing grade or cheated, much less when he was an habitual drunkard.

Students are to be treated as adults. At the same time, many Duke undergraduates have a sense of entitlement, as though being smart enough or wealthy enough to matriculate here in the first place meant they had carte blanche to abuse themselves. After all, they are immortal. Adults, of course, are supposed to obey laws or suffer the penalties. In terms of underage drinking, even as the university tries to honor its traditions while weaving better safety nets with student education, residential programming, medical advice, and the like, society has put Duke in the role of having to say, "Obey the law-but when you don't, do it like this." The dilemma for us as administrators and parents is acute.

Since Duke is a residential undergraduate campus, much of the student drinking occurs within its boundaries. This means figuring out how to deal with uncivil behavior in dorms-late-night noise, discourteousness, even destruction of property related to alcohol use. We have processes in place, forums such as the honor council, ways to manage that aspect of drinking. The lively discussions that have ensued have been healthy for the campus community:

Encouraging civil disagreement in response to uncivil behavior is an excellent means of furthering education. People begin to recognize that habits become norms in an endless feedback loop, and that if we are not mindful of how those norms get created, we will be sorry. Uncivil behavior eventually begins to set its own standard. The college years can help form the habit of civility, which includes knowing how to drink in a way that does not endanger you or your neighbors.

Our Alcohol Task Force, composed of students and administrators, has been working for months to educate and inform students about responsible alcohol consumption, as well as to generate creative alternatives. A number of initiatives have been launched, some experimental, some proven. Some of them, such as weekend social programming that emphasizes the absence of alcohol, have not been successful so far. Others, such as a pamphlet titled "Do You Have Friends Who Drink Too Much?" and presentations by athletes and coaches as role models, have fared better, and are having a visible if marginal effect on campus culture. Student leaders clearly understand that it's in everybody's best interest to change the norms, but they are frustrated, as we all are, by a complex problem of truly national scope.

As school was about to open this fall, we were asked by a reporter from a television station in New York City if we would cooperate with them in a show they wanted to do on binge drinking. We said yes, not because we want the glare of publicity on Duke when the problem is at nearly epidemic levels at campuses across the nation, but because we think the issue is one everyone needs to understand. Solutions will require creative thinking about and action in the realm of public policy, and initiatives well beyond what the university alone can bring to it. As always, I welcome your advice as well.

The bittersweet truth is that when it comes to alcohol abuse, Duke is no worse than most other schools, and better than some. We have come a long way from the days when all evil was presumed to lurk outside the walls of the academy. According to the 1855-1856 catalogue of Normal College (which would eventually become Duke University), "Youths addicted toŠintoxication and other such immoralities should never be sent to a College; for wherever such students abound, the contagion will spread in spite of all laws and regulations, and very few will have moral firmness sufficient to withstand the influence." In 1859, an amendment to the charter of Normal College forbade any person to keep a "tippling-house" within two miles of campus. I suspect they had trouble enforcing it.

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