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Alcohol at Grinnell

Over the summer, Grinnell instituted a variety of new policies about alcohol use on campus, including ensuring that every student who asks for a sub-free floor gets one, restricting alcohol use in dorm lounges, and attempting to change some of the traditional campus parties.

Yesterday (30 August 2016), the College hosted two town hall events about alcohol on campus and about these policy changes, one during the day that was open to everyone, and one in the evening that was only open to students.

This essay is my attempt to think through issues related to alcohol use on campus and appropriate responses to that use.

Grinnell has an alcohol problem. Actually, let me clarify that. Grinnell has many alcohol problems. I probably don’t know all of them, but I do know some. 1. Too many students too regularly drink to excess. Some of them end up in the hospital. Others end up doing damage to themselves, to the environment, or to other people. 2. Some subset of our students drink as a way to cope with stress or issues in their life. 3. Students who do not drink find that drinkers interfere with their lives (e.g., by being loud, by damaging common areas). 4. Drinking plays too much of a role in the everyday life of college students (We study hard and party harder, as one student told a candidate for our Rabbi position.)

These problems create followup problems. We lose some students who get frustrated by the alcohol culture. Other students perform less well in classes than they should. And some suffer serious health issues.

As a community, we have a responsibility to do something about alcohol on campus. I realize that Grinnell is not alone in all of these issues, but we still have problems here, and should do something about them. Having sat through a number of conversations last year (and having been on campus for nearly twenty years), I know that wide variety of people on campus are concerned about alcohol use, not just administration and trustees, but staff, faculty, and many many students.

I think Grinnell has done some things well. Clearly, one of the most successful is our long-standing tradition of focusing on education, rather than punitive measures. I know that at institutions which impose fines or possible suspension for alcohol use, the use still happens, but is hidden, which means that when problems arise (and they always do), students are incredibly reluctant to seek help. At Grinnell, students seem much more willing to say that a friend is in trouble, and needs care (or transportation).

But such situations should be rare. And we have not made much progress on the issues mentioned earlier, in spite of many years of concern. So I can understand our administration’s desire to try something that may feel a bit more drastic.

Let’s consider one change in policy, that of alcohol in lounges. I don’t know enough about lounge parties, but I can understand the worry that they impose on non-drinkers (through volume or through an atmosphere that might seem unwelcoming). From what I’ve heard, the College has reasonable goals of making sure that lounge parties are kept small, are designed to provide both alcoholic and non-alcoholic options, and include servers trained to pay attention to how much each person has drunk. As I understand it, we’re trying to strike a balance that allows students to socialize with alcohol, but to do so thoughtfully. I’ve been told that Student Affairs worked hard to streamline the application process for such parties. (One of my students tells me that I don’t understand, and the process undermines events that they consider successful events with limited drinking, such as Frank. I agree that I do not have enough knowledge of custom.) Do I worry that these policies will move drinking to dorm rooms, and that students might drink more in private than in public? Yes. But I really do have confidence that we are working toward a model in which students can still drink in public, just a bit more thoughtfully.

As our VP for Student Affairs suggests, these policies need to be part of a constellation of activities to help change our campus alcohol culture. I really think everyone needs to be involved in that change: faculty, students, staff, administrators, and more.

Grinnell’s principles of self governance suggest that students should be taking the lead in changing our culture. I will admit that it feels like too few students take the initiative to caution their peers when they are drinking too much, or to design a wider variety of social events in which drinking plays less of a role, or to curtail their own drinking. (I apologize that I may be giving in to stereotypes of our students. But there’s clearly not enough done to control drinking on campus, which suggests that students have not taken the responsibilities of self governance seriously enough in this context.)

I am not wise or experienced enough to suggest all the changes we need to make on campus beyond asking our students to revisit the meaning of self governance in the context of our problematic alcohol culture. But I do think that the College needs to consider a variety of ways in which it can provide resources to help move things in a more positive direction. Here are some ways to use resources.

Both the College’s and the town’s counseling services have been in turmoil for the past few years. I expect that turmoil has had significant impact on student well-being. For example, some students probably self-medicate with alcohol because they fell that they are not getting enough support and others may have difficulty talking to someone about their problems with alcohol. While we are making positive strides on counseling services, we need to continue to invest in support for mental wellness.

Grinnell students (and faculty, and staff) face high workloads that cause stress. Recent policies suggest that typical students should have a course workload of at least 48 hours. Many students need to work campus jobs of up to twenty hours per week. And many layer extracurricular activities on top of those hours, participating in the arts, student government, varsity athletics, volunteer activities, and more. We need to talk as a campus community about that workload, the stress it creates, and ways in which we can moderate the workload expectations we put on our students.

Unfortunately, many students respond to the workload by drinking. As our Dean suggested at the town hall, drinking is clearly not the best response to stress. The College has an awesome wellness coordinator, but she can only do so much. We should look to provide additional resources to help students develop better responses to their stress, responses that do not emphasize drinking.

As an outsider, it feels to me like we have a significant gap between events with a focus on drinking and substance-free events. I would hope to see increasing focus on what I might call alcohol-light events, events that include alcohol, but the expectation is that you have one drink or two, not many drinks. After all, that’s how many adults socialize.

We need to put more resources into providing alcohol-free or alcohol-light social events on campus. I appreciate that some of the older swimmers held a board game night for first-year swimmers to provide them with an alternative social activity during New Student Orientation. Unfortunately, I also hear that there were far too few social events that did not focus on alcohol. I’d like to see this be a combined effort: Students should be planning more such events, and the College should be helping fund them. (Students: If you want to hold your own game night, I can probably loan you a few board games if you ask nicely.)

We are going to have to work together to change our culture. Policies alone won’t do it. (As students suggested, without additional effort, policies may only change where drinking happens.) Self-governance alone hasn’t done it. Even additional resources alone won’t do it. We need to combine efforts, policies, perspectives, and resources.

It’s not going to be easy. One of the obstacles is what I see as a lack of trust. Students don’t seem to trust that student affairs or the administration really have their best interests at heart. The administration does not always seem to trust our students to make good decisions, or to participate in decision making. But I’ll tell you that from my experience, the student affairs staff care deeply about our students and most of our student body really does want change.

I hope that by coming together from multiple perspectives, and by admitting that alcohol use at Grinnell is a significant problem, we, as a community, can make huge changes.

As always, I appreciate feedback on these essays. I may not change the essay, but I do like to hear other perspectives. I also realize that the essay does not flow as well as it should, so I expect to revise at some point.

Version 1.0 of 2016-08-31.