|December 4, 2003
Volume 34 Number 6
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
From the President's Desk
Alcohol and Drugs: Making Choices
Is there a young person who does not believe she is immortal? Who does not believe that he always has one more chance to get it right? Holding these beliefs too often leads to risky behavior and poor choices. Every minute of every day we all make choices. Students choose whether to study or to hang out with friends, to go to class or to drink. Sometimes their choices put themselves and others at risk, and sometimes their choices lead to academic failure. One of our obligations as a university is to help students grow intellectually and emotionally so that they can make wise choices. We can assist them in this growth process in a very important way: we can ask them to assume responsibility for their actions.
Earlier this year, I asked our students to "get smart, get help, or get out." My intention was, and is, to send a clear and unequivocal message about the consequences of engaging in high-risk drinking. I want to assure that our policies are clear and that our goal of student success and safety is clear. I also want to make it clear that the consequence of a violation of university policies will lead to dismissal. This is not a new goal for the university. What is new is the focus on the first-year experience and how alcohol and drug abuse is linked to academic failure and success. This fall, all vice presidential units have been engaged in a discussion about the link between reduced high-risk drinking and academic success.
We are not alone in our struggles to curb alcohol abuse. It is a national curse. Recent data show that in a one-month period, 20 percent of 8th graders and 50 percent of 12th graders report they had a drink. Even worse, in a two-week period, 30 percent of all high school seniors report they have engaged in binge drinking (5 or more drinks at one time).1 It is estimated that it costs the United States $53 billion a year to respond to drunken behavior and violent crimes relating to adolescent drinking. By the time students go off to college, many of them are already abusing alcohol. When they come to campuses like ours, they are far from home, sometimes lonely and unsure of themselves. In these circumstances, it is especially important to be connected early to academic programs, engaged, mentored, advised, and helped to find alternatives to high-risk behavior.
There is no simple solution to the problem of alcohol abuse, but there are some emerging approaches that bear promise. The most important of these frameworks is referred to as social ecology.2 It is based on the recognition that one's behavior is shaped by the larger social environment, which is made up of five components, or levels of influence on a person's behavior: the intrapersonal (or individual); interpersonal (group); institutional; community; and the level of public policy. Understanding the framework clarifies the need to approach the problem of alcohol abuse on so many different fronts, and how intertwined the efforts must be.
Let me begin with the first level -- the individual or intrapersonal. In an individual approach to alcohol or drug abuse, you outline for students the significant health risks associated with using alcohol. You would, as we have done, provide information about alcohol abuse during freshman orientation, during the first week of classes, and in the residence halls. There is little evidence that just giving people information about the negative consequences of using drugs or alcohol prevents abuse. That is why we begin to combine this approach with the interpersonal or group approach.
The group approach assumes, rightly, that individual behavior is strongly influenced by peers. Therefore, we try to get others (seniors, peer advisers, members of the same social clubs) to serve as appropriate role models. Our social norms campaign is an example of this kind of approach, because it draws on the knowledge that students routinely overestimate how much their peers drink. The logic is that if they know that most of their peers do not abuse alcohol, then they will not. There is a growing body of literature that argues this strategy is a very important arrow in our quiver of solutions, but it cannot be the only one, because individual and group behaviors take place within and are shaped by larger forces.
The Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention suggests a focus on institutional (university) factors, community factors, and public policy. These three factors are tightly woven together, which means that work in just one area will seldom be successful. A good example of what this means is provided by DeJong and Lanford, when they note that college communities often send mixed messages about high-risk drinking, and are often inconsistent in applying public policy. Let me provide an example of each. At the institutional level, we would have clear and consistent policies; we would provide evening and weekend alcohol-free events; and students would have rigorous course assignments that would keep them focused on their academic work. These solutions, as DeJong and Lanford note, are not sufficient, because students do not live in isolation; they live in community.
In Chico, campus-area merchants promote drink specials and other encouragements to alcohol consumption that erode the message sent on campus. Therefore, community members and the university need to work hand in hand to address high-risk drinking. Finally, in the area of public policy, there must be strong enforcement for violations of underage drinking and related violations, or alcohol abuse prevention programs will not have the intended impact. We are fortunate in Chico that the problem of drug and alcohol abuse is owned by everyone, although we all have more work to do.
DeJong and Lanford note that the work we need to do can best be sorted out by determining whether or not we are trying to (1) modify knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors; (2) change the environment; (3) protect the public health; or (4) intervene and treat abusers. For each of these foci, there are five environmental levels, as I noted above. That means, there are at least 20 (4 x 5) different approaches and things to work on when confronting alcohol abuse. The best way to think about what needs to be done by the campus, the community, and public safety officers is to identify the problem we are trying to solve and to generate specific solutions to the problems. Fortunately, we have already established and are carrying out some of the following solutions.
Any approach to drug and alcohol abuse must be both multifaceted and long term. Our policies must be clear, consistent, and they must have consequences. Education works, but it works within a context of limiting access to alcohol and enforcement of laws and policies. The goal, again, is not to prevent people from drinking or experimenting, but to help them make wise choices. Our colleagues, across the campus and in the community, have been and will continue to work hard on what is a large-scale social problem. Student Affairs will soon provide the campus with a list of good work being done and an understanding of the problems to be solved. Like the first-year experience program, the three vice presidents are working together to address the larger problem.
Interim President Scott G. McNall
1 Data are from a Sept. 9, 2003, joint report of the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.
2 William DeJong and Linda M. Lanford, "A Typology for Campus-Based Alcohol Prevention: Moving toward Environmental Management Strategies," Journal of Studies on Alcohol (Supplement No. 14, 2002: 140-147). The following discussion of "solutions" draws heavily on the framework developed in this article. See also "Presidents in Action: Strategies for Effective Leadership." Task Force on Student Life and Alcohol Abuse. Washington, D.C.: American Association of State Colleges and Universities, September 2003.
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