The (Legal) Dangers of Drinking on Campus

By Lawrence White    //    Volume 21,  Number 3   //    May/June 2013

Alcohol abuse is a public health scourge so prevalent on the nation’s college campuses that every year it is responsible for the deaths of more than 1,800 students, injures more than 1.2 million, contributes to the sexual abuse of 70,000 undergraduates, causes one out of every four students to miss class or fall behind academically, and generates more than 100,000 arrests.

In a landmark study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health a decade ago, researchers concluded that an astonishing 37 percent of American undergraduate students consume alcohol in such prodigious quantities and with such alarming frequency that they meet the American Psychiatric Association’s clinical definitions of alcohol dependency and alcohol abuse. To describe heavy drinking among college students as a pervasive campus problem does not begin to illuminate the social, behavioral, and disciplinary toll inflicted by this potent—and toxic—addictive substance. The overconsumption of alcohol on college campuses not only is a serious health threat in its own right, but also correlates with other pathologies (poor grades, student conduct infractions, high dropout rates, criminal arrests, emotional and behavioral disorders) and can presage debilitating, long-lasting memory impairment and cognitive deficiencies after college.

Despite the implementation of alcohol-prevention programs on a widespread basis over the last two decades, high-risk drinking rates among college students have not changed perceptibly. Data collected by United Educators, an industry-leading risk management and insurance company, show that in some respects—particularly with regard to the prevalence of binge drinking among college students—we are worse off now than we were two decades ago.

Excessive drinking is pervasive. It is also, in many instances, illegal. People die from it. It is no exaggeration to say that, from the perspective of a campus lawyer or risk manager, alcohol abuse by underage college students has the hallmark of an almost perfect liability storm.

What should institutional leaders do to address the scourge of alcohol abuse on campus? What strategies have institutions identified to manage risk by addressing and reducing the health, safety, and academic fallout associated with excessive alcohol consumption by undergraduate students?

One of the most thoughtful answers takes the form of a 2012 Trusteeship article by Janice M. Abraham, CEO and president of United Educators and author of the newly published Risk Management: An Accountability Guide for University and College Boards (AGB Press, 2013). “Institutions that are achieving some success in curbing student alcohol abuse,” Abraham wrote, “are not just delegating alcohol prevention to the student-affairs office. They are incorporating alcohol-related initiatives and goals into their strategic plans to guarantee sustained high-level attention from trustees and senior administrators.” The best results, she continued, come when institutional leaders, including trustees, identify the reduction of high-risk drinking as a mission-critical priority by framing discussions that engage people throughout the institution and demonstrating institutional commitment to the success of key campus programs (and the offices that manage those programs).

In a provocative column that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2011, Connecticut College President Leo Higdon advocated individual meetings between top-level institutional officials, including himself, and students whose excessive consumption of alcohol was acute enough to warrant medical intervention. “I know some may wonder if this is an appropriate use of presidential time,” Higdon wrote, “but I require continuing conversations—with my senior administrative colleagues, the deans, and the staff involved in our drug-and-alcohol education-and-prevention efforts, as well as with students—so that we are all constantly informed of the college’s efforts to combat this national problem.”

Boards can be part of a comprehensive alcohol containment strategy by requiring institutional accountability, monitoring institutional initiatives, insisting on data-driven reports, and communicating the importance they attach to reducing academic, behavioral, disciplinary, and health-related pathologies associated with alcohol abuse. “On our campuses,” Higdon concluded, “students are receiving world-class educations to prepare them for the best possible futures. We shouldn’t let alcohol get in the way of that.”