From public safety to student academic life, Penn’s new commission on alcohol use is looking to have all of its bases covered once it begins meeting next week.
The seven-member Commission on Student Safety, Alcohol and Campus Life — which President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price announced last week — contains a mixed bag of administrators from different departments around Penn.
Commission Chair Charles O’Brien, director of the Center for Studies in Addiction at the Perelman School of Medicine, sees this diversity in representation as allowing the commission to take a “very interdisciplinary approach” to its broad-based review of alcohol use on campus.
“Whereas I’m very much oriented toward the medical aspect of alcohol abuse, others are bringing their own areas of expertise to this commission,” O’Brien said. “From one perspective or another, we all understand that it’s impossible to have a campus made up of 21st-century American students where there isn’t a problem with alcohol.”
O’Brien also served as chair of the last major Penn commission in 1999 that reviewed student alcohol use. This commission — called the Working Group on Alcohol Abuse — ultimately recommended the implementation of the University Alcohol and Drug Policy, which was later approved.
Although the main parts of that policy remain in effect today, that review prompted some anger from the student body, with some claiming that undergraduates had not been adequately consulted before the changes were approved.
This time around, said Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, a member of the commission, students are going to be front and center in discussions over the next year.
“The most articulate spokespeople for the lives of Penn students are Penn students, and we’re going to be relying on them heavily,” she said.
Vice Provost for Education Andrew Binns agreed, adding that another valuable source of information will come from peer schools’ practices.
While the commission does not contain any undergraduates themselves, students will make up a major part of a number of different working groups, which will be formed over the next month.
Members of the commission are using the time before they sit down together as an opportunity to reflect on some of Penn’s current practices governing alcohol use.
“I think the most positive thing about the way we do things is that the emphasis is on safety, not on punishment,” said College of Arts and Sciences Dean Dennis DeTurck, another commission member. “There have been moments in our past when we took a very crack-down mentality to the problem, and that only drives parties further off campus, where things are less safe.”
In addition to his faculty role, DeTurck also lives among students in Riepe College House in the Quad, where he serves as faculty master. This, he said, provides him with a unique perspective on students’ social lives.
“It kind of makes me an anthropologist among the tribes,” he joked. “I see students usually going out when I’m coming in, I get to read all of the incident reports about students in Riepe. It’s certainly given me valuable insight.”
DeTurck added that, while he does not expect the commission to recommend anything radically different than Penn’s current alcohol policy, he also does not expect it to come back to Gutmann and Price simply saying that the University is perfect.
In particular, Vice President for Institutional Affairs and commission Vice Chair Joann Mitchell said she would like to see the commission look into how the University can maintain a more robust alcohol education program once New Student Orientation ends.
She added that the commission has already received offers for input from alumni and others across campus who have experience studying student alcohol use.
“All things considered, I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Mitchell said. “But we can’t expect to be completely perfect — we certainly aren’t, and no campus is.”