On the heels of a series of broad changes to Penn’s practices governing alcohol use, the University announced Wednesday afternoon that it will be forming a new commission to study the impact of alcohol on student safety.
In a joint statement, Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price said that the seven-member Commission on Student Safety, Alcohol and Campus Life — which will be chaired by Director of the Center for Studies in Addiction at the Perelman School of Medicine Charles O’Brien — will be tasked with a large-scale review of the impact of alcohol on students’ social lives.
The commission — which consists solely of campus administrators, including Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush and College of Arts and Sciences Dean Dennis DeTurck — is expected to start meeting later this month. Around this time, it will begin to bring together a number of working groups made up of students.
The commission will “pay particular attention to the potential for sexual violence and other forms of injurious behavior that can result from excessive alcohol consumption,” according to the statement.
By the end of the calendar year, the commission is expected to release a report of its findings and recommendations, which could later become University policy if approved by Gutmann and Price.
“I’m not creating the commission because there’s been any particular incident at Penn, but rather because there have been prominent incidents at many other universities where students have done something as a consequence of being under the influence of alcohol that they’ve later regretted,” Gutmann said. “I don’t go into this with any prejudice one way or the other — I’m just asking this commission to take a comprehensive, careful look at the situation today.”
The formation of the commission marks the second major development surrounding Penn’s alcohol-related policies within the past year.
Last semester, the Office of the Vice Provost for University Life approved a new alcohol pilot program. The pilot, which is essentially a more relaxed version of the University-wide Alcohol and Drug Policy, allows certain registered events to serve mixed drinks and seeks to open up more on-campus spaces to alcohol use by undergraduates.
As of mid-November, seven student groups — including Greek chapters — had registered parties under the new program, according to the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives.
Price acknowledged that the commission’s formation comes at a “timely moment,” given the University’s recent push to encourage more students to register on-campus parties through the pilot program.
Gutmann added, though, that she views the new commission as “a much broader endeavor” than the pilot. The commission, she said, “is taking a much wider look at all of the programs we have that deal with student safety, alcohol and campus life.”
A turbulent history
Though both Gutmann and Price stressed that no particular incident at Penn prompted the formation of the commission, the University’s alcohol policy has come under fire at times over the past several months. The policy was a central component of a wrongful death lawsuit brought against Penn and its chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma — commonly called “Skulls” — by the parents of former John Carroll University student Matthew Crozier.
Crozier died in January 2011 after sustaining fatal head injuries from a fall at the Skulls chapter house during a New Year’s party. His parents alleged in a lawsuit that, at the time, Penn had “[failed] to have adequate alcohol policies which required administrative checks on social functions.” They also accused the University of “openly advocating the policy of consumption of alcoholic beverages.”
The Croziers settled the case last month, with Skulls agreeing to pay $3 million. Penn also reached an agreement with the family’s attorneys, but the details of its settlement have remained confidential.
The last University-wide study of student alcohol use came in 1999, with then-President Judith Rodin appointing a faculty and staff task force called the Working Group on Alcohol Abuse to look into Penn’s alcohol policy. The task force came back to Rodin with a series of recommendations, including the implementation of the University Alcohol and Drug Policy.
Although most of the main tenets of that policy remain today, the review did not come without its controversy.
The Daily Pennsylvanian reported throughout 1999 that many across campus believed students had largely been left out of the revision process. Following a temporary ban by Rodin on all undergraduate alcohol-related activities, 1,000 students staged a protest on College Green, calling for more transparent action by the administration.
This time around, Gutmann believes that the implementation of the working groups will ensure that students are an “integral” part of the process.
The 1999 review “was not as broad as I see what we’re doing now,” she said. “I see this commission as being charged with creating working groups that will have a broad representation of students on them, and those groups are going to be coming up with a lot of the findings for the commission.”
A focus on safety
While Penn’s review will be broad, the University is hardly the first among its peer schools to look into alcohol consumption on campus.
In September, Dartmouth College passed a series of new harm reduction, alcohol and hazing policies, establishing harsher penalties for alcohol and hazing violations. Similarly, in November, Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences passed a revised alcohol policy designed to curb high-risk drinking.
“I think this commission is really a great opportunity for Penn to further strengthen its student safety policies,” College junior and Undergraduate Assembly President Dan Bernick said.
“The best time to really assess how well you’re doing is when there isn’t a crisis and you don’t have an urgent need for change,” Gutmann said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing here.”
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