Alcohol policy revisions currently unclear
A University commission will release its recommendations by late December
September 4, 2013, 1:54 pm · Updated September 4, 2013, 9:27 pm·
Amanda Suarez | DP
Less than four months before it could suggest a series of broad-based revisions to Penn’s alcohol and student safety policies, an administration-led commission is remaining tight-lipped about what changes it might recommend.
Since it was formed in January, the seven-member Commission on Student Safety, Alcohol and Campus Life has been meeting regularly to discuss the impact of alcohol on Penn’s social scene. The commission, chaired by Charles O’Brien, director of the Center for Studies of Addiction, is expected to release a report by the end of December. Part of that report could later become University policy, if approved by President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price.
With the fall semester underway, the commission is in the process of considering input from five working groups that it brought together earlier this year. Each of those groups — which includes one that has focused exclusively on student safety and another that has considered the impact of alcohol on students’ academic lives — continued its work over the summer.
It remains unclear what the commission plans to do once the groups have wrapped up their research. While it could recommend a wholesale revision of Penn’s alcohol policy, it appears more likely, some say, that the commission will merely suggest smaller-scale tweaks to the University’s practices.
“When I last did this,” said O’Brien, who chaired a similar group that reviewed Penn’s alcohol policy in 1999, “some of the practices we were hearing about were just frightening. We had come so close to losing a bunch of students because they were near the lethal level of alcohol.” Based on the commission’s work so far, O’Brien said, it is clear that Penn’s alcohol policies have come a long way since then. But that doesn’t mean things are perfect, he added.
O’Brien pointed to several changes that he would like to see, which shed light on some of what the commission has focused on. For one, he said, he would like the University to develop a way of tracking the blood-alcohol concentration levels of students who are taken to the emergency room because of alcohol. While Penn keeps data on the number of hospital transports, it does not have information on the blood-alcohol content of those students.
Those blood-alcohol level readings, he said, would primarily serve an educational purpose.
In addition, said Vice President for Institutional Affairs Joann Mitchell, the commission’s vice chair, some of the working groups have focused on how drug and alcohol education could be made more continuous throughout students’ undergraduate years, and not merely end once New Student Orientation wraps up.
Another area of interest for the commission, Mitchell said, has been alcohol use at off-campus properties. “There’s an impression,” she said, “that Penn has far greater control of things that happen outside of the province of our campus than we actually do.”
Beyond that, O’Brien and Mitchell largely declined to provide specifics of what changes the commission has been considering, saying that everything will be available once the commission releases its report. Other members of the commission declined to comment.
The commission’s review comes as Penn is piloting a new program designed to encourage more student groups to host on-campus events, rather than taking their parties off campus. To that end, the pilot, approved last fall, allows certain registered, on-campus events to serve mixed drinks, which has been prohibited by the University’s Alcohol and Drug Policy in the past.
The commission’s work also comes at a time when universities’ alcohol policies, and their enforcement of them, have come under scrutiny in higher education more widely. Among Penn’s peer institutions, Dartmouth College and Harvard University both made changes recently to how they deal with underage alcohol use on campus.
The last major University-wide study of alcohol use came in 1999, under then-President Judith Rodin. That process, which resulted in the implementation of the Alcohol and Drug Policy, drew criticism from many undergraduates, who said that the administration had not considered student input enough before overhauling Penn’s alcohol practices. Their frustration came to a head in the spring of 1999, when 1,000 students held a protest on College Green to draw attention to the lack of student involvement.
This time around, Mitchell said, the commission has been sure to “heavily involve” students in the process. The commission, she said, invited around 25 student organizations to submit names of prospective working group members; it eventually asked about 20 students to join one of the five working groups.
For the most part, student leaders said they have been pleased with the commission’s level of openness. “They’ve really pulled together representatives from all sources of Penn student life,” said Wharton junior Christian Cortes, the Undergraduate Assembly’s Student Life Committee director. Cortes did not sit on any of the working groups, but has kept up with the commission’s work.
Others, though, said the process could be more transparent. “The fact that I’m lost on the trajectory of what the commission has been looking at probably isn’t a good sign for the average Penn student,” said College senior Nikolai Zapertov, a former UA representative and the interim president of Alpha Sigma Phi. Zapertov also was not involved in the working groups.
In the end, O’Brien said, there is only so much that an institution like Penn can do to control alcohol use on campus. “Fifty years from now,” he said, “it’ll still be a problem.”