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James Tinney

Last modified: Friday, August 23, 2002

More mixed messages on alcohol abuse

NOTE: Indiana University President Myles Brand has written an op-ed piece in response to Princeton Review's designation of IU this week as the nation's No. 1 party school. We would appreciate it if you would consider it for publication. A picture of President Brand is available for downloading at


Last September, Indiana University Bloomington was named by Time magazine as its College of the Year among research universities, based on the comprehensive programs we have developed to help students make the academic and social transition to college life.

We were proud of the honor. The media, for the most part, yawned.

Move forward a bit less than a year. Last Monday morning, the phones began to ring at our media relations offices, and kept ringing. IU has been "honored" again. The Princeton Review -- no, it is not affiliated with Princeton University -- had declared that IUB is the nation's No. 1 party school.

We weren't proud. Perplexed was more like it. We hadn't even shown up on this "party school" list in recent years, and we have, of late, been engaged in a stepped-up enforcement and education campaign on our campus to deal with alcohol issues.

But soon bewilderment gave way to anger. It became clear that, based on dubious survey data, our university had been dragged into a publicity stunt that only serves to trivialize and exploit a very real nationwide problem.

"The Princeton Review should be ashamed to publish something for students and parents that fuels the false notion that alcohol is central to the college experience." That's what an American Medical Association official had to say in calling on the publication to drop the "party school" ranking.

But having discovered a gimmick that guarantees their publication a burst of news coverage during the dog days of August, the editors are unlikely to change course. Especially so when the media seem eager to participate in this pseudo news event.

The entire episode is yet another illustration of the mixed messages that our society sends about alcohol abuse.

Hail a university for its academic accomplishments, and it is ho-hum news. Hawk a questionable survey about college kids drinking, and there's a place for you on the talk shows and the front pages. Unfortunately, such superficial coverage does more to sensationalize the problem than to solve it.

By the time a typical student comes to a university, he or she has been exposed to countless hours of entertainment and advertising that equates drinking with good times, sexual attractiveness and being a grown-up. They have read reports of all the celebrities involved in incidents related to substance abuse. And too many have experienced those problems much closer to home. Many students arrive at college with drinking problems, which can become even worse in the collegiate atmosphere.

The Harvard School of Public Health estimates that 44 percent of college students binge drink nationwide. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks in a row by a woman or five in a row by a man. While there have been some small signs of progress on this issue -- for example, the number of students who say they do not drink at all has gone up a bit -- the rates of abuse remain unacceptably and stubbornly high.

Universities have tried a range of strategies, but no one has discovered a sure-fire solution.

At IU, for example, we stress increased educational efforts and offer plenty of alcohol-free activities. We also have stepped up enforcement of our alcohol regulations. Five fraternities have been expelled from our campus for alcohol-related violations since 2000. Alcohol-related referrals to our campus disciplinary system have risen steadily over the past three years. As was first permitted by the 1998 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, we now routinely notify parents if their students are involved in serious violations of our alcohol rules.

I think our policies are having an impact. Many of the IU students who were quoted in media accounts about the Princeton Review "honor" seemed as perplexed by it as we were.

But we can never be satisfied with our progress. We know that the next alcohol-related tragedy is only one act of youthful misjudgment away. University officials live with that grim reality every day. We take this seriously. The Princeton Review should as well.