When I was an undergraduate in the 1950s, it was not unusual for students to abuse alcohol, through excess or underage drinking. In those days, the practice was not regarded as a serious problem. It was tolerated as one of the rites of passage that adolescents were expected to experience, and most adults assumed young people eventually would learn to handle alcohol in a mature way.
Today we see it differently. Alcohol abuse unquestionably is the most troublesome social issue we face on college campuses, and it is a serious concern in many high schools.
What has changed? A number of things. Society in general is more permissive; young people are more affluent; and the opportunity for abuse is more widespread. Universities no longer are considered to have an in loco parentis relationship with their students. By law, an 18-year-old is an adult whose personal rights are protected, so when freshmen arrive on campus, a few months after finishing high school, they suddenly have more freedom than ever before.
In many ways, our culture sends mixed messages about alcohol. We warn that it is a drug with dangerous potential for abuse. Yet we picture it as one of the symbols of sophisticated adulthood. While university administrators and student leaders encourage responsible decisions, some tavern owners use marketing techniques -- like the Saturday morning "breakfast club" -- that are designed to encourage excess consumption.
These problems exist at virtually every university in America, and Purdue is not an exception. The vast majority of assault and vandalism reports involving students are alcohol-related. Virtually every case of date rape starts with drinking. Recently, the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, in a pamphlet called "Be Vocal, Be Visible, Be Visionary," urged university presidents to confront student alcohol abuse as a high-priority issue.
At Purdue, this subject has been on the front burner for many years. A variety of programs in the University residence hall system, the student health center, and the office of the dean of students provide education, counseling, and communications designed to encourage responsible decisions or to help students who have developed alcohol-related problems. Through its Office of Personnel Services, the University operates the Employee Assistance Program, which works with faculty and staff members who need help with this issue, as well as other problems. Some of the most creative and aggressive work on the West Lafayette campus has come from student organizations, including the Interfraternity Council, the Panhellenic Association, and the Purdue Student Government. The student-published Purdue Exponent consistently takes strong editorial stands urging responsible alcohol choices.
I am proud of all these efforts, and I believe they have had significant impact at Purdue. However, I recognize that this is one of those problems that must be managed, rather than solved. It will remain with us because alcohol is a substance that is legal and socially acceptable, not only in American society, but in most cultures throughout the world. Because of that fact, universities by themselves cannot be effective in working with their students on the issue. Communities, parents, manufacturers and sellers of alcohol, and students themselves must play a part.
If there is good news in the picture, it is that the vast majority of our students who drink alcohol ultimately do learn to take a mature approach, despite unfortunate increases in underage consumption and binge drinking. The immediate problem is to prevent tragedies that result from alcohol-related injuries, crimes, sexually transmitted diseases, and psychological trauma. The longer-term challenge is to change students' perception of this substance so that they understand that is neither glamorous nor a sign of maturity.
I think our approach at Purdue has been sound, and we will continue to work hard at it.
As Purdue prepares for its first bowl trip in more than a decade, the honors are rolling in for Coach Joe Tiller. Joe's success in his first season with the Boilermakers has surprised almost everyone who follows college football, and his personal style has endeared him to the community, as well as his players.
In addition to being personally happy about the success in football, I am especially pleased with the cooperation and support among the Boilermaker teams. After some of his football games, Joe and his wife, Arnette, have shown up later in the day to root for the women's volleyball team. Gene Keady and Carolyn Peck likewise have been mutually supportive of each other's basketball squads.
As we near the end of 1997, I'd like to wish everyone a happy and healthy holiday season!
Steven C. Beering