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WELLS: A culture of excess

Universities must thoroughly examine the nature of substance abuse in order to respond to safety concerns

It is an age-old investigative technique to look for common threads in purported crimes in order to determine if they can be traced to a single culprit. At the University, such an examination produces a result that is hard to ignore — yet it has been.

In 2010, George Huguely murdered Yeardley Love in what was clearly (to those of us who heard the recording of his morning-after police interview) an alcoholic blackout. Remove the excessive use of alcohol, which is part of the subculture he belonged to, and Love is still alive today.

Last semester, when late at night Hannah Graham nomadically roamed to the Downtown Mall after leaving a party near the Corner, the videos of her movements show someone whose senses and equilibrium appeared to have been critically impaired by a substance of some sort, whether alcohol or drugs, whether voluntarily ingested or not. Remove the effect of the substance, and Hannah Graham is still alive today.

Then there’s “Jackie,” whose Rolling Stone story was only initially believable to some because of the fraternity culture as we’ve known it to exist through the years. But without the alcohol component it would have been immediately evident to all readers that her story, as the writer portrayed it, wasn’t believable.

At the hastily-called Board of Visitors meeting six days following the publication of the Rolling Stone article, there was much discussion of alcohol use (and abuse) by students, and Board member L.D. Britt acutely observed, “Excessive drinking is the fuel. It was the fuel when I was here back in 1968, and it’s the fuel now.”

So the question becomes: Why isn’t the University doing more to address the substance abuse culture that exists here (as it does at most every college and university)? Are we still uncomfortable as a society to be open about it? Are we being haunted by a stigma that one would hope society has moved beyond? Why won’t we address this crisis head-on?

The Gordie Center does an excellent job of informing the community of statistics related to alcohol consumption as well as running an active program for students in recovery. But we’re talking about something different here.

As far as the administration goes, throwing money at the problem and invoking new rules for fraternities that can, and will, be easily circumvented are not the ways to deal with this crisis. Two million dollars of improved lighting on Grounds is nice, but it won’t effectively address the real issue, unless the plan is to shine it into students’ rooms.

The creation of “working groups” that have been holding town hall meetings on sexual abuse and domestic violence is laudable, but it still skirts the real issue that’s considerably more causal than tangential to the abuse and violence on college campuses.

The University must create an environment in which the culture of excess can be probed, and the underlying reasons for it better understood. What better place than at a top-tier university to examine and discuss that? Yet other than one course at the Curry School of Education called Substance Abuse, there’s a dearth of opportunities here to explore this topic intellectually and openly.

I currently have a proposal languishing in the black hole of the University administrative pipeline for the implementation of a course called “The Literature of Addiction,” using as a base for one such forum many of the truly excellent books and memoirs on the subject that have been written over the last 20 years or so. I mention it here simply as an example of the type of initiative that could help stir a much-needed open and hopefully enlightening dialogue among students and faculty. No doubt better minds than mine can come up with other ideas to help achieve this goal.

None of this in any way is to suggest that alcohol doesn’t have its place, or to say that the University should follow the example of Dartmouth and ban hard alcohol on Grounds (last time I checked my American history, Prohibition created more problems than it solved). But it is to question the reasons behind the chronic need for excess on college campuses.

There is a fascinating dissertation by an Indiana University doctoral candidate that focuses on this issue as it relates to fraternities. The adult student, an openly recovering alcoholic named James C. Arnold, essentially embedded himself inside a fraternity house during the entirety of a “rush” season. Among his conclusions was that due to the focus on alcohol as a ubiquitous part of that fraternity’s lifestyle, often in contravention of its own by-laws, an argument can be made that fraternities themselves are addictive organizations.

I’m not saying I necessarily agree with this finding, but Arnold does present a rather harrowing (and academically valid) inside perspective that, even though written 20 years ago, still resonates accurately today. The important point to be made is that his work is valuable in its examination of a culture, to add to the discourse on the subject that should be promoted at the University and elsewhere.

Sadly, at most places, the crisis is ignored. One night several years ago, Drew University, a college with nearly 1,600 undergraduates and no fraternities near where I live and where I taught for many years, experienced 10 separate alcohol-related medical transports of students to the local hospital in one single night. Drew’s response to this was to continue its practice of looking the other way, sweeping the issue of rampant substance abuse on its campus under the proverbial rug lest its “image” be damaged.

Our University need not have any such concerns, especially today when binge drinking and drug use are part of the college culture everywhere. But if we’re in agreement that these practices “fuel” acts that are dangerous both to users and others, as last semester should have proven beyond doubt, then it is imperative that spending money on placebos such as new lighting becomes secondary to exploiting the resources of the minds and voices that are natural inhabitants of an educated, and educable, community.

Stephen Wells was the 83rd Editor-in-Chief of The Cavalier Daily and is a 1973 graduate of the College.


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