Oct. 18, 2010
What prompted that message last week on beefed up enforcement off campus? The Western I know is not about binge drinking and getting plastered.
Precisely. Western is not about those things and that is what prompted the message.
First, I need to own up: the decision to work even more closely with the Bellingham Police Department in enforcing state laws on alcohol use came directly from me. And, we needed to let folks know about that increased attention to enforcement. Thus, the message.
Why the decision? One reason is because of what I hear from you, our students. You tell me that one reason you picked Western is because it is a place where we practice healthy lifestyles, outdoor recreation, and make good choices for ourselves, our community, our world.
You like to have fun but also like Western because we are not a party school where folks see "getting hammered" as a regular, normal part of the college life.
So, this fall, we began to hear of complaints about partying in several neighborhoods. Not from chronic complainers. These were from friends of the university who choose to live in campus neighborhoods precisely because they love environments that mix people of all ages.
And, about 10 days ago, we had a vice president spend Friday night in a BPD patrol car. Until about 2:30 a.m. The reports were eye opening: more complaints about parties than the available patrols could cover; open houses and "world parties" where strangers off the street could just walk in and drink; and a few houses selling beer to all comers.
Just a few neighborhoods. More often than not, the tenants were not Western students. But, still, more complaints reaching me and a somewhat higher level of such activity, according to the police, than had been the case in the past.
So, back to where I began: we are not a party school and that is the way Western students want it. But, if we let pockets of binge drinking and such grow unattended, then the culture and values we share erode.
There are serious reasons to worry about that beyond the need to protect the kind of atmosphere you, the typical Western student, want us to guard. You know the litany. Binge drinking leads to the dramatic : deaths from alcohol poisoning or from tragic accidents, often involving vehicular use. Sexual assault with the trauma and academic failure that often then follows almost always involves a perpetrator known to the victim and, most often, involves alcohol use. But, there are also the silent but far wider consequences when a serious depressant (alcohol) is over-used; there is a direct line, as the research clearly shows, to academic failure.
You know all that. So, what to do? It's our culture. It's our challenge, together, to keep Western healthy with the kind of environment that attracts us here. Not currently threatened. But, why allow a foothold?
There are three basic levers: education, culture, and consequences.
We do a lot on the education front, making sure that people have reliable, accurate information about the choices that face them when it comes to alcohol and drug use. Sometimes, I think, we in academia are inclined to stop there because we think education is the answer to everything.
It is not. Alcohol and drug counselors have known that for decades. There must also be predictable consequences for bad choices. That is the reason for the beefed up police patrols and plans to bring back the "party patrol bus" for booking purposes.
Culture is what matters most and that is where we all have responsibilities. Western will never move toward being a party school if we exercise those responsibilities: if we react toward binge drinking in the way most all Western students are inclined – it's not something cute, fun, normal, expected. We will, then, continue to be a healthy campus.
Those who come to Western want that kind of culture. So long as we are clear about what we stand for as a campus and a community, that will continue to be the case.
A culture is nothing more than the values we share through the choices we make, the reactions we communicate, the principles we follow. Sure, we all make poor choices. But, do we learn from them? Do we expect and help others around us to learn from them? And, in a university of all places, a culture in which we value and foster learning is all the more valuable.