Campus Culture Q & A
Professor of Government Cal Mackenzie traveled from Mayflower Hill to Capitol Hill to testify in an impeachment case for a federal judge.
In response to dangerous alcohol use on the Hill highlighted by 14 hospitalizations during the May 2008 "Champagne on the Steps," a celebration for seniors which has since been discontinued the Board of Trustees charged the College "to address comprehensively the broader issue of excessive drinking as a feature of Colby student life." The College then developed the Campus Culture Working Group (CCWG), which published a report in the Fall 2009. The report establishes a list of recommendations designed to shift the alcohol culture on campus; perhaps the most attention-grabbing of these measures is the hard-alcohol ban, new this semester. While the CCWG aims to change the drinking culture on campus, "We're not interested in sniffing out things that aren't problematic. We're going to respond to situations that are, so where people's health and safety are at risk, these kinds of cases," said Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students James Terhune. News Editor Allison Ehrenreich and Assistant News Editor Sarah Lyon sat down with Terhune to learn more about CCWG initiatives and campus culture as a whole.
Q: How do you define campus culture and what is your view on campus culture on the Hill?
A: I think from my standpoint what we mean mostly about campus culture is "How do Colby students and faculty and staff experience the educational endeavor here in a comprehensive way." At the forefront there is a commitment to learning, a commitment to personal development for students, expanding one's understanding of themselves and of the world around them....The campus culture is really rich, and I think for the most part, really wonderful. We have a community of incredibly talented, driven students who come here to engage in the full variety of academic and intellectual endeavors we have here and to create this really rich community in a variety of other ways. I think we have some aspects of our community, our culture, that are problematic and are at odds with what our aspirations as an institution are. I think certainly high-risk and dangerous drinking is one of those aspects...because that sort of substance abuse is completely antithetical to the kind of learning that we're talking about and putting oneself or one's peers in imminent physical risk or danger is also at odds with our values as a community.
Q: That a task force can make recommendations to shift campus culture is an interesting concept. Are there models you looked at from other institutions that helped you create the CCWG report?
A: We looked at all sorts of things. I don't think there's a sense that the broad campus culture here is in some ways broken or negative, by any stretch of the imagination. I think it was much more that this element of the campus culture at this moment in time is at odds with what our aspirations [are as] an institution and why we think students choose to come here.
No one ever believed or intended that drinking was going to go away...that we would in truth ever eliminate any high-risk drinking from happening, and again, that's not what the goal is. The goal is to eliminate it as a staple of the student experience...basically to turn those moments where something extreme [like a hospitalization] happens into the anomaly. We're a big community with a lot of people and a lot of things going on, and so there will always be problems, and the alcohol issue is incredibly complicated. It's incredibly complicated from a societal standpoint. There is absolutely no uniform agreement about what's right and what's wrong, what's acceptable and what's not acceptable[but] it's hard to make any argument in favor of drinking to the point of hospitalization.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about why the hard alcohol ban was created and how the CCWG envisions it will change campus culture?
A: I don't think there was anyone involved in this conversation who looked at that in a simplistic way and said, "Of course we'll do that and that will solve the problem." No one believed that....I'm not convinced that this is the answer. I am convinced that nothing that we've tried collectively to date has improved the situation. I think there's a logical rationale for going down this road, so it's worth trying to see if we can effect some change. The thinking there was, again, we know that hard-alcohol abuse is at the root of, if not all...the overwhelming majority of these cases. We know that that's a fact. We know that some other institutions have moved in this direction, and at least for some periods of time, have felt like it has been helpful. I think the ways in which we hope it is helpful ultimately is to say, "If you're going to make the choice to drink, then we would much prefer that you make the choice to drink lower-alcohol content beverages, because we know they're less likely to cause these sorts of problems."
Q: The problems resulting from the "Champagne on the Steps" celebration prompted the CCWG to issue a survey of the student body about alcohol use. Is this something you plan to revisit with regard to the new hard alcohol policy?
A: I think that is one of the intentions, to revisit probably exactly the same survey. There is some interesting information that came out of it...we [issued] it in February 2009, and I'd like to see us do something along those lines as well. One of the [CCWG's] recommendations talks about the creation of a Center for Education, Treatment and Awareness, and the first step in the process that called for the creation of an advisory group to explore those possibilities, and that group is in place now. It's called the Alcohol Working Group [comprised of students, faculty and staff].
Q: When did the Alcohol Working Group form? What is its intention?
A: It was formed last spring....They've already had two meetings, so they're quite active. It's intended to be a comprehensive group that's looking at these issues, so one of the aspects of that would be, "What additional data do we need to be collecting and how might we use that?"
Q: MulePAC, a peer-lead alcohol-advisory group, has also been very vocal about practicing safer drinking habits this fall. What do you think about this effort?
A: I think it's great....In a wonderful way, it's starting to do some of exactly what we wanted to have happen....We can talk about problems, we try to think about and identify ways of understanding them and ways of approaching them, but ultimately this is about a student issue, and it will change when students decide that it needs to change and take ownership of it, and that comes in a variety of forms...We have an obligation to put certain parameters in place, and when violations of a certain nature occur, we have to respond in that way, but all of that is like putting bandages on a problem, and the cure exists ultimately in the student culture.
Q: What is your sense of student response to the hard alcohol policy thus far?
A: I think it's very mixed. The most vocal people for the most part have been in opposition....I think last year when we were having forums about this and talking about it as a community, you heard a very vigorous voice from the other side of the student body, those students who strongly support the direction [in which] this is going.
Q: Finally, the Class of 2014 is the most diverse group of students to set foot on the Hill. Do you think this level of diversity can influence campus culture as a whole?
A: I think that the more diverse we are as a community, the richer the experience for all of us. I think that can't help but change the campus culture experience for students here in ways that I think are really good and exciting and important. All you need to do is open a newspaper or turn on the television or listen to the radio and listen to the news reports to understand the nature of the problems that we're facing [in society] right now, how important it is for us to understand people, culture and ideas that are different from those that we grew up with, and that we may know from our personal experiences. Ahead of everything else that a Colby education is for students, it's about preparation for leadership, for citizenship, for success, in a world that is very diverse, and so I think that part of the experience is absolutely critical and wonderful.