New Committee Will Examine Alcohol Abuse

Committee formed as UHS sees rise in alcohol poisoning admits

Crimson Graphic

With more and more Harvard students hospitalized for severe alcohol abuse, University officials have launched an initiative to look into new ways to curtail irresponsible drinking, from adjusting social attitudes to expanding treatment options.

Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 will announce today a committee charged with investigating how administrators, students and University health officials can prevent and reduce binge drinking.

According to Gross, the committee will not seek to clamp down on student parties or tighten regulations, but will instead address what he perceives to be the social problem of alcohol abuse at Harvard.

Gross’ announcement comes after 24 undergraduates were treated by University Health Services (UHS) for alcohol poisoning this September—a substantial increase from the 15 admits for alcohol-related illnesses last September.

The committee, established by Gross and University Provost Steven E. Hyman, will be chaired by Currier House Master Joseph L. Badaracco and is expected to produce a set a recommendations for ways to improve alcohol education and treatment by this spring.

Harvard’s Board of Overseers had pushed for the creation of a committee following discussions with concerned parents and in reaction to the spike in hospitalizations, according to Gross and Hyman. University President Lawrence H. Summers has also voiced support for the committee, whose other members have not yet been made public.

Gross said he hopes to spark discussion at the University about irresponsible alcohol consumption and, more broadly, the social dimensions of drinking. The committee will seek input and advice from students, administrators and medical experts, he said.

Specifically, efforts will be made to improve UHS’s response to crises as well as expanding counseling and support for students with recurring alcohol problems.

“The main goal is to reduce heavy drinking, via educational and therapeutic programs,” Gross said. “I’m doing this because I think it’s a serious health problem.”

Hyman said that the problem needs to be addressed from the dual perspective of prevention and response.

“The goal is not to have a committee that meets and declares victory because we’ve had a meeting,” Hyman said. “The goal is to properly address the many sides of the problem with binge drinking, ranging from health risks to academic problems to sexual assault.”

Though Gross declared his interest in the issue of alcohol last spring following the release of the Leaning Committee’s report to address sexual assault at Harvard, Gross said that his concerns were heightened by the UHS statistics.

Gross said that while it appears that the number of people drinking regularly has remained somewhat level over the past ten years, the number of people who are getting dangerously sick has gone up considerably, especially among women.

He also said he is concerned that students may trivialize the dangers of alcohol use.

“People joke about alcohol abuse now, like they used to joke about drug abuse and date rape when I was in college,” Gross said. “Last year, we had a discussion of sexual violence on campus, and put a program in place to address it. I think it’s now time to discuss the dangers and consequences of alcohol abuse.”

Sobering Statistics

Recent spikes in UHS alcohol admissions have contributed to the sense of urgency about the alcohol situation on campus.

The 60 percent increase in admits from last September to this September includes a marked jump in the number of first-years treated for alcohol poisoning.

Of the 24 admits this September, 13 were first-years. Last September, 8 of the 15 students treated were first-years.

In at least two of this year’s 24 cases, the victims fell into comas, according to UHS statistics.

The total number of alcohol check-ins has risen in the past six years, from 18 total in the 1997-1998 school year to 123 total in the 2002-2003 academic year. The statistics show that typically UHS sees the most alcohol-related cases in November and December.

Director of UHS David Rosenthal said that he is not sure whether the increase in UHS visits is due to an increase in binge drinking or to a greater willingness to seek medical attention.

Only in recent years has the administration made it clear that there are no disciplinary repercussions for check-ins that are purely alcohol-related, Rosenthal said.

Hyman said that while he does not believe Harvard’s drinking problem is bad compared to other schools in the United States, “the problem is bad enough to be taken seriously.”

“It’s very discouraging,” Hyman said. “We obviously don’t have our messages down right. We have to address these problems more clearly and effectively.”

Road to Recommendations

“One thing we might want to teach is how students can learn to read the signals from their own body that they’ve had enough,” Hyman said.

Hyman, who will sit on the committee, said that he hopes that there will be concrete changes made at the end of the year.

“Obviously we can do both education and treatment, but I think the issue is doing education in a certain way,” Hyman said. “We are starting from the position that students carry understanding about alcohol but don’t always act on it.”

Hyman also stressed the importance of creating an “alliance” of House masters, tutors, doctors and students in order to coordinate efforts at prevention and response.

Professor of the History of Science Everett R. Mendelsohn, who sat on the Leaning Committee last year, said he hopes the committee will focus first on the aspects of the social scene at Harvard that may lead to irresponsible drinking. When it comes to alcohol, an examination of Harvard’s culture should come before questions of discipline, he said.

“I’m less interested in discipline and rules in this case than I was in the case of rape, because in this case it’s often self abuse. We need to focus on cultural and structural self-education,” Mendelsohn said.

Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04 said he’d been assured that the committee would not focus on discipline nor on the Administrative Board.

“I’m pleased that the University is admitting its failure in providing proper treatment to those in need,” said Chopra, who added that he hopes the administration will also look into improving its resources for treating mental health problems.

Both Mendelsohn and Chopra said that students need to learn how to help one another and to form communities with better attitudes towards alcohol consumption.

“People need to know how to identify whether their friends have drinking problems,” Chopra said. “We need to know when it’s a problem and when to intervene.”

While Badaracco said he does not know what the committee will recommend, he said that it will likely zero in on social groups, Houses and UHS in its investigation.

“We want to make sure we turn over every rock,” Badaracco said.

Hyman said he thinks that one result of the committee’s work may be a variety of more effective education programs, some perhaps aimed at certain high risk groups, such as social clubs and sports teams. Another possibility is a revamped information session for first-years during Freshman Week, he said.

“[Students] want to go out and have fun and be silly, but they feel like they need alcohol as an excuse,” Shirley L. Hufstedler ’07 said. “They don’t feel like it’s acceptable to be silly, energetic and do party-type things without alcohol as an excuse.”

Hyman said that student input will be crucial to the committee’s success.

“Students generally come here with some idea of alcohol. They don’t want to hear the same thing about the risks of alcohol,” Hyman said. “We need to know what’s credible and what’s not. We need to hear from students about whether UHS has been effective in asking about drinking and finding treatment.”

Gross said that he, too, has been trying to get a better idea of student life. In mid-September, he said took a walk—unnoticed—through the Quad on a Saturday night to observe the social scene firsthand.

Educating Within the Law

Massachussetts State Law, however, may constrain free discussion of the issue on campus. Since the drinking age is 21, administrators cannot advocate moderate drinking in a revamped education program, since many students are underage.

“The rules from the Commonwealth [of Massachussetts] are pretty clear,” Hyman said. “We are going to follow the law, but we have to grapple with education.”

Rosenthal said that he hopes he will have substantial leeway as a doctor to discuss responsible drinking with students.

“We as healthcare providers can teach people how to drink responsibly. I’d say ‘Listen, I can’t stop you from drinking, but if you are, you have to drink responsibly,’” Rosenthal said. “We need to be realistic.”

Hyman, who as provost oversees UHS, said that doctors—but not administrators—can discuss responsible drinking with students.

A member of Harvard’s General Counsel staff will sit on the committee to ensure that the committee recommends changes within the bounds of the law, according to Hyman.

To avoid too much legal hand-wringing, Badaracco said that he expects the committee to focus more on severe health crises than responsible drinking.

—Joshua D. Gottlieb contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Crimson staff writer Rebecca D. O’Brien can be reached at