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The Gov't Tries to Curb Campus Vices

By Jonathan S. Cohn

While President Bush has avoided the sharp attacks on higher education made famous by the Reagan Administration, college officials nationwide say they are concerned Bush and a compliant Congress may be quietly tagging American colleges with unprecedented levels of regulation.

Although the wave of new laws governing research and campus life may be well-intentioned, educators say they are often counterproductive, and represent an unnecessary intrustion into the private world of higher education.

"Universities are being asked to furnish a great deal more information," says David Merkowitz, a spokesperson for the American Council on Education. Obtaining and collecting it is "often burdensome and intrusive, not to mention expensive," he says.

That's just what Harvard officials were saying this week as they continued their lengthy review of campus drug and alcohol policies, begun last month in response to new federal regulation.

Acting on legislation passed this winter, the Department of Education announced in April it would require Harvard and other private colleges to submit their illegal substance policies for review every two years. If the policies are not strict enough for federal standards, the universities could lose their federal financial aid support.

At Harvard, that would mean some $10 million lost each year.

When the government first indicated it might tie federal aid to substance abuse policies last fall, the colleges tried to soften the legislation.

"The [Drug Policy Adviser William J.] Bennett-Bush plan had tried to tie a lot of strings to federal education money," one congressional staffer said then. "And the universities have kind of waged a quiet battle to keep it out."

Now, as Harvard reviews the current campus alcohol policies, some administrators say the new regulations may waste resources, especially since enforcing college alcohol policies is so difficult.

"Drinking underage will be done in a more clandestine way," says Parker L. Coddington, director of Government Relations. "[The law is] almost going to be counterproductive."

"The fact that universities are being told how to do it by regulation is burdensome," says Dianne Irvine, a university lawyer. "Most would say it is more a burden than an assistance."

But if the government is saddling universities with extra work, it is doing so only because the public wants it that way, according to one congressional staffer. Melissa A. Sabatine, press secretary to Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Penn.), says the voters are increasingly aware of the national drug and alcohol problem, and want the government to do something about it.

"I would say there is a general consensus that the colleges have been too lax," Sabatine says.

In an interview this week, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III indicated that Harvard's standards might indeed fail to meet the new federal standards. He said the ongoing review could mean "a strengthening of our statements on regulations on drugs and alcohol," so that the University meets federal guidelines.

Although colleges may not like the new regulations, observers say the schools must learn to accept the added scrutiny, given the financial support universities receive from Washington.

"That's a lot of money," says Merkowitz. "One has to expect that there is a certain amount of accountability that goes with that."

And Merkowitz is quick to point out that the regulations on drug and alcohol abuse are directed at an illegal activity known to be prevalent on most campuses.

"We are talking much about illegal behavior and legal liability," Merkowitz says. "There is increased government scrutiny of those kinds of things on college campuses."

Even so, college officials say the resources could be better directed in other ways.

"I see it as part of an effort by government to--in a sense--put the burden for enforcing various kinds of legal sanctions on the institutions," says Irvine. "You've added another layer of administrative burden, and that can sap resources that might have been more positive ways."

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