Defining the Debate

The man behind the national college alcohol crackdown

Henry Wechsler's name is synonymous with college drinking.

In 1993--four years before Scott Krueger drank himself to death at an MIT fraternity--the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researcher's landmark College Alcohol Study showed binge drinking on college campuses was far more extensive than anyone believed and initiated a nationwide crackdown on student binge drinking.

Wechsler demonstrated that a host of "secondary effects"--including date rape, violence, and poor academic performance--followed as a result of drinking to excess.

Wechsler hit the media circuit--morning news shows, newspaper opinion pages, interviews and more--trying to convince U.S. colleges and the public at large that they had become desensitized to a very real problem on college campuses.

"Our society has taken alcohol as a rite of passage," Wechsler says. "It's like living next to a fish factory--after a while you don't smell it any more."


Wechsler was the first researcher in the nation to examine college binge drinking, and his data and theories remain at the forefront of the national debate.

Wechsler's ongoing national studies of student alcohol use are unmatched in their scope. For each study, Wechsler surveys more than 15,000 students at about 130 colleges, providing some of the most authoritative statistics on the magnitude of college drinking.

However, a core group of researchers and college administrators attack both the accuracy of Wechsler's studies and the thinking that underlies them.

They say Wechsler's definition of binge drinking is inherently flawed and classifies too many students as problem drinkers.

In an even more serious charge, they say Wechsler's strategy of emphasizing the extent of drinking on college campuses has backfired. Instead of reducing the level of college drinking, they say, Wechsler has convinced students that bingeing is socially acceptable and has actually increased the number of students who drink to excess.

In The Public Eye

National media organizations have consistently leapt on Wechsler's findings as evidence of a widespread culture of self-destruction on college campuses, and Wechsler has been happy to oblige them with interviews and press releases.

In the past seven years, Wechsler has appeared on "Nightline," "20/20," "Good Morning America," and the "NBC Morning Show." Garry Trudeau wrote about him in his "Doonesbury" comic strip, and Jay Leno quipped that it "took a Harvard researcher to find that college students drink."

In part because of his staggering statistics--his data shows that almost half of college students binge drink--Wechsler has been remarkably effective at stimulating a national discussion about college alcohol abuse.

How Much Is Too Much?

Despite the widespread publicity of his views, Wechsler's critics charge that his definition of binge drinking--five drinks for a man and four for a woman--is inherently flawed.

They say it has no scientific basis, fails to account for a significant number of other factors that influence the physiological effects of alcohol use, and classifies too many students as problem drinkers.

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