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Developing Institutional Policies

Once an institution is clear about its own culture, values, mission and population, it is ready to move beyond the simple recitation of Federal, State and local law and develop an institutional policy that can be tailored to the specific school. As a baseline, the policy must comply with the Federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act Amendments of 1989 that require:

  1. The annual distribution, in writing to each employee and to each student who is taking one or more classes for any type of academic credit except for continuing education units, a policy that includes:

    1. the standards of conduct that clearly prohibit, at a minimum, the unlawful possession, use or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol by students and employees on its property or as part of any of its activities;

    2. a description of the applicable legal sanctions under local, State and Federal law for the unlawful possession or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol;

    3. a description of the health risks associated with the use of illicit drugs and the abuse of alcohol;

    4. a description of any drug or alcohol counseling, treatment, or rehabilitation or re-entry programs that are available to employees or students; and

    5. a clear statement that the institution of higher education will impose disciplinary sanctions on students and employees (consistent with local, State and Federal law), and a description of those sanctions, up to and including expulsion or termination of employment and referral for prosecution for violations of the standards of conduct; …a disciplinary sanction may include the completion of an appropriate rehabilitation program.

  2. A biennial review (of the policy and educational program)…to

    1. determine its effectiveness and implement changes if they are needed; and

    2. ensure that the disciplinary sanctions...are consistently enforced (DeJong and Langenbahn, 1995).

In addition, policies should extend beyond this specific requirement to address the issues of student conduct and institutional responsibility, while minimizing the risk of liability. Ideally, the institution will define the outcomes it seeks in relation to alcohol use and even determine how it might measure such outcomes. For example, is the desired outcome a complete ban on the presence of all alcohol among undergraduate students or is the focus on responsible behavior and mitigation of serious offenses? Will successful implementation of the policy be determined by a total elimination of behavioral problems or will a steady reduction be viewed as success? Will the focus be solely on the individuals involved in alcohol abuse or will attention be paid to those affected by the secondary effects? Determining such measurable goals a priority helps define the parameters for the institutional policy while also defining the kinds of data that need to be collected.

Numerous publications exist to assist administrators in the creation and review of these policies (See, for example, Gulland, 1994; DeJong and Langenbahn, 1995; Pittayathikhun, Ku, et al., 1997). To effect the balance of concern for students with protections against institutional liabilities, some lawyers (Gulland, 1994) recommend the following:

  • Adopt only rules and sanctions that the school is willing (and able) to enforce. There is much greater risk of liability for failure to enforce strict supervisory rules and regulations than there is for conscientious implementation of policies that emphasize student responsibility and that impose sanctions when students fail to fulfill their obligations.
  • Enforce the policy consistently while respecting students' rights to privacy to fair hearing procedures.
  • Emphasize education, both as a general means of acquainting students with the dangers of substance abuse and as a response to violations of the school's policy.
  • Focus on circumstances that present the greatest danger and risk of liability—situations in which the school is involved in selling alcoholic beverages or acting as a social host …and recurring patterns of alcohol abuse during particular events or by repeat offenders.

Other concrete recommendations have been put forward by those who insure universities against such liabilities (United Educators, 1993).

  • Draft policies that encourage responsible behavior, but avoid policies that seek to prevent specific types of harm or prescribe narrow types of behavior with alcohol.
  • Do not sell alcohol unless the institution is prepared to handle the responsibilities imposed by social host or dram shop laws.
  • Educate groups that host parties—fraternities, 'dormitories,' alumni—about their 'host' liability for serving alcohol to underage drinkers and ways to detect over-consumption.
  • Run programs about drinking and driving.
  • Deal immediately with known violations of institutional policies and be consistent and firm with discipline.

Increasingly, the environment in which these policies are being defined is being complicated by legislation beyond just the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. The amendments to FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) now permit schools to disclose to parents any violations of local, State and Federal laws and school policies and rules related to alcohol. Indeed, several States (e.g., Massachusetts, Virginia) now require public institutions in those States to do just that. Such legislation makes institutional decision-making more limited and raises complicated questions about consistency of discipline, and involvement of parents in the college student's education and the rights of students to privacy and confidentiality. For example, if an institution now discloses a student's violation of the alcohol policy to his/her parents, what expectations does that create on the part of the parents regarding violations of the academic code of conduct? Will the school also involve parents in disciplinary matters related to residential life? These questions need to be thought through carefully as schools respond to the expectations established by the Federal legislation and public discussion of the issue.

Once the general institutional policy is defined, attention should be turned to the consistent enforcement of such policy and the development of education programs related to it. In addition, administrators should focus on specific areas of the institution in which alcohol abuse may be more likely. Among these areas are a focus on residence life, the fraternity and sorority system and athletics. In addition, decisions need to be made relative to the involvement of donors associated with the alcohol industry, alcohol industry sponsorship on-campus and how the university will deal with alcohol and alumni events.

Residence Life

It goes without saying that alcohol is prohibited in public rooms of residence halls (e.g., lounges, lobbies, community spaces) in which underage students reside and it also is a basic tenet of any policy that underage students are in violation of the law if they possess or consume alcohol. However, a number of more complicated issues emerge if one just scratches below this surface.

For example, how should an institution respond to the request of students desiring a substance free residence when the only students they house are under legal age? Is the institution putting itself in greater risk of legal action if it designates one or more halls as substance-free when it would be assumed that all the residences should be filled with students who do not possess or use alcohol?

How does the institution write policies and train resident advisors regarding the oversight of public spaces and private bedrooms? What is the proper role of peers—mentors? advisors? disciplinarians? At what point is the student's right to privacy violated because of concern about alcohol abuse? What is the correct disciplinary response for someone whose only violation is the use of alcohol—administer punishment? refer to treatment? both? And how is the institution prepared to respond vis à vis residential accommodations for a recovering alcoholic (whose rights are protected under ADA)? These are just some of the questions needing to be addressed in an alcohol policy that includes residence life. The answers must flow from the basic institutional philosophy, not some generic directive.

Fraternities And Sororities

If the situation is complicated with respect to residential life, it becomes even more so when dealing with Greek life. The intense correlation between membership/residence in a fraternity or sorority and alcohol abuse makes it essential for the institution, and the governance bodies for fraternities and sororities, to work together to define very clear policies and enforcement mechanisms involving the Greek system. Inherent in that definition needs to be a respect for the fundamental principle of self-governance that defines many fraternity/sorority systems; yet, there also needs to be a recognition that these organizations exist as part of the university environment, and thus, they also must comply with that campus culture.

The issue is further complicated by the involvement of the national fraternity or sorority systems that set their own policies in this domain. Given the considerable liability many chapters face because they host events with alcohol and some own their own houses, it is not surprising that national organizations are promulgating policies that cover all of their chapters, regardless of institutional location. While such action meets their individual organization needs, it can add severe complications for a specific campus.

The urgency of this issue for the Greek system, however, is evident. The prevalence of binge drinking among fraternity and sorority members is undeniable when one reads any of the surveys (Wechsler, 1995; Presley and Meilman, 1992; Meilman, et al., 1998). Fraternity and sorority residence or membership was found to be the strongest predictor for high-risk drinking behavior. Eighty (80) percent of women living in sorority houses and 86 percent of men living in fraternity houses qualified as binge drinkers (Wechsler, 1995). Sorority members were found to be nearly twice as likely to be binge drinkers compared to other female students (62% vs. 35%, respectively) and the same held true for fraternity members (75% vs. 45%) (Wechsler, 1995). What is in question is whether fraternities and sororities simply attract those who are more inclined to abuse alcohol or whether such behavior is directly caused by participation in that system (Borsari and Carey, 1999).

The answer to that last question appears more mixed between fraternities and sororities. Among fraternity members, 60 percent of those living in the houses had binged in high school; 75 percent of those who did not binge in high school did so when they moved into the fraternity house. Among sorority women, only one-third had binged in high school, but 75 percent of those who did not binge in high school did become bingers while in college (Wechsler, 1995). Both fraternities and, to a lesser extent, sororities attract students who are inclined to be binge drinkers while both have an atmosphere to promote binge drinking (Borsari and Carey, 1999).

The enormous liability taken on by fraternity and sorority members has caused many of the national fraternities to move toward the policy long adopted by sororities, that is, banning the presence of alcohol in the fraternity house (Williams, 1996; Boston, 1998; Budoff, 1998; Peer Educator, 1999; Burke, 1999). Just this past summer, seven members of the National Panhellenic voted to restrict their social commitments in fraternity houses to those chapters that offered only alcohol-free events in their houses. Any event that included alcohol would necessarily be off campus.

While such policies address the social host liability concerns raised by most chapters, and also prevent the sororities from being the enablers to alcohol abuse and damage in fraternity houses, they seem shortsighted in their fundamental impact on the culture of drinking. Without fundamental change, the drinking behavior is likely to move off-campus with the same tragic consequences that can happen on campus. One such example was the tragic death, in 1997, of a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity member at the Louisiana State University, a campus that does not permit alcohol on its premises, including fraternity houses (Cohen, 1997). To effect any substantive change in the alcohol culture requires just that, a cultural and environmental approach to change. Inherent in such an approach are the required leadership and participation of local chapter members themselves (Arnold and Kuh, 1992). National fraternity staff, college administrators and even alumni lack the knowledge and skills to intervene in the complicated system of rewards and sanctions used by fraternity members to socialize newcomers to the group norms and values.

Arnold and Kuh (1992) draw upon research related to culture change to make the following recommendations to members of the Greek system and campus administrators related to policies and practices in fraternities and sororities:

  • Conduct cultural audits of local chapters using insiders and outsiders.
  • Adapt culture change strategies and tactics.
  • Hold members of the local chapter responsible for bringing about culture change.
  • Defer rush until the end of freshman year or the second year (so students have exposure to a broader culture than just that of the Greek system and so they establish themselves as members of the university community first, Greek community second).
  • Redouble efforts to recruit new members from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups (for whom alcohol is not such a primary focus).
  • Select live-in advisors committed to institutional mission and culture change.
  • Eliminate organizations that are unwilling/unable to change.

Several campuses are attempting to work with their Greek systems to effect change in light of the known dangers and challenges (Fraternity and Sorority Strategic Plan, 1997) and have adopted rush and membership policies and social responsibility guidelines that clearly place the responsibility on the students. The success of such endeavors remains to be seen.

One policy issue that touches on the Greek system, as well as the overall residential system, is that of a Good Samaritan rule. If an institution's judicial system includes strict punishment for violations of the underage drinking law, or lack of adherence to party registration rules, some students refuse to call for help for a fellow student who is in trouble as a result of alcohol abuse. They are afraid of putting that student, themselves or their friends who may have organized the party, in harm's way if the police arrive in response to their call for help, because they know that a rule has been broken. At the same time, police have an obligation to uphold the law, so it is unfair, if not unlawful, to ask them to ignore violations they see just because the student involved needs assistance. Trying to find the balance between appropriate regulation and encouragement to seek help when it is needed is the goal of campus Good Samaritan rules. Each institution needs to work carefully and collaboratively in finding that proper balance.


Athletics is another area that deserves special focus in the development of campus policies on alcohol use and abuse. It is a venue that requires focus both on the behavior of the students involved and on the environment that surrounds the athletic experience. The involvement of the alcohol industry in providing financial support for big-time athletic programs and the presence of large-scale events and up-scale venues, both of which include alcohol, contribute to the many dimensions of this issue.

According to presentations at a symposium in March 1999, sponsored by the Higher Education Center of Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention, college athletes are more prone to alcohol and other drug use and adverse consequences than are nonathletes on campus. And college athletics can contribute to a range of alcohol and other drug problems for campuses and surrounding communities (Catalyst, 1999).

Perhaps surprisingly, weekly alcohol consumption goes up as a student progresses from noninvolvement in athletics, through being a team member to being in a leadership position. A similar pattern is evident in rates of binge drinking and also in use among those participating in recreational athletics (Leichliter, et al., 1998).

While it is difficult to know why athletes engage in such behavior differently than their peers, it is apparent that alcohol is closely associated with the athletic enterprise in this country. Pro-drinking advertising and sports sponsorships by the alcohol industry are common in professional sports and are not unknown in collegiate athletics. The alcohol industry still provides considerable financial support to collegiate athletics; alcohol is still served in some college arenas and many new college stadiums include luxury boxes for alumni and other supporters where alcohol is served (even if the students in the stands cannot purchase alcohol). As collegiate athletics becomes more ‘professional’ in its approach, the influence of alcohol seems to permeate the entire atmosphere.

A number of recommendations for reducing problems of alcohol abuse and athletics emerged from the 1999 symposium on collegiate athletics and alcohol (Catalyst, 1999):

  1. The NCAA should reassess its policies for accepting alcohol advertising and sponsorship.
  2. Schools should enforce consistent alcohol control measures for public events (e.g., pregame tailgating and in-stadium alcohol availability) to avoid double standards.
  3. Schools should engage their surrounding communities in collaborative prevention activities.
  4. Schools should reduce risks posed by postgame celebration and consolation occasions by hosting social gatherings that do not involve alcohol.
  5. Schools should examine the pros and cons of acceptance of support from the alcohol industry. Finally, symposium participants agreed on the importance of reaffirming the educational mission as the top priority of colleges and university. Mitigating the impact of entertainment or business ventures often associated with big-time sports is an important step.

Alumni Events And Fund-Raising

As campuses confront the issues of alcohol abuse and other drug use and define policies that will mitigate such behavior, one area of challenge that often emerges relates to alumni programming. While all of the alumni are of legal age to drink, the extent to which they abuse alcohol, especially upon their return to the campus, can be measurable and have serious consequences for the university. There also is a concern among students that a double standard exists for donors and the rest of the community. When the President of the University of Rhode Island announced that institution's policy change, banning alcohol from all functions on campus, some of the most vocal resistance (besides from the fraternities) came from the development office and deans, worrying that the lack of alcohol could inhibit their development activities (Schroeder, 1999). Once the policy change was announced, however, the university reported little actual resistance from the alumni and no negative impact on development.

The issue of accepting gifts or sponsorships from the alcohol industry poses a different set of challenges. An active debate exists among those involved in this issue (Catalyst, 1999). Is it ‘accepting blood money’ or giving the industry free advertising, or is it requiring the alcohol industry to be part of the solution? President Edward H. Hammond of Fort Hays State draws the analogy with the automobile industry or chemical companies or other companies producing legal products. "Every time a legal product is abused in our society, we demand the producers of the product take ownership and be a part of the solution" (Catalyst, 1999).

For institutions that have hospitality programs or food-related curricula, or alumni who have entered the alcohol industry, the two issues (alumni giving and industry support) come together. The university must be clear in articulating its position, especially about alcohol advertising on campus, accepting gifts and allowing support from the industry. It certainly is possible to prohibit the direct advertisement or official sponsorship yet still permit gifts from the Busch family, or Coors, or Sebastianis. What fits for any given institution, however, must flow from the basic philosophy and policy guidelines.

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Last reviewed: 9/23/2005

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