By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
When we first spoke to him last December, Vince Morris, the president of the Bloomington, Ind.-based University Risk Management and Insurance Association, pointed to the long-accepted university bane of heavy partying as the 800-pound gorilla that university risk managers needed the courage to tackle.
"And at some point the nation itself needs to grapple with this socially," Morris said. "Why is it that we find this acceptable? Why is it considered a right of passage for higher education? If I could eliminate 70 percent to 80 percent of my risk with one single activity excluded, why wouldn't I?"
It didn't take long, at the University of Kansas at least, for Morris' words to find a dark confirmation. Within the space of seven weeks this late winter and early spring, the Lawrence-based university lost two undergraduates to alcohol-related deaths.
In the first week of March, Jason Wren, 19, a popular athlete and a fraternity brother at Sigma Alpha Epsilon, was found dead in his bed after a night of very heavy drinking. On April 24, an 18-year-old honors student, Dalton Eli Hawkins, who had been drinking according to published reports, fell to his death off of a female dormitory roof.
In response, the university, which was already reviewing its alcohol policies, fast-forwarded approval of some new initiatives. Among them is a provision that the university will launch a program that will notify parents when their children have been written up for a drug or alcohol violation.
Wren, for example, was kicked out of the KU dorms for alcohol violations before he took up residence at the SAE house.
Another provision is that the university is requiring alcohol assessments of incoming students. If incoming freshmen are found to have pre-existing risk factors for alcohol abuse, they will be referred to the office of Student Health Services for counseling.
"We intend to have it in place for all incoming students in the fall," said Jane Tuttle, an Associate Vice Provost for Student Success at the University of Kansas.
A third provision would absolve students who notify administrators that one of their fellow students is suffering an alcohol crisis from being punished under the university's alcohol abuse policies. The idea being that students often hesitate to tell responsible adults what's going on for fear of being disciplined.
And, said Tuttle, "More is coming."
Some university presidents have advocated for reducing the legal drinking age nationally to 18 in an effort to bring alcohol use out from underground and make its consumption a more gradual right of passage. Along that line of thinking, anecdotally, at least, it is theorized that college students in the U.S. binge worse than say, students in France, because here in the U.S. things like having half a glass of wine at dinner when you're 16 are discouraged while in France it's just part of the culture.
Morris, the risk manager for Wheaton College, a four-year, Christian liberal arts school, which bans alcohol use among students, said the question of whether institutions can impose social behavior on students is one that is "screaming for attention" but not getting it.
Tuttle said Wren's fraternity, SAE, faced no university disciplinary actions as a result of his death. She said no legal actions have been filed against the fraternity "to my knowledge."
July 1, 2009
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