Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Taking a new path

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

The opening stanza of Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken,” speaks of an intersection and a choice to be made between two paths.

When it comes to alcohol and education, college students and colleges themselves stand at a critical juncture: continuing to address the issue through policies and practices that restrict behavior and punish transgressions or seeking to address the root causes of irresponsible and illegal use of alcohol.

This situation is neither new nor is the position entirely unique to higher education. The issue of alcohol abuse transcends colleges and universities. Irresponsible and illegal drinking begins well before many students matriculate at a college and continues long after graduation day. Nevertheless, the consumption of alcohol and alcohol abuse plays too great a role in the lives of some college students.

National studies offer an alarming picture. The use of alcohol contributes to about 1,700 deaths, nearly 600,000 injuries and 97,000 cases of sexual assault each year. And in recent years, the problem appears to have been growing in severity. The most recent data suggest that students’ binge drinking has been on the rise since the early 1990s.

Wheaton possesses no immunity from these trends, either. Our public safety and campus life staff spend a fair amount of time each week responding to underage or irresponsible alcohol use and the problems that arise from these situations. Often, violations of the college’s honor code and community standards can be traced back to alcohol or drug use.

On this issue, college campuses reflect the problems of the larger society. Two years ago, former Middlebury College President John McCardell and other college presidents (myself included) began a national conversation about alcohol and young adults through the Amethyst Initiative, which asked the provocative question of whether the drinking age should be changed.

While changing the drinking age may not be the right answer, the question does encourage us to consider the ways in which culture influences the use and abuse of alcohol. In Europe, for example, where young adults learn to enjoy wine at dinner with their families, the rate of alcohol abuse and binge drinking remains far lower than in the U.S. Clearly, social norms play a large role in how we approach the use of alcohol.

Wheaton may not be able to shift society on its own, but we can affect our campus culture and there is good reason for us to try. In addition to reasons of public health, safety and legality, we know that alcohol abuse undermines our efforts to create a vibrant learning community. National studies show that alcohol abuse correlates with poor academic performance, even the failure to complete a degree. Acting on existing policies and procedures that respond to the problems of alcohol abuse is necessary but insufficient. So, Wheaton is taking a new path.

Ronald A. Crutcher, presidentOur effort to address this issue takes its name from the opening lines in Robert Frost’s poem. The college’s Yellow Wood Commission, a representative committee that was formed at the start of the spring semester, seeks to change the campus culture through collaborative discussion and engagement. Students are joining with faculty and administrators to study the issues that underlie irresponsible and illegal alcohol use.

In keeping with Wheaton’s commitment to rigorous liberal arts study, the members of the Yellow Wood Commission are conducting a comprehensive critical review of practices that effectively promote responsible use of alcohol. They will engage the entire campus in discussing their findings and determining how our community will work together to promote a healthier culture.

The initiatives that will arise from the work of the Yellow Wood Commission could take many forms. I will avoid suggesting possible projects here, because I am most interested in encouraging creative ideas that arise from the group’s work and outreach with the entire campus.

In this way, Wheaton will generate original and effective strategies that can serve as a model for others. We will also demonstrate the power that our distinctive approach to the liberal arts can have in promoting positive changes in the world. Q