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What can be done about the persistent allegiance to alcohol that troubles too many campuses across the country, including Southern Methodist University? Holly Hacker reported in the Dallas Morning News that campus police “issued more than 230 violations related to alcohol and drugs between August and October 8, up from about 160 during that period last year.” However, for those same weeks in 2005, the number was 300, but it’s hard to glean much from these figures. After all, 2006, which would appear to be a moment of relative restraint, saw the first of three deaths among SMU students from substance abuse.

These were tragedies that may have been beyond the ability of the university to prevent.  Dennis Foster, a professor of English currently serving on a special task force to delve into the situation, said that those students had “deep-seated problems that go deep into their lives.”

Southern Methodist is not the only campus wrestling with this worry. Along with Texas Tech and the Universities of Texas at Austin and Arlington plus Northern Illinois, SMU started an ad campaign five years ago to make binge drinking uncool. In fact, one observer has noted that there is not a single forward-looking idea that SMU has not tried.

Even so, Dr. Foster is convinced that more can be done to change the “excess around some of the parties [on campus]. They start inside and spill onto the streets,” he related, but “the SMU structure can intervene in this pattern of ritual excess, especially evident in the lot of fall semester in the first-year dormitories.” He does not agree with the argument that you can’t teach people to respect themselves. “I think, in fact, that people are taught that all the time — in sports and the military. We can help students to see themselves in a different way.”

Historian Jim Hopkins added that what may be needed is a return to the idea of the university as in loco parentis. The notion that students are young adults who don’t require supervision may be premature. He takes attendance, he said, where some on the faculty do not, and if a student misses a class four times, he sends an e-mail. If there is no response, he assumes that student is dropping the course.  What may be called for also, he seemed to be saying, is more follow-up to see if those absences are born of distress.

Dennis Simon, who teaches political science and also serves on the task force, said that national evidence suggests that more students are drinking to get drunk. The problem is especially acute, he observed, among freshmen, who want above all to fit in. While he stressed that he is not advocating a legal drinking age of 18, he nonetheless noted that it might be easier under those circumstances to regulate and restrict the use of alcohol. As it is now, with the legal age at 21, drinking goes underground and beer, the favorite drink of students, is hard to conceal. Liquor is not. So students turn to that.

Dr. Simon also pointed out that a lot of freshmen arrive at the university having already developed a drinking habit in high school. This was seconded by a teacher at a private school in Dallas who lamented that many kids “have too much money [with which to buy alcohol et al].” Moreover, this teacher said, some parents are allowing drinking at high school parties in their own homes, in violation of the law. Sometimes the parents are there, sometimes not.  No wonder there are students who land on college campuses in a fit of confusion.

The Harvard School of Public Health has reported that from 1993 to 2002, “the percentage of  binge drinkers has remained the same — 44 percent.” Dr. Bonnie Wheeler, a medievalist at SMU, concurs that “nothing has changed [except] in the way universities are responding. There is more enforcement, also more reporting.  There’s a new attitude toward what’s tolerated. It’s less permissive.”

One encouraging note: SMU students insisted in a 2003 survey that they NEVER drink and drive. It shows how effective the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) campaign still is, after more than 20 years. What may be necessary now is to recruit more mothers (and fathers) to the fight against binge drinking and to urge them into action when they still can have important impact — during their children’s high school years.