November 4, 2013

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT: Changing Our High-Risk Drinking Culture

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By ROSS GITLIN

Last week, Cayuga’s Watchers officially launched at Cornell. “Watchers” is a new organization, independent of the University and incorporated as a not-for-profit 501(c)(3), that partners with fraternities, sororities and student organizations to promote the safety of students at social events by reducing rates of high-risk drinking. Adapted from comparable models at our peer institutions that have proven successful, Watchers trains and hires students to utilize peer-to-peer, non-confrontational bystander intervention techniques to engage partygoers displaying signs of alcohol abuse.

The short term goal of Watchers is for students to look out for one another and ensure that our peers do not drink to the point where they become a danger to themselves or others. Hopefully these efforts will result in fewer reports of students becoming ill from drinking, thereby, incidentally, lowering medical transport rates. The long term goal of Watchers is to change the culture around partying on campus from one that promotes high-risk drinking to one that fosters responsible consumption.

The culture of high-risk drinking on our campus stems, at least in part, from a disconnect between the reality of high-risk drinking and students’ perceptions. For example, in Cornell’s 2012 Alcohol and Social Life Survey of the student body, when students were asked if “drinking to the point of blacking out” is acceptable, approximately 70 percent of respondents said that it was “never socially acceptable” to black out. But when asked what they believe the majority of Cornell undergraduates think about the social acceptability of blacking out, students said only 20 percent of students would agree that it is “never socially acceptable.” Alternatively, when asked about the frequency of drinking, 16.9 percent of students said that they drink “once a week,” while 38.2 percent of respondents said they believe the rest of Cornell students will drink once a week.

The disconnect between reality and our perceptions contributes to the trend of high-risk drinking. Perceived social pressures foster a norm around drinking that promotes high-risk behaviors even though most Cornellians agree that such a norm should not be tolerated. It has been suggested that students drink more often or have more drinks in a given night simply because they believe it is socially acceptable behavior. The goal of Watchers, therefore, is to combat these perceived beliefs by demonstrating that, in fact, most Cornellians are actively committed to fostering a culture that promotes responsible drinking.

Although it is early, Watchers seems to be working thus far. After working three social events last week, the group received strong support and endorsements from the organizations they partnered with. The organizations reported back that the Watchers’ teams seamlessly integrated into the party and effectively intervened in situations where students appeared overly intoxicated.

Last week’s launch is significant because of Watchers’ ability to become fully functional and overcome the many logistical hurdles involved in creating such an organization. Moving forward, it is critical that more students sign up and be a part of the Watchers team – the more students Watchers can employ, the greater flexibility they will have in staffing various social events, thereby increasing their chances for success.

The Watchers’ initiative is important because it exemplifies students’ ability to start a project that will make the campus a safer place. Although it is important for the administration to create policies addressing campus health and safety, it is equally important that students engage in a parallel process so we can improve campus life.

Over the next few months, especially leading up to the next round of the Board of Trustees meetings in January, I will continue to explore how the University is improving the health and safety of students. To this end, the staff at Gannett Health Services, the President’s Council on Alcohol and Other Drugs, Cornell’s National Collegiate Health Improvement Project Committee and other initiatives are all acting in collaboration to achieve the goal of improving student safety on campus. But, most significantly, I want to hear what you think. What can we be doing better? In addition to providing feedback about current policies, I am committed to starting the conversation about how students — like the Watchers team — can continue to proactively address these critical issues.

If you have thoughts or comments, or would like to find out more about getting involved with Cayuga’s Watchers, I would be glad to sit down and speak to you. Email me at rhg68@cornell.edu to identify a time that works.

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