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UI officials unveil aggressive, three-year alcohol plan

BY SAM LANE | DECEMBER 07, 2010 7:20 AM

 

Reactions split

A Daily Iowan reporter went to the University of Iowa Main Library on Monday night to talk to students about their opinions on the UI's new alcohol plan.

Of the 14 students who read the plan the night before its unveiling, opinion split largely down the middle. While some students found the UI's new ideas to be plausible, others felt the drinking culture is so ingrained in Iowa City that attempts to change it would prove fruitless.

While UI officials hope to change the party-school image and attract students less prone to high-risk drinking by promoting its commitment to student health, wellness, and overall success in admissions materials.

UI junior Kelly Williams said he thinks most students don't pay attention to admissions information in the first place.

"Most students briefly read over [admissions information] and throw it out," he said. "[Admissions information] is more for parents than students. I think my mom read over that stuff more than I did."

Other students agreed.

"Every university says that, and every institution says that, but it doesn't change anything — I'm shocked the UI didn't have something like that in its admissions materials before," said first-year dental student Levi Zarbano.

Students also disagreed on the effectiveness of UI plans for students already on campus.

"[AlcoholEdu] could be a good reminder," Williams said. "Information is always good, and because you have something you have to take, it might be more powerful.

But Zarbano said he doesn't think students answer alcohol- and health-related surveys honestly.

"If I were a heavy drinker, I wouldn't tell the university about it, especially if it's being tracked by Student Health," he said. "And no one would take the university up on an intervention."

Still, one UI student thought parent-student education would help students take alcohol-safety information more seriously.

"I feel like sitting there with my mom would be more effective. I would listen to my mom more than anyone else," said UI sophomore Rebecca Jett. "It's better than sitting with peers. If I were sitting with my friends during something like that, I would be more likely to take it as a joke."

And while some students thought the 21-ordinance might help the UI in its quest to reduce binge drinking by 15 percent in three years, others laughed at the projected timeline.

"I think now without the bars, that could definitely go down in three years," Williams said. "I think it will definitely decline just because of the bars being 21, but maybe not that much."

Zarbano said even with the 21-ordinance, he didn't think the university could lower drinking rates in such a short amount of time.

"No, that is far too short of a timeline. It's a party culture even if [students] can't go to bars; they'll just go to house parties — I thought I was ambitious," he said.

"[Drinking] is a draw of the college — we've been on every top-10 party list since I've been in high school."

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In just three years, 15 percent fewer University of Iowa students will be binge drinkers.

At least, that's one goal of university officials under a new, aggressive plan to reduce harmful student drinking and rid the UI of its party school image.

The Alcohol Harm Reduction Plan — expected to be presented today at a UI Faculty Senate meeting and obtained in advance by The Daily Iowan — is the result of nearly a year's worth of meetings by a 26-person committee. It is the final draft of a document that has gone through numerous revisions.

Previous versions, obtained by the DI through the Freedom of Information Act, included suggestions as radical as adding a question to the UI's application that asks prospective students to list any past alcohol charges or collecting data on which high schools produce high-risk drinkers.

For the final draft, however, the committee, appointed by UI Vice President for Student Services Tom Rocklin, removed certain ideas, clarified others, and laid out a set of four goals to begin tackling the university's alcohol problem over the next three years.

The goals are:

• Attract more low-risk drinkers and fewer high-risk drinkers
• Retain students who are low-risk drinkers through alcohol education, alternatives
• Help high-risk drinkers lower their drinking while at UI
• Hold high-risk drinkers accountable, possibly suspending students from the UI

Using these four goals, officials hope to lower the UI's binge drinking rate from 70 percent to 55 percent in the next three years.

"[The goals] are ambitious," Rocklin said. "They will be challenging, but it is possible. It's all about safety, but there's no metric to have people stop drinking."

And the goals seem particularly hopeful when compared with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln — considered a national model for addressing college-drinking issues — which needed almost a decade to achieve a similar drop.

"I think that's a very admirable goal, but it's going to be very difficult to achieve — it's definitely worth pursuing," Peter Nathan, an alcohol expert and UI professor emeritus, said of the plan.

The four goals

The four goals are broken down into three categories: controlling who arrives, controlling who leaves, and helping people while they are at the UI.

The first goal focuses on students seeking admission at the UI. Included in efforts to reach out to incoming students is a revision of the admissions materials sent to prospective students and providing educational resources to the UI's biggest "feeder schools," though the specific information has yet to be determined.

One expert questioned the effectiveness of such a change.

Mark Montgomery, the president of Montgomery Educational Consulting — which gives advice on college admissions — said he did not feel the change in admissions materials would affect potential students either way.

"The reality is that every school in America is a party school," he said.

Goals two and three focus on habits and activities for students already at the university, and that is where the "main action" of the plan is.

In both steps, the most concrete plans are laid out in the first year, which began this semester. These include implementing alcohol-education programs in intramural athletics and the greek system, expandingAlcoholEdu to all incoming students under 21, looking into alcohol-related reasons for students leaving the UI, and continuing the Think Before You Drink tailgaiting campaign.

Also this semester, officials have begun a "sophomore screen + intervene project," a survey presented to sophomores that will allow Health Iowa officials to identify students who seem to exhibit risky drinking. They then offer students optional counseling sessions on that alcohol use.

The goals also involve parental involvement. Beginning last summer, officials started mailing handbooks to parents that identify ways to talk to students about alcohol use. In addition, special optional sessions at summer Orientation brought students and parents together to discuss health and safety issues.

Officials have a few additional goals to implement in the two subsequent years, but they mostly concentrate on reviewing the previous year's progress.

The final goal focuses on addressing students who may need to leave the UI because of alcohol concerns. This includes expanding the Code of Student Life to include off-campus infractions, which has already occurred, and suspending students who continually have alcohol problems.

Creating the plan

Though many of the plan's initiatives seem to mirror the UI's current alcohol efforts, Rocklin said having a specific and sequenced document that provides benchmarks for success in curbing high-risk drinking can help a school better achieve its goals.

He appointed the alcohol committee — which is composed of students and faculty from a variety of university colleges and departments — last December and charged members to meet four times a year.

The group is chaired by Susan Assouline, a professor of education, who said the plan will be presented to the Staff Council in February.

Today, faculty senators will have a chance to provide input, but Assouline said she wasn't sure of the extent to which it will change.

"When you have a plan and a committee, you have a level of accountability," she said. "We care about this. We care about our students."

While cost estimates for the plan were not immediately available Monday night, Rocklin said officials have "thought about costs." He stressed that the specifics of the plan could change and funding sources are not final.

The UI's initiatives focus on a mix of targeting high- and low-risk drinkers with a combination of education and enforcement. But alcohol experts nationwide disagree about the effectiveness of these different methods.

While Nathan said the most effective campaigns target high-risk drinkers, Robert Saltz, a researcher at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, said targeting all students is the ideal policy.

Even when there are no high-risk drinkers at the school, problems will remain, "because even low-risk drinkers will occasionally drink too many drinks and fall off a balcony," he said.

But Nathan said spending resources on students who don't have a problem with alcohol may be unnecessary.

"I would focus my energies on the group that comes ready to drink heavily but not ignore the other group," he said.

Excluding the city

Rocklin said the plan is unique to UI and did not model it after another school. However, UI officials did seek ideas from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which has been a key model in the fight to reduce high-risk drinking. Nebraska officials visited the UI campus last year to provide suggestions.

In Lincoln, the university and the community have worked collaboratively for more than a decade to reduce the school's affiliation with excessive partying and at-risk behavior.

"I think it was because we brought everybody to the table who had an investment in the situation," said Linda Major, the assistant to the vice chancellor of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Even a state senator had a place on the coalition, said Lincoln Police Chief Tom Casady.

The school spent a year drafting the Nebraska Direction's 60 objectives and 13 goals, and they are "still working," Major said.

Despite a push for collaboration, the UI did not include the city in the plan because it is aimed at things the university can do on its own, Rocklin said.

Councilor Regenia Bailey said she wasn't opposed to the university not including the city in the development of this specific plan.

"It is their document — it will be up to them to enforce it," she said.

Councilor Connie Champion agreed.

"I think the university and the town have a very positive relationship, and communication will continue to go on about these things because it costs both of us," she said.

And although the program's planning did not directly involve city officials or downtown business owners, Nathan said he felt the city has already done its part in solving Iowa City's drinking problem.

"It would be good to have the support of the city because the city has a stake in this, but I mean, this is finally the university doing something about the student drinking problem," the former UIprovost said. "The city did what it could do to implement the 21-only ordinance — now, I think it's up to the university to take it from there and develop a program to deal with high-risk student drinkers."

DIreporters Hayley Bruce,Max Freund, and Alison Sullivan contributed to this article.


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