Amid scrutiny of alcohol policy, College hires outside consultants

By Peter Sullivan

President Raynard Kington has decided to hire outside consultants to examine the College’s alcohol policy, a move he said will take the policy to “the next level.”

The administration has been sharpening its focus on alcohol policies and their execution in recent years. Kington said in an interview last week that changes so far and a recent focus on preventing sexual misconduct, which is tied to alcohol use, crystallized the need for consultants. He emphasized that all of the changes are intended to prevent  unsafe behavior, not increase punishment.

“We have devoted more attention to prevention over the last several years and I have no problem at all owning that,” Kington said.

There have already been significant changes. When current seniors first came to the College four years ago, alcohol education at New Student Orientation was just beginning to expand. Lyle’s Pub rarely asked for identification. The College allowed Grinnell Relays to feature a beer garden on Mac Field. Conference Operations supported the planning of the 100 Days party. Student organizers of 10/10 and Block Party did not feel strong administrative pressure to prevent excessive drinking at their parties.

Now, incoming students take an online alcohol education course,, which is coupled with more programming at orientation. Lyle’s Pub consistently wristbands and asks for identification. Grinnell Relays is not allowed to include beer. A student organizer of 100 Days had to front more than a thousand dollars in costs, later made up from ticket sales, because the College stopped supporting the party’s planning this year. Dean of Students Travis Greene told the S&B in October that if 10/10 had not gone well this year, it “could be in jeopardy of not existing as we currently know it.”

The Harm Reduction Committee, a group of students and staff that makes recommendations on safer ways to deal with alcohol on campus, acknowledges that some of the changes challenge a campus culture that has long allowed students to drink with relatively little oversight.

Accelerating Changes

The increased focus on alcohol safety has modest roots. During the 2007-2008 school year, students on the All Campus Events Committee and in the Student Government Association implemented a policy of requiring $25 worth of food to be present for every keg at a party. The arrivals of Greene as Dean of Students, Houston Dougharty as Vice President for Student Affairs and Jen Jacobsen ’95 as Wellness Coordinator, all in 2008, solidified the attention on harm reduction around alcohol use.

Before then, New Student Orientation’s alcohol programming consisted of one half-hour talk.

“Don’t take straight shots of Everclear. Not even kidding, that was pretty much the take-home message,” said John Burrows ’10, a former SGA Vice President of Student Affairs, speaking about his orientation.

One of Greene, Dougharty and Jacobsen’s major initiatives was increasing education about safe ways to drink alcohol. Orientation now includes a two-hour alcohol discussion followed by a pub night with alcohol safety trivia.

“We started at such a low bar in fall of 2008, when Houston and Travis and I were all new here, because there were no discussions,” Jacobsen said.

Changes accelerated when Kington became president in 2010. He is the former acting director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“When I first came, there was a flurry of activity because of the concerns that I was going to make the campus dry,” he acknowledged.

Kington did not do so, but instead began with the more modest step in 2010 of asking the Harm Reduction Committee to review the College’s policies to see if they matched the recommendations of an NIAAA report, issued while Kington was acting director, on changing the culture of college drinking.

The decision to then hire alcohol policy consultants arose out of a tense campus discussion surrounding an increase in adjudicated instances of sexual misconduct in spring 2012. In response, Kington created a task force to recommend changes aiming to prevent sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse, which are closely related. The College also hired consultants to examine its compliance with Title IX, which requires colleges to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct to ensure a nondiscriminatory environment.

“What changed the conversation was when we started a discussion about Title IX,” Kington said. “What we heard in a strong, consistent, resounding voice was, ‘You cannot deal with sexual assault and sexual misconduct separate from dealing with alcohol.’”

He said the Harm Reduction Committee’s review was a first step. “We’ve done the first level of stuff to do. We’ve started the online training, we’ve started doing a range of things,” Kington said. “Now we have to go to the next level, and that’s why we’re having a consultant.”

Outside of any recommendations the consultants might make, the Harm Reduction Committee is still following up on the review Kington ordered and is considering some potentially significant changes.

Jacobsen, who co-chairs the Harm Reduction Committee, said the committee is working on ways to strengthen enforcement of the alcohol agreements all party organizers must sign before hosting a party. The agreements require organizers to give wristbands only to students of legal drinking age and then only to serve students with wristbands. These agreements are rarely carried out as intended.

“We recommend that wristbanders consistently check IDs (standing next to ACE security when possible) and only wristband people who have a photo ID that shows they are of legal age,” states the working document of the Harm Reduction Committee, written as part of the 2010 review. The document adds: “This represents a major challenge to campus culture.”

Jacobsen said the committee is hopeful students, particularly the party organizers and those working as All Campus Events security, will carry out the increased enforcement on their own. “Some accountability is expected for the alcohol agreements,” Jacobsen wrote in an emailed response to a follow-up question. “I/we are hopeful that will come from students. I worry if students are not proactive about this, it will come from the administration.”

New Policy Players

The creation of the task force on sexual misconduct and alcohol policies last year and this year’s decision to hire outside alcohol policy consultants has shifted the focus of some of the work surrounding alcohol policy away from the Harm Reduction Committee. This shift has the potential to decrease students’ voice in decision-making. About half of the members of the Harm Reduction Committee are students, and it is co-chaired by the SGA Vice President of Student Affairs, Sivan Philo ’13. The task force, on the other hand, has eight staff members, one professor and two students. As for the consultants, Special Assistant to the President Angela Voos, also the leader of the task force, emphasized they would be speaking with students before issuing their report.

Jacobsen said students are essential to the alcohol policy work of the Harm Reduction Committee. “The Harm Reduction Committee would not work if it weren’t half students and if it weren’t co-chaired by the SGA VP of Student Affairs,” Jacobsen said. “I think if you’re not familiar with college students and the culture of alcohol on campus, it’s really easy from the outside to say like, ‘Well, why don’t you just make a rule and make blah, blah, blah happen?’ And that’s just not how it works.”

She added that being too heavy-handed can push alcohol use underground, where it is less safe and students are less willing to call for help. “I think harm reduction has done really good work over the past four and a half years and it has been very partnered with students and it has been incremental, maybe not as fast as some people would like, but culture change takes time,” she said.

Voos was quick to express her support for the work of the Harm Reduction Committee. “I am totally in favor and applaud the harm reduction,” she said. “The reason to bring in outside consultants is, even with all of the energy that is here, we don’t have all the answers. There are people who have been studying this. That’s their profession. They know more than we do. Why not, with the support of the president, bring in people to help us?”

The decision to hire outside consultants did not extend far beyond Nollen House. Greene, the Dean of Students, and Philo, the SGA Vice President of Student Affairs, who are both members of the task force on sexual misconduct and alcohol policies, said when contacted by the S&B last week that they were unaware of any efforts to hire consultants. Kington informed the Executive Council, the highest committee of the faculty, of his decision to hire outside consultants on March 6, according to the minutes of the meeting.

Changes to Campus Activities

Recent changes have already had an effect. The Harm Reduction Committee’s working document calls for “increasing enforcement at campus-based events that promote excessive drinking.” 10/10 was one of the parties it singled out. The document emphasizes the need for organizers to meet with the committee well in advance so they can plan ways to have a safe party. Greene told the S&B shortly after the party, in October, “I think that this year, more than any other year, people were worried that this could be the last 10/10 if things went south.”

Greene explained last week that he had said that because the party organizers had not communicated well with the Harm Reduction Committee in the lead-up to the party and that there was a new police chief for the town of Grinnell.

Assistant Director of Residence Life Dan Hirsch, who was on call during the party, noted that the year before he had received 30 calls for help, but this year he received zero. He attributed the drop to a mix of the party going well and pressure for the party to go smoothly discouraging students from making problems known by calling.

Ben Doehr ’15, manager of Lyle’s Pub, said the stricter identification checks at the pub are a result of pressure from the police, including the citation of underage drinkers early in 2012, as well as a change in student management and pressure from Student Affairs.

“The managers weren’t instructing people to card and so the pub got in trouble with the cops; the cops got mad at the College,” Doehr said.

The College long helped plan 100 Days, a party for seniors with roughly 100 days left in the year. The party turned into an occasion for kissing as many fellow seniors as possible starting in 2001. The Conference Operations office decided earlier this year that it was inappropriate for them to continue supporting the party.

This year will be the first since the party’s most recent revival in which Grinnell Relays is not allowed to feature alcohol. Jacobsen said problems the past two years led to the ban.

Changes in Relays, a long-standing tradition at the College, reflect changes in the alcohol climate overall. Founded in 1973 by Wayne Moyer, Political Science, and students in his first foreign policy seminar, Relays was an outdoor party featuring events such as tug of war and the Milwaukee Beverage Relay, where contestants chugged a beer rounding each corner of a baseball diamond. Moyer called it a “Sunday school picnic with beer.” After Iowa raised the drinking age to 21 in 1986, the party never fully recovered. The latest push to return the party to its former glory came about five years ago, with it featuring beer that was supposed to be confined to a roped-off beer garden.

Two years ago, Jacobsen said the College decided there needed to be an alcohol agreement for the event because it was an exception to policy to allow so much alcohol outside. After student organizers violated the agreement the past two years by allowing underage students to drink and providing more beer than initially agreed upon, Jacobsen said the natural decision was to discontinue allowing alcohol.

Moyer said allowing the beer garden had added vibrancy to the party in recent years. “I think allowing an enclosed area sure helps,” he said.

He added that a spring party can be positive for campus. “I think there needs to be something in the spring. Whether Relays is the right thing or not, I don’t know,” Moyer said. “There’s a lot of pent up energy and apprehension. I think the Sunday school picnic with beer idea still has its appeal.”

An Ingrained Culture

The larger climate of alcohol use on campus is cause for some concern, acknowledged Philo. He said there are dangerous instances of students drinking too much and he is working to change that fact. “If a change like that is going to happen, it’s not going to happen through the administration,” he said. “It has to come from the students themselves.”

Burrows, the former SGA Vice President of Student Affairs, remembered that there have always been fluctuations in the amount of attention given to alcohol use on campus, and policies such as requiring wristbands for those of legal age have long been the college policy. The official policies and what happens in reality can be very different.

“As long as there’s been wrist-banding, there’s been people finding ways to get around it,” he said.