Is There Any Fun Left in College?

It’s been said, “If you remember the sixties, you weren’t there.” Well, I was there and I remember. Especially I recall how anxious I was to get back to college each September. One reason was long, hot summers as a bricklayer’s helper. My dad was that bricklayer and he knew what he was doing. Able to claim only six years of schooling himself, he made sure his boys knew the alternatives to a college degree. Come late August, I was always eager to resume the life of a fraternity “man,” which included plenty of beer, tobacco (and other leafy combustibles) and music (played very loud and very fast). Oh, yeh… and occasional classes.
The release of the Virginia Tech Panel Report last week could not have been better timed to cast a cloud over the hundreds of thousands of young Americans who headed off to our colleges and universities during the same timeframe. The good news is that most universities haven’t waited to review the report’s recommendations. Most that I know have behaved like Penn, which recently reported the creation of a new communication network with which campus security can simultaneously alert every blackberry, cell phone, computer and other electronic gizmo owned by every student, staffer and faculty member, when evil is afoot on the West Philly campus.
As scary as a crazed shooter is, binge drinking remains a far more serious threat on most campuses. The website http://www.kidshealth.org defines binge drinking as, “the consumption of five or more drinks in a row by men — or four or more drinks in a row by women — at least once in the previous 2 weeks. Heavy binge drinking includes three or more such episodes in 2 weeks.” Sometimes binge drinking results in alcohol poisoning. Occasionally that ends in death. USA Today recently put the number of alcohol-related deaths on U.S. college campuses at 620 since January 1, 2000. Most were the result of guzzling a lot of liquor. Some were more bizarre.
The cake-taker seems to belong to Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, where four intoxicated students shoved a pair of Roman candles under the bedroom door of their friend and fellow student. The “joke” resulted in 16 fireballs, each burning fiercely at about 1500 degrees, blasting into the sleeping lad’s room. His buddies hot-footed themselves downstairs, where they gleefully waited outside for their enraged schoolmate to emerge cursing from his bedchamber.
Instead, what they saw as they stood on the front lawn was the bedroom window glowing orange. While a girlfriend dialed 911, the pranksters tried to rescue the target of their practical joke. They were driven back by the intense heat. Meanwhile, the boy in the bedroom died of smoke inhalation. The jokesters are charged with felony arson for the August 12th tragedy.
Both the VTU massacre and recent alcohol-related deaths have sparked intense debate within the higher education industry. Many of us who work in that industry believe that we must reassess how we handle risk management on our campuses. Think about it: a college campus is in essence a small town — some universities might qualify as small cities — populated primarily by 18-20 year-olds. They have to be safely housed, fed, entertained, … oh, yeh, and educated.
“Animal House” has become an American film classic. The movie may also be well on its way to becoming an American artifact. Don’t misunderstand me. Plenty of booze will be guzzled on the nation’s campuses again this academic year. But the winds of change are blowing across many college quads. Indictments of some students and even administrators, when alcohol abuse resulted in student fatalities, are having their impact. Additionally, a predictable trickle-down effect from the heightened security-consciousness following the VTU tragedy is a general tightening up of law enforcement in higher ed.
The students were still excited when they came to our campuses last week. If we do it right, they won’t notice many of the new security steps we’ve taken, such as closed-circuit cameras at key locations. But many will encounter a panoply of new rules and regulations, ranging from tougher sanctions for alcohol violations to the imposition of resident directors in Greek houses.
Yes, Virginia, there is still fun to be had at college. But the light-hearted irresponsibility of the “Animal House” era… my era… is gone for good.
Jim Castagnera, formerly of Jim Thorpe, is the Associate Provost/Associate Counsel at Rider University and a 2007-08 Fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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