ON NOV. 22, the University of Virginia hosted its last home football game of the season or, as it has come to be known, “the fourth-year fifth.” It is a reference to the long-standing practice of seniors consuming a fifth of liquor by the game’s kickoff. The game was played on the same weekend that an explosive article about an alleged rape roiled the Charlottesville campus — a fitting coincidence that underscored the troubling nexus between alcohol abuse and sexual assault.
The scrutiny now focused on U-Va. and how it deals with sexual assaults should force it — as well as other universities — to give new attention to the equally pernicious problem of college drinking.
“We know that about half of our entering class already drinks when they arrive in Charlottesville,” U-Va. President Teresa Sullivan said Monday in a statement read to students, which acknowledged that “binge drinking is a problem for us.” She promised a reexamination of policies regarding alcohol use as part of the school’s response to the Rolling Stone article, which depicted the school as so protective of its reputation that it is indifferent to sexual assaults. Alcohol, as Ms. Sullivan made clear Monday, does not cause rape, but it’s estimated that most campus sexual assaults occur when the victim is incapacitated because of alcohol or drinks that have been drugged.
The damage doesn’t stop there. A searing examination of college drinking by the Chronicle of Higher Education published this week told of the 1,800 students who die every year of alcohol-related causes, the 600,000 more who are injured while drunk and the one in four who say their academic performance has suffered from drinking. That the problem has persisted despite what the Chronicle said was decades of research, hundreds of campus task forces and millions invested in experiments can be laid squarely at the feet of college administrators and their failure to adopt effective intervention and prevention strategies.
Drinking has become an accepted part of the college culture, and colleges often look the other way, fooling themselves that educating students about alcohol abuse rather than cracking down on it will change behavior. Consider, as the Chronicle’s Beth McMurtrie writes, that few have gone after environmental factors like the cheap and easy access to alcohol, the lenient attitudes toward underage drinking or the alcohol-soaked traditions that have become a staple of college life.
By no means is the problem simple or are the solutions easy. That half of U-Va.’s freshman class is accustomed to drinking suggests a larger societal issue. But if universities are serious about sending the message that drunken parties and the hazing and sexual abuse that often accompany them won’t be tolerated, they need to match words with real actions.
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