The Alcohol Coalition Committee was established two years ago to foster a campus-wide dialogue about high-risk drinking and to develop strategies to reduce its incidence at Princeton. The issue is not drinking per se, or even underage drinking, but rather the kinds of individual behavior and social traditions that result in scenarios like the one I just described. Drinking beer while watching a football game on TV or sipping wine before heading out to a dance concert are activities that don’t usually lead to the emergency room. It is the rapid consumption of multiple shots of hard liquor that are part of “pre-gaming” and drinking games that raise the level of alcohol in the blood to life-threatening levels, and it is this kind of drinking behavior that is the primary concern of the University and the committee.
In many respects we have the makings for a very safe drinking environment at Princeton. There is no need for students to get into automobiles in order to find a place to have a good time, and our closely knit residential community promotes an ethic of taking care of one’s friends. This works especially well at the eating clubs, which are very public places where students in trouble are visible and others can call for help. It is less true of the dormitories, where some of the most dangerous drinking occurs, and we need to think together about how to reduce the likelihood that a student will “go over the limit” alone in his or her room or with others whose judgments are equally impaired.
The highest priority of the University’s policy on alcohol has always been the physical safety of students. The “Good Samaritan” legislation that was recently enacted in New Jersey is far from perfect, but it recognizes the importance of friends as the second line of defense when a student becomes intoxicated. Why do I refer to it as the second line of defense? Because the first line will always be each person’s judgment about the amount of alcohol that it is safe to consume.
So given all the dangers of high risk drinking, why is it that each year students play an alcoholic version of Russian roulette with their lives? Common responses are, “It is an inevitable consequence of having a large number of 18- to 22-year-olds away from home and parental supervision for the first time” or “Part of growing up is learning how to manage alcohol, and some have to learn the lesson the hard way” or “There is nothing new here — alcohol has been a part of campus life forever.” While there are grains of truth in all of those answers, I worry that the intensity of high-risk drinking has increased in recent years and that we are at much greater risk of losing a student today than we were in the past. “Work hard, play hard” — the Princeton student anthem — comes with a very high price tag where alcohol is concerned.
Of one thing I am certain: a meaningful decrease in the incidence in high-risk drinking on this campus will only come if and when students conclude for themselves that it is not cool to drink oneself into a stupor that is potentially life-threatening. Not only is it potentially suicidal for the student who is engaging in the activity, but it can be a major imposition on those who live nearby and for the custodial staff who have to clean up the messes that such students inevitably leave in their wake. I have often thought that the single most effective thing we could do to discourage high-risk drinking is to film students while they are drunk and then force them to watch the videos when they are cold sober the next day. It is not pretty.
When I am asked, as I often am, “What keeps you up at night?” my answer is always the same: the fear of a phone call in the middle of the night, telling me that one of our students has just died from alcohol poisoning. I dread the prospect of spending one more minute in that ICU with grieving parents. As we continue to work on these issues, I hope as many of you as possible will participate in the conversations taking place under the auspices of the Alcohol Coalition Committee. And as we head into the most dangerous weekend of the Princeton calendar — the weekend of eating club pickups and sign-ins — I hope that all of you will approach decisions about alcohol with the same intelligence and good sense that you show toward all other aspects of your Princeton experience. If you do, everyone will have a great time, and be safe.
Shirley M. Tilghman is the president of the University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.