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Vest praises report on drinking, starts coordinator search

President Charles Vest on Thursday praised a report on dangerous drinking and said he will implement one of its key recommendations by immediately starting a search for a high-level coordinator to deal with alcohol-related issues at MIT.

President Vest appointed the Working Group on Dangerous Drinking last fall to examine "binge drinking" following the death at an off-campus fraternity of an 18-year-old freshman, Scott Krueger of Orchard Park, NY. The 11-person committee, headed by Professor Phillip Sharp, head of the Department of Biology and a Nobel laureate, and Dr. Mark Goldstein, chief of pediatrics and student health services in the MIT Medical Department, presented its report at a community meeting Thursday and to Dr. Vest and the Academic Council on Tuesday.

Dr. Vest said in a statement, "The Working Group on Dangerous Drinking has made a significant contribution by defining 'dangerous drinking' as the episodic and intense use of alcohol -- ranging from one intense and dangerous experiment to repeated episodes of intense use. MIT has a relatively low dangerous drinking rate of 23 percent of undergraduates -- about half the national average of 44 percent. However, a single instance of dangerous drinking can result in death, as has happened so tragically across the nation this year.

"I am starting immediately the process to find a qualified person to deal with alcohol-related issues at MIT. This person will serve in a senior administrative office and will develop, coordinate and implement a range of educational programs to change attitudes about dangerous drinking," Dr. Vest said.

Professor Sharp and Dr. Goldstein summarized the report at a community meeting in the Mezzanine Lounge of the Student Center last Thursday. The meeting was also attended by the press.

"Because a single, intense use of alcohol could be life-threatening, we use the term 'dangerous drinking,'" said Professor Sharp. "Dangerous drinking is a social behavior. This is something that you have to deal with over time by a multilayered educational approach" involving students, parents, peers, tutors, faculty and staff. He noted a ban on drinking on campus was not a solution because drinking at "a bar downtown is as much a problem" as drinking on campus.

The report recommended encouraging students to use the campus police emergency medical service by granting immunity from alcohol citations and sanctions to intoxicated students and their living groups. It recommended encouraging adherence to laws and rules through educational programs on dangerous drinking, MedLINKs training for at least one member of every living group or dormitory floor or entry, and routine access or presence by MIT representatives in living groups. It said any hazing involving alcohol should subject the students involved to serious disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal from MIT.

The report urged MIT to improve the Student Center by adding places to hang out where there would be jukeboxes, a grill, a dance floor, a place to play billiards, or a coffee house/bookstore. It encouraged the re-appearance of large, campus-wide social events with bands and other entertainment. Professor Sharp praised the initiative of Provost Joel Moses to triple the budget for student activities next year.

Dr. Goldstein, who summarized the recommendations, said, "The working group strongly believes that requiring all freshmen to live on campus would reduce that population's risk of being involved in dangerous drinking" because "it might help to reduce the perceived social pressure for such activity." The group did not specifically recommend that all freshmen live on campus, because MIT has housing groups which make very strong connections among students and the issue is very complex, said Dr. Sharp.

The Working Group's full report is on the web. Below is the summary.


The Working Group on Dangerous Drinking was formed by MIT President Charles M. Vest in late November 1997 as the Working Group on Binge Drinking. It was charged with providing "focus and concerted leadership" in addressing the "problem of binge drinking and its direct and indirect detrimental effects on university communities." It was part of a three-point initiative which also included policies on underage drinking and on-campus housing and orientation of freshmen.

Binge drinking has been defined by Dr. Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health, author of a national study on the subject, as "five or more drinks in a row one or more times during a two-week period for men, and four or more drinks in a row one or more times during a two-week period for women."

As an educational institution, MIT is concerned about the impact of such drinking on the safety of the students, on the community and on the educational process. Nationally, about 44 percent of college students participate in dangerous drinking on a weekly basis. At some colleges, the rate is as high as 80 percent; at others, it is almost nonexistent.

At MIT, dangerous drinking occurs in both fraternities and residence halls and involves about 23 percent of the undergraduates, about half the national average. However, many MIT undergraduates infrequently or never use alcohol. A recent survey showed that 43 percent of all MIT undergraduates had not used alcohol in the past month, including 30 percent of undergraduates who have not consumed alcohol in the past year and 27 percent who have never used it.

Dangerous drinking frequently results in behavior that is detrimental to the academic environment: poor academic performance by the individual and inappropriate behavior within the community such as violence, vomiting, sexual and other forms of harassment, rape and destruction of property. In a 1995 survey, 6 percent of undergraduates reported they were injured or hurt due to alcohol or other drug use, and 5 percent of undergraduates reported they had been taken advantage of sexually due to alcohol or other drug use. A single instance of dangerous drinking can result in the tragic death of a bright young person, such as Scott Krueger.

The Working Group, because of the concern about the danger of intense episodic drinking, adopted the term "dangerous drinking" instead of "binge drinking." For statistical purposes, the definitions are the same as the Wechsler definitions. Over time, MIT seeks to develop administrative and educational programs which will persuade students not to engage in dangerous drinking.

Drinking is a matter of both individual responsibility and community responsibility. MIT is a community that cares about its members. Any student who observes another student involved in dangerous drinking should feel a responsibility to discourage the activity and to help the intoxicated individual. If someone is sufficiently intoxicated to be either incoherent or nonresponsive to physical or verbal stimuli, the emergency medical services must be contacted immediately.


The paramount values for the MIT community regarding dangerous drinking are the safety of community members, the value of education and the establishment of programs for a safer social environment. After intensive discussion and review of published materials studying programs and techniques to combat the problems of dangerous drinking, the Working Group makes the following recommendations.

1. Develop an administrative structure and programs to strengthen education about dangerous drinking, and change MIT's social norms about this behavior.

An administrative professional position, with major authority, visibility and responsibility to address alcohol-related issues, should be established within the Office of the President or another senior administrative office that is senior to the various offices involved. This official would be responsible for developing, coordinating and implementing educational programs about dangerous drinking; establishing programs to change the acceptance of dangerous drinking at MIT; developing and taking responsibility for alcohol policies; developing programs to increase the likelihood that students with dangerous drinking problems receive counseling and treatment; encouraging research on the use of alcohol at MIT; and communicating within the Institute and with parents, city, state and federal leaders, groups and agencies regarding alcohol issues.

2. Reduce perceived barriers to providing medical care to dangerously intoxicated students.

The Campus Police have a dual role in providing emergency medical technician (EMT) service in addition to law enforcement on campus, and there are several medical and safety-related advantages in maintaining a single rapid-response service. Safety and the protection of life are paramount. Consequently, when Campus Police or any other EMT service is contacted on behalf of a dangerously intoxicated person, MIT should grant "use immunity" -- limited solely to alcohol citations and sanctions -- to students and their living groups. Adherence to laws and rules will be encouraged through educational programs, MedLINKs training, and routine access or presence by MIT representatives in living groups (Recommendations 3, 4, 6 and 9).

3. Strengthen educational programs around dangerous drinking.

To change the social norms of drinking, there must be multidimensional and multilayered educational programs, beginning with a summer mailing to prospective freshmen and their parents and continuing with peer education in the living groups by upperclassmen, as well as graduate resident tutors. A well-publicized web site should be a central point for health-related concerns, including avoiding "drinking games" and how to manage oneself and help an intoxicated friend in a dangerous drinking situation.

4. Require all living groups to have at least one resident who has MedLINKs training.

We recommend that MIT require all undergraduate residences to incorporate into their organizational structures at least one student active in MedLINKs in order to educate their peers. For dormitories, which have more residents than fraternities, sororities and independent living groups (FSILGs), we recommend each dormitory entry or floor have a MedLINKs representative.

5. Enhance student social life on campus.

During the past few years, a significant fraction of the social life of MIT has involved parties with alcohol. These social events have recently become much less common. MIT might create in the Student Center a recreation space with jukeboxes, a grill, a dance floor and booths for casual meetings, and other spaces for social games such as billiards and cards, or develop a bookstore/coffee bar/restaurant as a social/intellectual center for students. MIT needs to encourage the re-appearance of large, campus-wide social events, bringing bands and other entertainment to campus.

6. Require all living groups that choose to engage in "rush" to maintain an MIT presence.

If MIT grants a living group access to "rush" students, that living group should grant access to MIT personnel to monitor and, if necessary, restrict dangerous drinking. This can be done through graduate or faculty resident advisors approved by MIT, or through inspection of central social space in living groups upon demand by MIT representatives.

7. Freshmen on campus.

The Working Group believes that requiring freshmen to live on campus would reduce that population's risk of being involved in dangerous drinking. MIT should continue to offer housing on campus to any freshman who wants it, and to any upperclassman who initially decides to live off-campus but changes his or her mind.

8. Hazing associated with alcohol.

Hazing in any form is against MIT's rules and state laws. If MIT concludes that a student has either engaged in hazing that involved the consumption of alcohol or has first-hand knowledge of such activity and does not report it, the student or students should be subject to serious disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal from the MIT community.

9. Continue to evaluate regularly the use of alcohol among MIT students.

In order to monitor effectiveness, the Institute should establish a system to survey students annually on their attitudes around alcohol.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 20, 1998.

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