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Moderation on Campus Menu
At Colby College, dinners send a message on drinking

by Jenna Russell; The Boston Globe; 3/4/2005
Originally posted: 3/5//2005:
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Katie Gagne (left), of Main, and Caitlin Dennehy, of New Jersey, in a Colby
 College dining area where alcohol is served. [Globe Photo / Fred J. Field]

WATERVILLE, Maine -- At first glance, it looked like dinner time in any college dining hall. Freshman football players bolted grilled cheese and pizza; carb-conscious sophomores picked at their salads.

But something different was also going on in Dana Hall at Colby College last Friday night: In a smaller room connected to the bustling main cafeteria, senior Christian Allen sipped a glass of pinot noir with his pork stir-fry.

''This is not how college drinking is done," observed the 21-year-old, an economics major from New York City. ''Having good-quality alcohol with a meal -- it bucks the trend of college drinking."

A glass or two of wine with dinner may not sound like a radical proposal. But on college campuses, where administrators have long waged war against binge drinking among students -- often by cracking down on the availability of alcohol -- Colby's decision to serve wine and beer to seniors in the cafeteria is controversial. Administrators say the new program can give seniors skills they need for the real world, by teaching them to drink in a more moderate, grown-up way. But critics say the events could send a troubling message, that drinking is essential to successful adult life.

''Any program that gives that message -- that alcohol is a necessary part of getting along in the world -- is problematic," said Bill DeJong, a Boston University professor and director of the Newton-based Center for College Health and Safety. ''It's certainly something they should think through."

Debate has heightened nationwide about the best way to manage drinking on campuses. Two schools of thought have collided in recent years, as traditionalists continue to argue for tough discipline and dry campuses, while leaders of the rising ''social norms" movement say student alcohol problems are better combated by pushing moderation over abstinence.

The experiment at Colby began in November and attracts 30 to 40 students on most Friday nights. Seniors collect trays of food, pay $2 each for a maximum of two drink tickets, and are admitted to the Fairchild Room by a food service worker who checks their identification at the door. No one under 21 is allowed in the room. Inside, select wines and beers are available, along with talks on food pairings and the brewing process from visiting specialists, including brewery owners and beverage sales representatives. The offerings last Friday included a 2002 sauvignon blanc from California's Kenwood Vineyards and an English ale from Magic Hat, a small specialty brewery in Vermont.

''Wow -- this is a lot better than the wine we have in our room," said Caitlin Dennehy, 21, an English major from New Jersey.

The dinners were dreamed up by two Colby seniors who felt the college had ignored the middle ground between nondrinkers, who can live in a substance-free dorm, and problem drinkers, who have access to counseling. The first time she heard their proposal, Colby Dean of Students Janice Kassman reacted ''like a good administrator. I said, 'Of course, we can't do that.' "

Within two weeks, after hearing more details of the plan, the dean had changed her mind and organized the first dinner. The events have caused no problems, she said, and no parents have complained.

''It's dinner and two drinks in a supervised setting," Kassman said. ''This hasn't rocked our world. It's not some bacchanalian revel." She acknowledged the college is taking a chance, but said trying to banish alcohol ''is not that realistic."

Colby is not the only school to sponsor social drinking on campus, although it may be the first to serve beer and wine in the cafeteria. A year-old program at Bates College draws college seniors as well as faculty and other staff to the campus snack bar on Friday afternoons for food, beer, live music, and conversation, a spokesman said. Many rural schools, including Colby, Bowdoin, and Dartmouth have on-campus pubs where students of legal age can drink. At Colby, Bates, and Bowdoin, 21-year-olds can host parties in dorm lounges with a permit and training to be sure they follow school rules and state law.

Some colleges have also tried to rein in underage drinking. Bowdoin phased out fraternities five years ago, and Dartmouth in the '90s increased penalties for alcohol offenses. But Henry Wechsler, the director of Harvard's College Alcohol Study, said a softer approach, favoring education over discipline, has prevailed recently. A Harvard study published last year found that 34 percent of colleges prohibited alcohol on campus for every student, regardless of age, while 84 percent had first-year alcohol education and 90 percent offered counseling.

''I'm disappointed that more schools aren't limiting access because we have some evidence that it cuts down modestly on the problem," Wechsler said. ''Alcohol education has been underway for at least 30 years, and it hasn't worked so far."

Wechsler's long-term study, launched in 1993, popularized the term ''binge drinker," defined as males who have five or more drinks in a row at least once in a two-week period and females who have four or more drinks. He found that 44 percent of students were binge drinkers, a figure that changed little in a decade despite increasing awareness of related injuries, violence, academic problems, and property damage.

Some researchers have criticized Wechsler's findings because his ''binge" definition does not account for body weight, food eaten while drinking, or the period of time in which drinks are consumed.

Nationwide, 20 to 25 percent of college students do not drink at all and 15 percent drink too much, while ''the vast majority fall in the middle and get ignored," said Michael Haines, director of the National Social Norms Resource Center at Northern Illinois University. Like other proponents of the social norms approach, Haines said the attention given to binge drinking has skewed students' perceptions, and if they realize their peers drink less than they think, they will drink less, too. He called Colby's decision ''the right thing to do" and predicted that it will change attitudes on campus.

''By allowing the students who act appropriately to be visible, it should influence other students," he said.

Adelin Cai, a Colby senior from Singapore who helped plan the program, thinks it will remind some students that moderate drinking ''is what my parents do, and it's something I could do, too."

But other students said they doubt the dinners will change the drinking habits of underclassmen. Allen, the pinot-drinking senior, said the ''example" being set is artificial because the college set a two-drink limit instead of relying on the students' restraint. Several seniors said the Friday dinners attract the same students who frequent weekend parties.

''Some people are thinking it's an excuse to start [drinking] earlier," said Katie Gagne, 21.

Still, the atmosphere at the dinners is decidedly low-key. The students, who come and go in pairs or large groups, are often distracted from their drinks by jokes or desserts; they typically consume a total of just two or three bottles of wine and a half-case of beer, officials said. Most seniors interviewed last Friday said they planned to drink more after dinner, at parties or the campus pub. But some said they no longer drink to get drunk the way they did as freshmen.

''I've reached the point [where] my goal is not to get completely wasted," a female student said. 

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Alexander DeLuca, M.D., FASAM

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Originally posted:  3/5/2005

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