The Forum | Trusteeship

Dartmouth Takes Steps toward a Healthier Campus

April 21, 2015

A few weeks ago, students at Dartmouth College returned for the spring semester to a campus somewhat different from the one they left. A number of policies aimed at increasing student safety go into place this semester—among them, a ban on hard alcohol, part of a program to create a more wholesome campus environment that is at once less risky and more academically focused.

The controversy over the effectiveness of banning hard liquor as a means of reducing risky behavior is important insofar as it can form part of a comprehensive strategy. A recent piece in Inside Higher Ed addressed some of the questions that remain, pointing to a 2001 Harvard study on alcohol use and abuse on campus.

It seems clear, however, that no isolated rule or ban will make a significant difference. Successful programs are multi-pronged efforts. Bowdoin College, for instance, has achieved significantly lower rates of hospitalization than its peers, which bodes well for Dartmouth. As in President Philip Hanlon’s “Moving Dartmouth Forward Plan,” Bowdoin’s liquor ban was accompanied by an overhaul of the school’s housing system, an increased effort to educate students about the dangers of alcohol abuse, and a renewed commitment to academic rigor. It is these supportive policies, aimed at encouraging positive student behavior, which hold the key to the complicated problem of student drug and alcohol abuse.

ACTA’s guide “Substance Abuse on Campus” calls on trustees to promote such policies, putting a focus on “environmental management” measures, like improving students’ residential life, increasing social and academic programming, and education about drinking safety and social norms. Like Bowdoin, Dartmouth’s new approach to housing will put a greater focus on community and increase the presence of both professors and graduate students in undergraduate residence halls. Particularly encouraging is “Dartmouth Thrive,” a pilot program aimed at increasing the presence of “faculty and other positive adult influences in the lives of students” in non-residential social spaces.

And, of course, as ACTA has often emphasized, one of the best ways to reduce the appeal of the non-stop party is to give students greater academic responsibilities. “Substance Abuse on Campus” notes that increasing academic standards and scheduling more classes around weekends reduces the opportunity for inappropriate and dangerous behaviors. The University of Georgia’s 2005 Task Force on General Education and Student Learning recommended, among other policies, a “Seven-Day-a-Week University” with substantially heightened academic focus.

Here again, Dartmouth is on a path to success. President Hanlon has asked professors to resist canceling classes around holiday weekends and to start classes earlier in the morning. Both measures will help discourage students from starting the weekend early.

“Moving Dartmouth Forward” is an encouraging development and should serve as a model for other schools looking to keep students safe. The grim reality is that this plan will ultimately save lives that would otherwise come to a tragic end. And it will certainly boost the academic performance of many, many other students and go a long way to fulfilling a college’s responsibility for the character development of its students. 


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