On My Mind
I have just finished reading Tom Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, which depicts the current college student culture at a fictionalized, Ivy-like university dominated by fraternities and athletics. Clearly not the Sarah Lawrence environment.
Wolfe’s novel paints a disturbing caricature of a couple of student groups—the very affluent, prep-school educated, mostly white and entitled fraternity and sorority students— the “trust-fund kids” as they are known—and the basketball players. The life of these students is primarily about sex, drugs, alcohol, making connections. They rarely study, and when they do they hide it from their peers. Their conversations center on hooking up, boozing and getting high.
So it’s a work of fiction. But as different as those fictionalized students are from the student body on the Sarah Lawrence campus, there were echoes that resonated with me— echoes I find deeply troubling.
Some of our Sarah Lawrence students do behave like the students at Wolfe’s “Dupont U.” We take too many students to the hospital emergency room on weekend nights for alcohol poisoning or drug overdoses. Because of this growing problem, we recently held a town meeting to hear from students, staff and faculty about the critical issues raised by heavy drinking and drugging.
What did we hear? Students’ complaints about social life on campus are of two kinds. Some want more parties, fewer constraints about under-age drinking, and more freedom from disciplinary consequences when they host unregistered parties. Others tell us they do not enjoy the campus social life because it emphasizes alcohol and drugs. They complain about the excesses of nightlife: the pervasiveness of drugs and alcohol behind closed doors, the noise, the stench in the bathrooms.
It’s hard to get a handle on the numbers of those who abuse drugs and alcohol on this campus, and it’s hard to know how much unprotected sexual behavior is associated with drunken nights. But it would be naïve to think we are immune from what has become normative on so many campuses, large and small. One study from Harvard University suggests that some 1,400 American college students will die this year from drinking and alcohol-related car accidents. Forty-four percent of 17,000 college students surveyed were binge drinkers, a rate that has remained unchanged over the last decade although, the study notes, “the heaviest forms of drinking have increased.”
It became clear from our town meeting that many responsible students are using their time at Sarah Lawrence well. Many commented favorably on the increased number of fun social events that are not focused on alcohol, and that are well attended. Practically all students love their academic experience and their faculty and feel challenged by them.
I worry, however, that when “fun” is defined by the necessity to get drunk, the dangers are real. Drinking fast and drinking a large quantity of hard liquor are risky behaviors. Unprotected sex while under the influence of alcohol and drugs can lead to sexually transmitted diseases. Sexual activity when one is so drunk or high that one cannot remember much of the night’s activities carries emotional risks as well.
We are doing all we can to understand the current student culture and to keep our students safe. We know there is no single way to stem the abuse of drugs and alcohol. We also know that a community like Sarah Lawrence, with its emphasis on experimentation, freedom of choice and democratic values (freedom of expression and privacy among them), gives some students the impression they can do whatever they want. And sometimes it comes as a shock to them when we enforce community standards.
We also know that freedom doesn’t mean the absence of standards, and many of our students do know that as well. Cultural change requires many approaches: some educational, some therapeutic, some disciplinary, some environmental. But most of all, change requires a buy-in by the members of the culture. They must want to change, and they must participate in the development of strategies to bring about change.
We are continuing to hold conversations that have involved students, faculty, staff, parents and alumnae/i. I hope you will share your thoughts with us.
—Michele Tolela Myers