Drinking on Campus :: How WSU is helping to change the culture of alcohol

A WSM Special Report

“Everybody knows this place as a party school,” says a student about WSU. But what everyone knows is starting to change.

On the last Saturday night before spring finals, Mitch Loewen, 18, is alone at a window table at the Compton Union Building, his calculus book and papers spread before him, a half-finished bottle of orange PowerAde at his elbow.

“I’d heard from a lot of people that college isn’t that much harder than high school,” Loewen says, “but it definitely hit me.”

Loewen, a mechanical engineering major from Spokane, doesn’t figure he’d get much sleep before his Monday morning calculus final, but he’s not complaining.

“In one semester you learn so much,” he says.

That’s the kind of remark Washington State University administrators love to hear, and it’s the message they are trying to convey.

WSU has always attracted good students who have gone quietly about their work, often earning stellar reputations for contributions to their professions and their communities, but it has also long been dogged by a party-school reputation. Many who were here at the time see the May 3, 1998 riot—a five-hour protest in which 23 police officers and several students were injured—as a fork in the road.

By 1998 college drinking had become a hot-button issue. Nationally, at least three college students made headlines in 1997 when they died from alcohol poisoning or asphyxiation while drunk. Those deaths, along with a growing awareness of the high personal and community cost of college-age alcohol abuse, forced administrators across the country to make changes. Protests often ensued.

In May 1998 restrictions on student drinking had already sparked spring riots in Athens, Ohio, East Lansing, Michigan, and Storrs-Mansfield, Connecticut—and other riots would follow—but no one expected a violent disturbance in Pullman.

“We knew that it happened in other parts of the country,” says Barbara Hammond, director of WSU Counseling and Testing Services, “but in Pullman? No way.”

Hammond, a resident of the College Hill neighborhood near the University, remembers the sight of Colorado and A streets the next day. “It looked like a war zone,” she says. “It was horrifying in this little community.”

“I thought it was clearly a wake-up call,” says Seattle attorney and WSU graduate William Marler, who joined the WSU Board of Regents the same year as the riot. At the invitation of President Sam Smith, Marler joined a group of campus and community members to develop a comprehensive approach that went beyond “The party’s over.”


Party safe

Stricter enforcement of WSU’s alcohol policy, including a coordinated effort across the University and within Pullman, was the first step. That was followed by myriad changes that are making a difference, both in the kinds of students who are coming to WSU and in their experience once they get here.

Marion Pericin, 18, a freshman from Sammamish, said he’d heard WSU was a party school, but he had found it was much more than that.

“I want to be a broadcaster, that’s why I came here,” he said. “It’s the best school for broadcasting.” Dressed in a red and black polar fleece pullover and shorts, Pericin was in the Center for Undergraduate Education on a breezy April night for a Sigma Nu All-Campus Outreach to spread the “Party Safe, Party Smart” message advocated by WSU’s Alcohol and Drug Counseling, Assessment and Prevention Services (ADCAPS).

“The whole program is based on being aware, making smart decisions, being safe,” Pericin said. He said he is glad the University is trying to discourage reckless drinking and improve WSU’s reputation. “You know, that is going to improve my standing too,” he said.

Upping the ante

And that is the goal. In fact, offering the best undergraduate education in a research university was codified as the top priority in WSU’s three-year-old strategic plan spearheaded by President V. Lane Rawlins.

Highlighting that effort was the creation of the Office of Undergraduate Education in 2004. The OUE is the organizational hub for various undergraduate programs involving curriculum assessment or enrichment, and awards grants totaling $200,000 for innovative teaching projects. The OUE works in conjunction with the newly created Teaching Academy. Twelve senior faculty members were named to the advisory board in 2004 and work to ensure that programs, departments, schools, and interdisciplinary teams are engaging in research-derived best practices for meaningful student learning.

This fall about 80 percent of in-coming freshmen will participate in an expansion of the six-year-old Teniwe program. WSU freshmen will be co-enrolled in two general education classes with other students living on the same hall or in the same dormitory. Modeled on similar programs across the country, Freshman Focus is designed to increase student engagement in academic life and foster peer relationships based on common interests and academic goals.

But no one expects students to spend all their time on course work.

On the Saturday night before finals, while Loewen and more than a hundred other students were camped out with books, laptop computers, and coffee at the CUB, thousands of other students took a break from studying to head up to the 17,000-square-foot, student-initiated and -financed Student Recreation Center for an alcohol-free Up All Night Finals Blowout. First organized by students in 2001, twice-monthly Up All Night events are now sponsored by Campus Involvement and continue to be student-driven.

The Finals Blowout included free food, soft drinks, and pulsating music, as well as casino and carnival games. Students could opt for a tarot reading or an airbrush tattoo, perhaps a turn inside a human bowling ball or a jump on the giant trampoline. The daring among them could even throw a whipped-cream pie in the face of their favorite student conduct officer.

As the activities continued, Serena Failing and Beki Cadwallader, both 23, were heading out after finishing their workout.

Failing, an interior design transfer student from Walla Walla, said the Up All Night events tend to attract more of the under-21 crowd, and besides, she had studying to do. “I knew [the school’s reputation] was good,” she said. “But I think it’s even better than it was being portrayed.”

“Everybody knows this place as a party school,” chimed in Cadwallader, “so you don’t know the classes are going to be so hard.”

What everyone knows might be starting to change.

Refining the image

“I know high school students are taking WSU more seriously,” says Teresa Loewen, Mitch’s mother and a 1982 WSU alumna with strong ties to the University. Her younger son is a sophomore in high school, she says, and he and his friends are very aware that WSU is becoming more selective. “I think that is a positive thing,” she says.

In 2000, about 85 percent of all freshman WSU applicants were offered admission, but by 2004, only 79 percent of those who applied received an offer. Part of the reason is demographics: in 2004 there were simply more high school seniors applying to college.

“In 2004 we did have more applicants,” says Vicki McCracken, associate vice president and associate vice provost for enrollment services, “but we also had more qualified students.”

About 38 percent of incoming freshmen had a grade-point average of 3.60 or higher in 2004, compared with only 30 percent in 1998. Additionally, the average SAT score for incoming freshmen was 1072 in 2004, up from 1036 in 1998. And once those students arrive on campus, they seem to be performing better. In 1998, about 20 percent of WSU students were failing to meet minimum academic standards, but by 2003 only about 13 percent were academically deficient.

Based on admissions for fall 2005, McCracken says she expects this freshman class to be the most highly qualified yet.

Also in 2000, the University initiated the Regents Scholarship program to attract high-performing students. Nominated by their high school principals, up to 25 students are eligible for a scholarship worth more than $45,000, 75 students are offered two-year scholarships worth $8,000, and the remainder are awarded scholarships worth $6,000, all based on academic merit. In 2004, 214 of the students offered a Regents Scholarship enrolled, up from 185 in 2003. In 2005 278 students from Washington were offered Regents Scholarships.

“I think it’s a good thing that the school is pushing hard to get people to come here for the academics, not just the party,” says Jeremy Spier, 22, president of Sigma Nu and one of the organizers of the alcohol awareness outreach program.

No illusions

No one is pretending that students have stopped drinking, and no one really expects them to entirely. The biggest problems usually occur in the fall, says Pullman police officer Carl Bell, the beat officer for College Hill. “It’s a never-ending process. One group wises up, and then it’s the next cycle.”

According to the National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 1,500 college students aged 18 to 24 die from alcohol-related injuries each year, including car crashes. Though there is some controversy over the numbers, no one disputes the fact that drinking on campus is widespread and, in some cases, fatal.

The job of WSU’s ADCAPS program is to help all groups wise up quickly and safely. The first time a student runs afoul of WSU’s Cougar Accountability drug and alcohol policy, he or she is required to complete an on-line screening survey and then attend, and pay for, a two-session, small-group seminar called Impact.

“They start out seeing it as punishment,” says Hammond, who oversees the ADCAPS program, but “it turns out to be so much better than they anticipated. It’s practical and they learn a few things.”

Jerry Pastore, WSU’s substance abuse specialist since 2001, says the program is based on “harm reduction.” That means accepting the fact that students are ultimately going to make their own decisions about drinking, or anything else, so the most effective approach is giving them the information they need to make informed decisions about their behavior.

“We try to break the myth that more is better,” Pastore says. “Chemically and physiologically, it doesn’t happen. There is a point of diminishing returns with alcohol.”

Patricia Maarhuis works with Pastore and a team of 12 graduate students to provide outreach prevention programs, risk assessment screenings, one-to-one counseling, and small group interventions. “Our program is based on what our clients need,” Maarhuis says, “and it is clinically sound.” ADCAPS provided services to about 700 students last year, most of them through the Impact classes.

Chris Wuthrich, associate director of the Office of Student Conduct, says that students citied for violations of WSU’s alcohol policy face what is essentially a three-strike policy, which imposes increasing consequences, from mandatory attendance at Impact classes to community service and parental notification. Students cited for a third time are suspended from the University for a semester.

“We really needed to focus on the fact that it’s an educational process,” says Elaine Voss, director of the Office of Student Conduct. “We’re about educating students, not punishing them, though there is an element of that.”

According to Wuthrich, about 75 percent of the students who are written up for a student conduct violation are never cited again. And, he says, there is another steep drop between second and third offenders. In 2003-2004 about 35 students were suspended.

“We don’t interact with 95 percent of our population because they are getting along well,” says Wuthrich. “If we are doing our job well, it’s that 95 percent of students who will help those other students mature. They are the healthy voice.”

Party smart

On a gorgeous spring evening on the top floor of Orton Hall, with views of the sun dipping behind Pioneer Hill to the west and green-washed fields to the south and east, about 30 students were gathered for an alcohol awareness outreach program sponsored by Tau Kappa Epsilon.

Sebastian Lew, 21, a senior architecture major from Bothell, was comfortable in front of the group of about 35 upper division students—more men than women—as he led a discussion on drink sizes, blood alcohol levels, and what to do if your buddy is vomiting.

“What does it mean when you have high alcohol tolerance?” he asked. “Who knows how much a shot is? Who would like to pour one?”

The students sat with their backs to the undulating fields, looking into the sun, and called out answers.

“Don’t be aiming at .08,” warned one student, referring to the blood alcohol level that defines legally drunk. “That’s the point that you’ll always be arrested, but you can be arrested for less.”

After the program ended, Lew said a lot of the information he had presented he had heard in an Impact class. “I was just sitting in my room watching TV,” he said, but someone else in the room was drinking. Since Lew was a week shy of his 21st birthday, he got cited. Still, he wasn’t holding any grudges.

“I love it here,” he said. A transfer student from the west side, Lew said he loves the fact that he’s not just a number here, that faculty and staff seem to care about how he does.

“Even though you are in the middle of nowhere…,” he said, “this is home to me. I love it because of the community and the friendships.”



Our Drink :: Toren Volkmann and his mother, Chris Volkmann ’70 have co-authored a book about their family’s experience with Toren’s alcoholism. What they learned through direct experience dovetails with what counselors and researchers are discovering at WSU and beyond.

Two chapters from Our Drink: Detoxing the Perfect Family, by Chris Volkmann ’70 and Toren Volkmann  (PDF)

On the Web

WSU Counseling Services

Alcohol and Drug Counseling, Assessment, and Prevention Services at WSU

Rethinking Drinking :: Alcohol and your health (from the National Institutes of Health)