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Presidential sobriety check

Alarmed at rampant binge drinking among students, leader of Tufts settles on a very personal response

“I try to talk to them like I would talk with my own kid,’’ said Tufts president Lawrence Bacow. “I try to talk to them like I would talk with my own kid,’’ said Tufts president Lawrence Bacow.
(Michele Mcdonald for The Boston Globe)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / June 6, 2010

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MEDFORD — It was a crisp Saturday last fall. Tufts University’s football team had just beaten Bowdoin College in a nail-biter. Proud from the homecoming victory, Tufts president Lawrence Bacow walked toward his house with the president of Bowdoin, showing off the hilltop campus along the way.

But as they arrived at Bacow’s red brick Georgian-style home that October day, they came upon an alarming scene: A firetruck, ambulance, and university police car were parked in front, and a young man, clearly intoxicated, lay sprawled on the grass. Bacow turned to his colleague in disbelief.

“There’s a student passed out on my lawn,’’ Bacow recounted. “At 3:30 in the afternoon!’’

Just one month into the school year, the student became the 16th Tufts undergraduate to be taken to the hospital for excessive drinking. By June, 60 students would be hospitalized.

The homecoming incident inspired Bacow to embark on an uncommon personal quest to combat what he says is a pervasive binge drinking culture on campus. From that day, Tufts students treated for alcohol-related problems have received a terse e-mail from him: “I’d like to meet with you for a few minutes. Please contact my assistant.’’

During the 15 minutes in his office, Bacow resists scolding the students, who are already embarrassed that their behavior has caught the attention of the university president. Instead, he implores them to learn from their mistakes.

“My goal is not to make them feel crummy and bring them to tears,’’ Bacow said. “My goal is to make them feel they were lucky, that they need to change their behavior and that they need to be a part of the larger solution. I try to talk to them like I would talk with my own kid.’’

Bacow said he decided to act out of sheer frustration. Like other colleges, Tufts has tried to tackle the seemingly intractable problem with a slew of precautions and consequences, starting with freshmen orientation programs that warn of the dangers of drinking, to counseling, harsher penalties, even phone calls home to parents. Nothing has worked.

College students have always been inclined to drink, but more students today are doing so with the specific intent of getting drunk, Bacow said; and women are now drinking with the same intensity as men. At last year’s spring fling, an annual outdoor concert held on the university lawn, 16 Tufts students were taken to the hospital in one day alone for drinking too much.

After homecoming last fall, Bacow began combing through university police reports on Monday mornings to determine whom he would summon to his office. There was the young woman found passed out at the base of Alumnae Hall at 3:30 in the morning. And the student who was nearly hit by a car as he stumbled drunk onto College Avenue, among scores of other alcohol-related incidents.

“I would read the reports and say, ‘What kind of student would do this?’ We love them. It’s too painful to lose one of them, and I’m worried that we will,’’ said Bacow, tears welling during a recent interview.

Bacow would know. He was a professor at MIT in 1997 when freshman Scott Krueger died after a fraternity hazing known as “Animal House Night’’ during which he and others drank beer and hard liquor while singing fraternity songs. Krueger passed out, was left in his basement room, and choked on his own vomit.

Bacow, who was appointed MIT chancellor in 1998 and who helped reform campus policies as a result of Krueger’s death, refers to the tragedy during his private meetings with Tufts students.

“I remember attending a meeting with Scott’s parents who said the proudest day of their lives was when they dropped Scott off at MIT as a freshman, and now they’re coming back to take him home in a box,’’ said Bacow, whose own sons are 30 and 28.

Bacow begins the meetings by telling the students to relax. He invites them to sit on his yellow couch. He sits across from them in an armchair.

“Nice to see you again,’’ Bacow said he told the student who had passed out on his lawn. “We’ve met before, but you wouldn’t remember it.’’

He proceeds to read them the police report and asks about the circumstances that led them to end up in the hospital.

“Inevitably, they tell me that they were not drinking alone. Inevitably, they are mortified. Inevitably, they tell me they didn’t realize how much they had to drink,’’ Bacow said.

“I know you can change,’’ he tells the students. “Everybody makes mistakes. The challenge in life is to make new ones.’’

Then he makes them look him in the eye and promise two things: to never end up in his office again for drinking and to keep an eye on their friends’ drinking habits.

“In the end, the only thing that will change student behavior is cultural change brought about by students,’’ said Bacow, adding that parents have been supportive of his intervention.

But telling friends not to drink to excess is tough, uncomfortable, and perhaps even unrealistic, said one sophomore who met with Bacow after he was hospitalized just before finals last month.

“It’s difficult to go to your friends who haven’t had this severe of an issue with alcohol and say, ‘You know what, you should probably not be drinking this much,’ ’’ said the 19 year old, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that his name not be published. “They don’t see it through the eyes of somebody who’s been hospitalized. They’ve done this every weekend for the past year, and it hasn’t been an issue for them.’’

The student said he had his first drink as a freshman, downing vodka while playing drinking games with his friends in the dorm. His drinking became more frequent his sophomore year when he lived with a new group of friends, who often began partying on Thursday nights.

The night he was hospitalized, he had been at a friend’s birthday party. It had been a stressful week, with papers due and upcoming exams, and he was looking to blow off steam. He drank eight or nine drinks over a couple of hours and blacked out.

At 4 a.m., some students discovered him urinating on a table in their suite and called the police. He only remembers waking up in the emergency room, without his shoes or cellphone.

The student said he was shocked to receive the e-mail from Bacow days later. “I felt the same wave of remorse I felt when I got home from the hospital — like, ‘Oh man, I really screwed up this time,’ ’’ he said. “These are not the terms on which I would like to be introduced to my university president.’’

Bacow was stern, the student said, and threatened to throw him out for a semester if he does not clean up his act. He said he thought his trip to the emergency room had been a wake-up call, but meeting with Bacow was the real eye opener.

“Reflecting on the meeting honestly made a difference for me,’’ he said, adding that he does not want to risk putting his parents through the agony Krueger’s family experienced. “The peak of their expectations for me was the day they dropped me off, and ever since then, it’s just been a disappointment.’’

Among some other students, the mere thought of having to explain their drinking to Bacow acts as a deterrent. “It would be worse than when your parents give you the disapproving look, because Larry is like the father of the school,’’ said Kaitlin Zack, president of Alpha Omicron Pi sorority.

Bacow, though, said he does not know how to measure the impact of these meetings. He does not follow up with the students, nor does he broach the topic when he runs into them on campus, out of respect for their privacy.

He is so fed up by the numbers of students he’s called into his office that for next year, his 10th and final year as president, Bacow is considering asking university police to videotape drunk students and show them “what they look like as they’re being packed up.’’

“Part of what I’m trying to do is hold up a mirror to these kids and get them to see themselves as others have seen them,’’ he said. “This is not a problem that anyone is going to solve. It’s a condition that needs to be managed.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.