Through a Glass, Darkly

A special soused report

Dr. Robert Maust sits at a corner table, nursing a Diet Coke. Forty years ago, as an undergraduate at Michigan State University, he drank and smoked, just like the students he works with every day at CU. But as chairman of the school's Standing Committee on Substance Abuse, and director of the alcohol-awareness A Matter of Degree program since its inception in 1997, Maust now has a very different relationship with booze: He works to prevent students from spending their college years in a hangover haze -- or worse. In September, Maust logged one notable failure when Lynn "Gordie" Bailey Jr. died while pledging the Chi Psi fraternity, covered with black marker and pumped with enough wine and whiskey to shut down his central nervous system.

"I've been hired by various university administrations for over thirty years, and I've seen students die over that span of time," Maust says. "When it happens, I have to make sure that I pause and reflect on that particular death. Where does it fit in the context of the larger picture? How might this moment contribute to something better than merely a warning, a tragedy?"

After Bailey's death, Chi Psi's charter was summarily yanked, and last month, all of CU's Greek houses went dry. (At a meeting of the school's Intra-fraternity Council just a week before Bailey's death, Maust complimented Chi Psi members for having called police when a dazed female student wandered into their house sporting a .3 blood-alcohol level.) As details of Bailey's blood-alcohol level broke, the local and national media went into hysterics -- Apparently students of non-legal drinking age like expensive microbrews! And drink from kegs at large, noisy parties! In fact, they'll drink anything! -- and the school responded in kind.

Drive, he said: Another NightRider to the rescue on 
his foldable scooter.
Mark Manger
Drive, he said: Another NightRider to the rescue on his foldable scooter.

But for Maust, looking at the school's drinking culture is nothing new. In fact, this past July, he'd already taken steps to intensify CU's efforts against it. Incoming freshmen are required to pass AlcoholEdu, an online alcohol-awareness course currently in use at hundreds of colleges and universities in North America. More significantly, students can now be expelled for incurring just two alcohol-related offenses over the course of their enrollment; under the previous three-strike rule, the school was ousting about thirty habitually sauced students annually. The idea, Maust explains, is to weed out the bad apples early.

"We're not going to be losing our wonderful future astrophysicists, engineers, chemists, brilliant artists," he says. "We're losing people who are already at a very high risk of developing a serious problem with alcohol in the future.

"We had an average of a hundred students hitting the three-strike mark, and when we looked at it, we saw that seventy of those had less than a 2.5 GPA," he continues. "Many of them had already withdrawn or weren't coming back to the university. They were failing in this environment. And those people took a lot of people with them. That's the cycle we're trying to break, so that the people at the greatest risks don't become the tone-setters."

The tone-setters at the school, and also in the media: After several underclassmen talked openly with reporters for a front-page Denver Post story that chronicled a night of collegiate partying just a week after Bailey's death, CU Vice Chancellor Ron Stump sent letters chastising the quoted students for what amounted to embarrassing the school in print. Copies of the letters were also sent to the students' parents. For their participation in the story, the students also earned their first alcohol-related disciplinary strike; under the school's new two-strike policy, they could be booted with one more offense. But stories like that don't give the real picture, university officials maintain.

Maust points out that CU's 30,000 students are a lot more sober than people think. Recent research from Harvard University indicates that more students are abstaining from alcohol than ever before, and those who do drink do so in moderation. The statistic that 69 percent of students consume four drinks or less when they go out is well known to those familiar with CU's aggressive media campaign promoting A Matter of Degree. Among a small group, however, binge drinking is up, with students hitting harder liquor, and more of it, when they party. Colorado got a stunning example of this in early September when Samantha Spady, a nineteen-year-old Colorado State University sophomore, died after downing more than thirty cocktails in ten hours.

"We have a lot of people here paying a lot of money to do very serious work and advance their education," Maust says. "It's a very small minority of students who have, for example, interaction with the police or medical establishment. But for every one of those incidents, they're causing trouble in a lot of other areas: They're interfering with the sleep and study time of their roommate, they're making unwanted sexual advances, they're urinating in public, they're hassling people. It's a small group that can do a lot of damage."

Maust's message of moderation must compete with powerful, pro-party temptations. On the short stretch of University Hill, five bars invite students to get shit-faced on the cheap ($1 shots, Ladies Drink Free on Thursday). At a deli/convenience mart, rolling papers share counter space with newspapers. In the Sink, three guys in baseball caps are in the process of ignoring two key recommendations from A Matter of Degree: They each down about three beers in thirty minutes (Maust advises that men drink no more than two alcoholic beverages per day), and when they leave, they get into a car parked out front.

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