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A Drinking Town With A University Problem

by on November 24, 2009 7:01 AM

The fresh-faced college kid sitting across my desk has a list of questions. What classes should I take? What are the pre-requisites? When should I schedule my internship?

I hit the keyboard on my desktop computer, pull up the student’s academic audit and begin a conversation that I have repeated hundreds of times in my years at Penn State. It would save me so much time if these kids could just somehow pass the information on from student to student. I wouldn’t have to deal with each student on a personal level.

Oh yeah, I forgot. Helping these kids with their education is my job. I live and work in a college town.

With all the recent talk about the escalation of the alcohol problem in our community, I am amazed at how frustrated we have become with the collective “them.” Since 1855, a growing number of 18-25 year olds have been coming to Happy Valley to get their education.

They bring with them enthusiasm, a thirst for learning and their checkbooks. Occasionally we see them make bad choices as they take the steps toward becoming independent adults. We get angry when their lives bubble into our lives but count on their economic contributions to provide us with employment and to fuel our businesses. In our frustration, we impose limits on them based on the behaviors of the past. We count on institutional memory to teach them how to behave.

Institutional memory is that phenomenon in corporations, religious groups, etc. in which the history of the organization is transmitted over time. The assumption is that today’s participants will gain knowledge or wisdom from the people and the events that have come before. Sometimes called corporate or even tribal memory, institutional memory involves history sharing through documents and archives but relies heavily on personal reminiscences.

Institutional memory within university communities is inherently faulty. The constant turnover of students and others in the organization weakens the collective memory. With people of all ages, backgrounds and perspectives rotating through the organization, it’s easy for the memory to get cloudy.

I found this with the Arts Festival riot of 2000. Returning to campus that August, I used the riot in my class on group dynamics as an example of groupthink. When I asked for a show of hands, most of them had read about the riot, heard about it from friends or had been participants. It was the talk of campus.

Each semester since, I find that fewer and fewer students have knowledge of the Arts Fest riot. Assuming that they “just know” about it or the consequences that came after – legal charges, school expulsion – would be wrong. Just because we sent a message to the kids then, we can’t expect the students now to get it.

It will happen with the Ohio State riot, the drunken falls from balconies and unfortunately, the death of Joseph Dado. The collective “we” will eventually forget what it felt like to lose one of our own so tragically and unnecessarily.

If we want to impact that institutional memory, we have to change the institution.

As we welcome the new group of students each fall and say good-bye to those who have been here for four years, we need to remind ourselves that it’s not the same kid, peeing in our yards on the way home from parties after he’s had too much to drink. It’s not defiant rebellion by the same group of disrespectful students who just won’t listen. The solution to the drinking problem isn’t more hostility, more regulations and furthering the “us versus them” mentality. Understanding the fluency of our community provides us with direction on how to fix it.

The first step in addressing many of the “student-caused” issues in our community should be a formalized orientation process for each new kid who comes to town. Through small group trainings, an online course, etc. we could spell out how we expect them to behave and what will happen if they choose not to. We could require participation in orientation before each student is permitted to declare a major. After that, their choices are up to them. One or two or 30 students expelled for drinking violations, vandalism or other problematic behaviors each semester could be powerful. The consequences should be quick, harsh and public.

Schools like the military academies, Princeton, etc. use honor codes to spell out expectations for behavior. Students who attend those schools know the expectations before they arrive and are educated about it when they move to campus. Those schools don’t count on faulty memory or whisper down the alley to pass on the message. Those schools also don’t seem to make it on the list for the top “Party School.”

There are laws regarding underage drinking, vandalism and public urination. Penn State already has a Code of Conduct. We need to do a better job of communicating behaviors/consequences that are already in place. The community on both sides of College Avenue needs to repeat those messages again and again and again.

Frustrating? Yes, but it’s the nature of the beast in this transient town. The revolving door of adolescent and young adults into our university community is a fact of life; it’s what we both love and must endure about living and working here.

So, when the next new student comes into my office, I will cover the new student information as I have the last several hundred times. I will smile and remember that even though it’s old hat for me, it’s his or her first time. I won’t just assume that he or she knows what to do. Providing the information up front prevents problems later on.

I’m happy to do it – it’s a fact of life in a university town.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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