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New Alcohol Dean Trujillo Assesses Campus Drinking

By Christine Fry


Daniel A. Trujillo became MIT’s first-ever Associate Dean for Alcohol Education and Community Development starting Jan. 1. Trujillo previously served as Alcohol Coordinator for the State University of New York.

The Tech: What do you think the current attitude toward alcohol is on campus?

Trujillo: I think it’s very mixed, and I think it depends upon who you ask that question to. I’ll give you my impression. Overall it’s not in the forefront of anyone’s thinking. I seriously doubt most students think about alcohol every hour of every day. Most students do not have an issue with alcohol.

The Tech: When you say “most students,” do you mean most students at MIT or most students in the country?

Trujillo: Most students here and in the country. It’s very easy to allow the behavior of a small group of individuals to really shape our perceptions about what drinking means to college students.

People have their own ideas as to what that means. For some people, drinking means getting drunk. When someone hears a discussion about drinking, they may be thinking they’re talking about getting drunk.

That’s a very different experience than someone else who, from their experience, when they discuss drinking, it means having one or two drinks -- maybe with dinner or maybe with watching a football game. That’s a very different type of experience. I always say whenever I talk about alcohol that it’s important to make the distinction between drinking and excessive drinking, or drinking to intoxication.

The Tech: Does anything need to change about the attitude toward alcohol on campus?

Trujillo: The challenge is trying to get everyone on the same page as far as how we think about alcohol on campus. The fact that most students don’t, themselves, experience a problem with alcohol doesn’t mean that it’s not important.

The Harvard School of Public Health study, which came out last year, cited that three out of four college students are negatively affected by others’ drinking. It’s the second-hand effects of alcohol or drug-use that oftentimes we are more likely to experience. Those effects range from interrupted sleep to fights or arguments to poor academic performance to sexual assault.

The Tech: Do you think the way in which the school responded to the Scott Krueger incident was appropriate? How would you have responded?

Trujillo: The repercussions from the Scott Krueger situation continue. Certainly it has an impact upon student life here at MIT, if not nationally.

For example my position, in all honesty, would not exist without the incident involving Scott Krueger. Every college and university is responsible for having some alcohol and other drug coordinator in order to receive federal funds, but there are only two institutions that I know of that have a dean-level position designed to specifically address alcohol as well as community issues. That’s MIT and Brown University.

I think that it is much to the university’s credit and the president’s credit that they ... really focus on student communities. I think that’s an important acknowledgment ... [that] you can’t take alcohol out of context of the person’s life. If we were just throwing all this support and resources at alcohol, it would really be doing a disservice to the student experience. You have to look at the communities, the living environments, and the quality of life and improve upon that.

It’s hard to look back and try to judge or estimate what would have happened. When it comes to higher education, my approach is to take what research has found to be effective and to work with students and other members of the community to evaluate if those strategies and initiatives would work.

So I find whether I was here during the Scott Krueger situation, or even now, I would take the same sort of systematic approach. That is, let’s evaluate what the climate is, what the culture is, what the needs are. Then let’s develop some strategies, programs, resources, and support to address those needs.

The Tech: Do think having freshmen living on campus, starting next year, will reduce underage drinking?

Trujillo: I believe that there are advantages and certain potential limitations to having freshmen living on campus. I think advantages related to alcohol are very immediate and I can’t deny those. There is research at other institutions that seems to indicate that one way to address high risk drinking, particularly excessive drinking, is by implementing a housing structure where first year students live on campus. Actually, research is beginning to indicate that having sophomores living in housing [is also effective].

It’s important to be sensitive, though, because we’re talking about a change in climate and culture here. Even though these things do seem to work at other institutions, I think it’s important that the people who have to live with these decisions, students, are included and offered an opportunity to evaluate whether this is a good thing.

Quite honestly, I don’t think anyone truly knows if this (freshmen on campus) is a good thing and probably won’t know until the end of next year or even two years after this is implemented. I think this is a period of evaluation. It could have a tremendously positive impact on campus life, but I think it’s also important to consider how this is going to affect various contingencies on campus. The repercussions could turn out to be fairly detrimental.

The Tech: What do you think of the anonymous medical transport issue that came up earlier this year?

Trujillo: Addressing this issue is a primary focus. One of the things we’re trying to address is really redirecting the focus on the issue. I think people miss the point with medical transport. First and foremost is the health and safety of those who are being transported. By focusing on citations we miss that first point.

Most students everywhere don’t drink that heavily to require [medical transportation]. That doesn’t mean it’s not important. Because it’s fairly uncommon, the priority is to try to develop an effective response that really helps the individual evaluate the situation. Receiving medical intervention for alcohol overdose is extremely traumatic not only for the student receiving treatment, but also for the friends who accompany the student. It’s extremely scary for parents and people who associate with the student.

The university follow-up is to have a medical practitioner follow up with the student, just to make sure they’re okay and talk about the experience. Oftentimes excessive alcohol use ... is symptomatic of other issues the student is experiencing. It’s not about the drinking; it’s about what led to the drinking. A punitive measure for someone who experiences alcohol poisoning, oftentimes, is not effective in addressing the needs of the person.

That doesn’t mean that the person is let off the hook because it is a response. I think and hope that’s where MIT is headed. I think the medical transport issue is something that can be resolved, but it’s going to have to take a great deal of input from a lot of different sources to make sure everyone’s on the same page.