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UF president moves to curb binge drinking

Bernie Machen wants a shift in campus culture after another alcohol-related death.

Associated Press
Published May 29, 2005

GAINESVILLE - Less than 24 hours after visiting with their son the weekend before his 22nd birthday, Bob and Margaret Schuemann of North Palm Beach got the terrible phone call.

Their son, Kyle, had died after a night of drinking with his fraternity brothers at the University of Florida.

At the same time, about 2,200 miles away, Bernie Machen was packing for his move to Gainesville to assume the university's top post when he was notified about Kyle's death. In the 19 months since then, four more students have died in drinking-related incidents. In his six years as University of Utah president, Machen didn't deal with any alcohol-related deaths.

Machen is now working to rein in underage and binge drinking through a series of measures aimed at changing the focus of its 48,000 students. Other schools across the country are also taking action.

After the alcohol death of an 18-year-old fraternity pledge, the University of Colorado in Boulder is demanding that fraternities put off the traditional fall rush of freshmen until the spring semester. At the University of California at Berkeley, an alcohol ban was imposed earlier this month at all fraternity and sorority events after a pledge was repeatedly shot with a BB gun. The University of Oklahoma has banned alcohol in dorms and Greek houses.

A 2002 survey by the Harvard School of Public Health showed 81 percent of college administrators described students' alcohol use as a problem on their campus.

Henry Wechsler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health, said a survey of 747 colleges and universities shows schools have taken different approaches to try to solve the problem. Thirty-four percent have banned alcohol on campus; 43 percent have banned alcohol in residence halls; 44 percent have restricted alcohol at campus social events; 84 percent provide alcohol education; and 90 percent offer some form of campus counseling or treatment programs.

Harvard researchers determined that alcohol consumption is responsible for 1,700 deaths and 600,000 injuries each year among college students, most of them from traffic accidents. Along with the deaths at Florida, 21 students were transported to hospitals last fall after drinking too much, down from 36 the year before.

"Drinking is permeating the student culture here," Machen said. "I don't want any more kids to die."

Alcohol is plentiful and cheap in the half-dozen bars across the street from the state's flagship university. Hundreds of students crowd into the bars on football game days and weekends, sometimes waiting in line to enter and again to get to the bar. Most of the bars have drink specials to lure the college crowd.

"It's been called Gainesville's dirty little secret," said Machen. "The issue of excessive alcohol consumption has been an issue, some say for a generation, and people have ignored it."

UF has been consistently ranked high in the Princeton Review of party schools. In 2005, it's No. 11. The Gator's annual football game with Georgia in Jacksonville has been called "the world's largest cocktail party."

Machen insists he's no teetotaler nor a Carrie Nation wannabe, but he has taken some drastic actions in his fight against alcohol.

He suspended the popular Lex & Terry syndicated radio show on WRUF, the campus radio station, because of a live-drinking related segment; banned liquor advertising at campus venues; banned liquor advertising on university television productions; and has spoken out strongly against a proposal to allow bars to stay open to 3 a.m. Florida recently joined the national campaign for Alcohol-Free Sports TV along with Ohio State, the University of Minnesota, Harvard, Yale and other schools.

Machen also would like to see local bars drop their alcohol specials and wants events such as Gator Stompin' ended. In that April event, students paid $25 and were eligible for drinks or pizza at 12 bars and clubs.

Along with Machen's actions, three city and university committees are looking into the drinking problems from the angles of culture, alcohol access and enforcement. One committee has suggested posting the slogan "Sober is Sexy" around campus.

Machen wants to spare other families the heartbreak experienced by the Schuemanns.

"It's a sad, sad journey. God helps us live with a broken heart," Bob Schuemann said in a telephone interview. He would like to see alcohol banned at the university.

Schuemann, a life coach for a Christian ministry called The Gathering USA, said his son was a hard working, serious student who sometimes drank.

Schuemann applauds Machen's efforts to fix the problem, but it will not bring back his son. "I believe Kyle is in heaven now. He just beat me home. I hope I will be with him again."

[Last modified May 29, 2005, 01:04:12]

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