Terhune Q&A: the extended version

 

Jim Terhune, vice president of student affairs and dean,
on students, alcohol, and personal responsibility

By Gerry Boyle '78
Photography by Brian Speer
 

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Photo by Brian Speer
Jim Terhune, vice president of student affairs and dean of students, came to Colby in 2006 from Colgate. He brought with him a firm belief that students need to take responsibility for their own lives and behaviors and that punitive rules aren't the best solution to social problems. Terhune spoke with Colby editor Gerry Boyle '78 about the issue of alcohol on campus.

How have you found Colby thus far?
It sort of the cliché response to say I've loved what I've found at Colby, but I'd say that's the case. In most respects it's not that I've been surprised by what I've found here but, within the context of expectations, everything has been very positive. It's reinforced what my senses of Colby were before I had ever come here, which were all positive.

I think one of the things that's really impressive is that there's a sense of ownership that extends throughout the community. I'm not sure if that's the right word to use, but I don't think faculty or staff view this as the place where I come to work. It's a work of real commitment and belief in the institution. It cuts in both directions because that depth of passion may lead some to be more critical at times, from the standpoint that we should be much better.

Have there been any surprises? Negatives? You've just gone through a time that can be troubling.
I would say, from the standpoint of student life, there are areas of concern, but I don't think they would qualify as surprises. They would have been exactly what I expected them to be and some of them"it doesn't matter where you go.

You're talking about alcohol abuse.
Alcohol abuse, substance abuse"there are certain aspects of this generation of college students and I think we're all trying to figure out how we best provide the education that they need. They've grown up in a different world than we grew up in. It's not that we think less of these students; they're incredibly talented and incredibly capable"but the way they've lived their lives up to this point is different from previous generations. We grew up in neighborhoods and in schoolyards where, if you wanted to play baseball, kids in the neighborhood grabbed a bat and you picked up sides. For this generation of students, there's not a whole lot of that going on informally. There are always pylons and coaches and parents and helmets. Not that those are bad things, but some of the things that we learned and how we learned to negotiate conflict with one another, organize each other, they've learned that"and are learning it"in different ways.

Do you think that makes it harder for students of this generation to make their own fun?
It's an interesting way of framing that question. I think that they have less well-developed skills at organizing themselves in those ways. Their lives have been highly programmed where previous generations have had to conceive of the parameters themselves. It's not that this generation isn't capable of it, by any stretch of the imagination, but they haven't been asked.

But institutions like this expect them to have achieved in that way.
Exactly. Our student activities are set up that way. You want to form an organization? Great. Form an organization. And certainly these students are doing that. But I think from time to time, when they're running into obstacles, they're not as used to having to negotiate those kinds of things. I think it's terribly important, given that and given the fact that our role is, in my view, so significantly about helping our students to become engaged citizens and ethical leaders"we need for them to know how to manage these things. How to create communities and resolve conflicts. So part of what we need to do as we construct a student activities program, a residential life program, is to insist that students work through some of these problems for themselves.

It seems that is your mantra. To turn responsibility back to students.
I think that's right. Philosophically, I think it's important that we treat college students like the young adults that they are. Part of doing that, in my view, is treating them with a certain level of respect. We'll take Champagne [on the] Steps. I appreciate that I hear students and alumni saying, "This is something that's important to us. It makes us feel connected to one another." On the other hand I also understand that when we have the kinds of things we've had in the recent past" people getting hurt, people getting arrested, the sorts of behaviors that we can't just turn a blind eye to"we need to resolve those two things. My inclination, and what I've done with the senior class and the students, is to say, "Alright. Here are the parameters. We need to be able to get something done within those parameters. But what is it you want this to look like? How can you accomplish that?"

And the response?
Well, there's a bunch of different things at work here. There are some students who have watched Champagne Steps and say, "I want to be able to do that exactly as it's happened in the past." I think most students understand having people led off in handcuffs at the end of the last day of classes isn't really a good thing.

The other thing with Champagne on the Steps, and I know you've heard me say this as well, is the extent to which, as the celebration has evolved, it has become less inclusive. There are big factions of the class who don't feel like that is something they want to participate in. We have challenged the class leaders to say, "How can we make this more inclusive? How can we make this something that is more representative of us and our values as a class and institution?" The other side of it is, as we've said, we need you to do this. We're not going to solve those problems for you.

So you're not going to let anyone abdicate responsibility.
Right.

Have you used this approach in other institutions?
Yeah, absolutely. That certainly was a cornerstone of what we were doing my last few years at Colgate. I do the Golden Rule kind of thing. If I were eighteen or nineteen or twenty right now, what would I want this dean, director, whoever it might be to be, saying to me? How would I like to be treated by them? My inclination is to treat them as adults, to expect more. Also, my experience has been that when we expect more, students most often exceed the expectations that we've set.

I would argue that, and I'm not speaking specifically about Colby here, if you looked at the last twenty years, at college campuses and issues like alcohol, I'd argue that a big part of our problem is that, as things have gotten more difficult, the response has generally been, "We're going to make another rule. We're going to be more autocratic." You hear about schools that have "three strikes and you're out" policies, mandatory sanctioning kinds of things. To me those kinds of things aren't consistent with how we function from an educational standpoint. I want to meet students where they are.

In terms of alcohol in general, and not just with Champagne Steps, have you applied that philosophy in other ways?
That's what we're trying to do. Again, part of what I'm trying to do this year is absorb what is at Colby. It's not a one-size-fits-all proposition. It's important to know what the student culture is, where things are. I've tried to be patient in terms of approaching that, but I'd like to think we're doing that.

How do you respond when you have something like this past weekend where you had [alcohol-related] hospitalizations?
It's frustrating and concerning because, really, at the core of those situations are potentially really horrible outcomes where students get seriously hurt.

Permanently.
Yes, permanently. We're dancing around saying it's potentially lethal"but it's potentially lethal. So that is really the trickiest balancing act to try and walk. Because on the one hand, nothing is more important than making students safe. And there is always the fear at a lot of institutions, Colby certainly among them, that if we get too Draconian in our response, then students are going to conceal things from us. The difficult thing from my experience is students are concealing things from us anyway. That doesn't mean I think a Draconian response is necessarily the one that's going to get us there. My concern"and what I've been trying to do here"is, how do we get the students to engage in the conversation in a meaningful way?

This to me is the worst outcome of the drinking-age change that happened twenty years ago. It's turned the whole conversation between administrators and students into one of cat and mouse. Are you old enough? At least that's my sense of how students perceive a lot of it. "I'm under 21 so you don't want me to drink." My own personal view on that? No, the state and federal government have said it's not legal for you to drink. When I was going through college the drinking age was eighteen and most of us managed that okay. In this day and age, if you're eighteen or nineteen or twenty and you're making the decision as to whether you're going to use alcohol, you're also making the decision to break the law. Which means if you get caught in certain circumstances there are consequences associated with that.

Some of those consequences are pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things and are intended more for us to get in an institutional conversation with students. If campus security finds you are nineteen and you have beer in an open container, there's going to be one level of response. If you're seriously intoxicated and get into a fistfight with somebody, there's going to be a different response. If you end up in the hospital there's going to be a different one. The hospital one is tricky because the discipline piece is probably much less significant to us than the health piece. But one of the things that is most disconcerting is that some of the blood-alcohol levels" we're seeing people going .30 or .32. Walking and talking. Which means that these are young people who have done a lot of drinking [in their lives], because your body can't function at that blood-alcohol level unless it's had a lot of practice.

So where does that leave the College?
The biggest concern is how to get students to come to the table and have the conversation and take seriously their responsibility for their own alcohol consumption and to intervene when they see their friends doing things. The bottom line for us is that that is the only way we're going to make a significant change. Until the students decide, "Wow, this is a problem. Somebody is going to get hurt""until students do that and see it as their responsibility"we're going to play cat and mouse.

Which means they have to have that conversation among themselves.
I think so. We're happy to help facilitate it, but from my standpoint that is the ideal. We've seen some positive signs in that direction. The student government association this spring has started to talk about a program they're rolling out called Party Right, which is intended to be peers talking to their peers about just this sort of thing. I'd love to see it take hold, because the more they take responsibility for it, the less we're placed at odds with them. But more importantly, the more likely we're going to see some actual substantial changes. What I say to students is, "I'm not going to be there at two o'clock in the morning when you're making the decision about whether to have another drink." If you're adult enough to consume alcohol, you need to be adult enough to understand what you're doing there.

Do you think Colby is any different from any other place?
In terms of alcohol? I think it is but I don't think it's an anomaly. I think we're like most of the other schools that look like us. If you look at the national data, there are a bunch of criteria. The School of Public Health at Harvard"they do some work with this stuff, binge drinking and excessive drinking on college campuses, what are the predictors for where the most binge drinking is going to be. [According to Harvard], they tend to be rural locations. They tend to be private colleges. They tend to have a heavy emphasis on physical activity and athletics. So we check a lot of those boxes and we have a large portion of our student body that has grown up in places where what they see is that adults socialize with alcohol. Unfortunately, what they've also grown up with is being told you're not allowed [to do this], so it's pushed behind closed doors. Some of the checks and balances that you see in different cultures, or maybe were more prevalent when the drinking age was eighteen, are less so now.

But that's just a part of your job?
Blessedly. And it would certainly be a mistake to characterize Colby as being only about that. It's an issue, and it's an important issue and one we need to talk about, but it's certainly not the defining characteristic of Colby students.

What are challenges in other areas?
One that we've been talking about a lot longer than I've been here and one we're seeing some real headway on is the diversity of the student body and the importance for this college to get there, to expose students to more difference in more ways.

Certainly our international student population has exploded in the last decade. And the class of 2010 is nineteen percent American minority. That's a pretty significant jump from where we've been, and there are some really positive aspects in seeing that diversity come to campus because of how it helps our students become better educated, more understanding of difference in the world in which they're going to live and lead. All of our students, irrespective of their background.

With the technology that exists and the ease of travel around the world when these students are forty and fifty years old it is going to be an even more global experience than it already is. So I'd like to think that we all sign onto the fact that there are moral imperatives associated with this as well, but that's not what should be driving it. It should be an understanding that if what we're about is helping students to develop all of the skills and the understanding they need to lead successful lives and to provide leadership in the world in the way we're all going to need them to, then we're all going to need to be exposed to difference. I think the challenge for us is continuing to bring that difference to the community and then figuring out how do we metabolize that, and how do we make that part of the experience for all of our students and all of our community members. I think we're kind of struggling with that at this point.

What kind of initiatives are you mulling?
I don't have specifics, "We're going to do program X here." What I'm trying to do with my staff is think it through. How have we constructed the college, the out-of-classroom experience for students? How is our residential system constructed? And are there ways within that that we can try and increase the likelihood that all of our students are going to encounter and walk across difference as part of their out of classroom experience in a residential way.

This may sound like it's potentially contradictory, but I don't think it is, but the other thing that we want to be looking at from a residential standpoint is how do we give even greater opportunities to students to create communities within the residence halls that are meaningful for them?

The Green House, for example?
Dialogue Housing is certainly an opportunity. I think those kinds of opportunities speak to a subset of the community. And we're testing those out. Certainly with the Green House there's been some real nice success. Students who have lived there have felt they've gotten something out of it. I think we as a community can look at it and say, "Gee, the Green House students were the ones who brought X,Y, and Z matters to our attention and have affected change here."

Are more models like that being contemplated?
One of the things I feel strongly about that is that they should not be handed to students from us. They should percolate up from within the student body. Part of what I'm hoping we can craft is making it easier for students who have interests to create communities around those interests. I would place a caveat on that. I think you can look at a lot of other colleges that have what is commonly referred to as interest housing. And more often that not, what you'll see is things that may have started with some student interest or may have started because some subset of the faculty or administration thought it would be a good idea to have this. And indeed, they may have for a period of time met a real need, and some of them continue to and that's great. But some of them die out, and what you see is colleges trying to prop up X interest house, and I have no interest in seeing that happen.

My feeling on Dialogue Housing is that if there's a group of students who want to put together a community to look at something like the Green House, and they're interested in doing it for one year, that's great. Do it for one year, and if something else replaces it, that's fine. And if nothing does, that's fine, too. Because the other piece of this is, through those communities, helping students develop skills of self-governance. Being independent and creating communities. Getting involved in student government is one thing, but understanding that I need to be responsible for what's going on in my own personal community"I think those are essential skills that we want to impart on our students. The language that I use a lot is that we want all Colby students to understand the responsibilities that come with the privilege of this education. I'd like to think that the Colby alumni are the ones who, if they moved to a new place or they enter into a new job or whatever and they see gaps in a community, they see a place where there's a need, whether it's a playground for children or better sidewalks because it's dangerous, the kinds of things that enhance a community, that irrespective of whether they want to run for office or be on the PTA, that they're going to be the sorts of people who say, "we can get this done. And we have some responsibility to do it."

It's not somebody else's job?
Right. And writing a letter to the editor is great, and do that, too. But also be the person who is willing to saddle up and do something about it.

So how do you develop a campus culture that encourages that?
I think we've talked about it some already. We've talked about the Champagne Steps, and that's one example. I think there are lots of those things here. Indeed, I had a student who was moved by something she learned in class and she said, "I'd like to do a teach-in on the Miller lawn at some point in the spring and what do you think about that?' I said, "I think that's terrific, particularly if you're moved enough to get that done." So I think what we're trying to say to students is, "If you have an interest, there's probably a way to make things happen. We're not going to do them for you." There are people on my staff and other staffs on campus who are more than happy to put in the time to help students get them done.

Are you seeing progress in that?
Yeah, for sure. It would be dishonest to imply that Colby students haven't been doing this for a long time because clearly they have. I think to me one of the best examples of this year is the Davis Foundation's One Hundred Projects for Peace. I was hoping we could get ten, twelve students involved in this. We had twenty-three groups and in excess of thirty students involved in this. Two of them got funded, which is great, but what's even more exciting is how many students took the time. These students had done work with NGOs around the world, they had plans, and many of them are going to do their things one way or the other. I think it's wonderful that the Davises have financed this, but mostly I think it's wonderful because what Catherine Davis wanted is what happened here. It was to light a fire under these students and say, "Don't just sit back and wait for somebody else to do it." There's that famous Margaret Mead quote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has." Those are things that I'm talking with my staff about and with students a lot.

We've talked a lot about the alcohol issue and the diversity issue and, in the circles I travel in, you see these conversations that lead to, "Well, we can't solve this." I don't know if we can or can't solve this, and I don't even know what it means. If I were to define solving the alcohol issue on college campuses, I don't know what that would look like. But what I do know is we can do some things. We can take some tangible steps to move us towards improving where we currently are. On the alcohol thing, hopefully we can do some things that make it safer, that get students to engage more intentionally themselves. I'd like to say that to our students. "You're probably not going to create world peace this summer. But you can take your bite of the apple. And after that you can do the next thing." By pushing that peanut forward, that's how we make our difference in the world.

 
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