The Campus Alcohol Problem That Nobody Talks About

Worried about binge drinkers? Start at the faculty club.

Illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Background by Ryan McVay/Thinkstock.

Illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Background by Ryan McVay/Thinkstock.

This week the Chronicle of Higher Education is running a series of long-form investigations about drinking culture on American campuses. I’m as concerned about the overdoses, assaults, and general idiocy of liquored-up undergrads as anyone—perhaps even more so, given the time one of my old Ohio State students, a 90-pound junior, proudly declared her intention to down 21 shots on the upcoming birthday that made it legal to do so. When I mentioned that this could result in her actual death, she just rolled her eyes like I was a neurotic off-duty German shepherd police dog: Oh, isn’t that cute; the Old thinks it’s people and it knows something.

Binge drinking on college campuses is real, and depressing, and gross, and out of control. I don’t know what to do about it, but even if I did, students wouldn’t care what I thought.

But what strikes me as truly tragicomic is that of the 315,000 or so higher-ed professionals who will see these articles in the Chron and shake their heads, few will give passing thought to another campus alcohol epidemic, one largely ignored (unless you count this nice journal article from 1984). Indeed, if it’s mentioned at all, it’s heralded as an inextricable virtue of the Life of the Mind: alcohol use—and abuse—among faculty. There is a long-established drinking culture in academia (#notallacademics, of course, but plenty). It’s destructive, it’s pathetic—and it’s widely accepted.

Every academic on Earth has witnessed, as I have, the untoward behavior—at best mildly embarrassing, at worst criminal or life-threatening—of a scholar in his or her cups: the uninhibited blabbing (revealing everything from latent racism to deep departmental secrets); the slurring diatribes mistaken for erudition; the sudden and unwelcome onset of handsiness. I have been the ungrateful recipient of more than a few instances of three-sheets eminent scholars curiously fascinated by my “scholarship” (having, of course, read or heard nothing about it).

One of the few who would speak with me about this behavior on the record is Karen Kelsky, a former anthropology professor and current academic “fixer.” (She runs a successful cottage industry that helps floundering Ph.D.s get hired.) She tells me the harrowing story of an on-campus interview when she was an aspiring junior faculty member, being chauffeured around town by a respected senior professor who “reeked of booze and slurred his words. I was terrified to get in the car with him,” she told me, “but had no idea what else to do.” When she arrived for her scheduled activities the next day (mercifully unscathed), she was treated, unprompted, to stories from his colleagues of his “legendary” consumption, as well as anecdotes from him about the “good old days,” when “everyone went out to wild parties together.”

The “rose-colored glasses of life,” as Fitzgerald called it—or “pain-go-bye-bye juice,” as Patton Oswalt did—has been a central element of the scholarly mythos since before Faust conjured wine at Auerbachs Keller. From Plato, Euripides, and Homer to (if the scholarship of Monty Python is reliable) every modern philosopher ever, there apparently can be no legitimate thought, no great art—in short, no Life of the Mind whatsoever—without the fruit of the vine. In gently suggesting that scholars learn to cut themselves off, I will be accused of engaging in the height of anti-intellectualism.

And sure, many faculty who drink do manage it in moderation: Dr. Elbow-Patches nurses a few fingers of single-malt while grading; Profs. Erudite and Polemic deconstruct Marx over Two-Buck Chuck. Great. But there’s also a substantially more embarrassing subset of academics who take advantage—to a dangerous fault—of academia’s flexible hours, minimal supervision, and long-standing culture of booze-soaked bonhomie. Many are the stuff of legend at scholarly conferences, which they treat like lost Vegas weekends. We’re talking grown-ass adults getting puke-loaded and passing out in bars; 55-year-olds drinking with grad students (or, worse, their undergrads) and thus, unsurprisingly, engaging in unethical or illegal behavior.

And yet, over and over again, I am informed, sanctimoniously, that that’s just how academia is—the selfsame kids will be kids dismissal that, when applied to undergraduates or frats, we find so infuriating.

The canonization of the hedonistic scholar-genius often begins in graduate school, especially if one attends, as I did, in a location where there’s not much else to do. In my first years at the University of California–Irvine, I watched the behavior of full-blown addicts (including the first—and, God help me, last—administrator of heroin enemas I have ever met) dismissed as much-needed Dionysian revelry, as merely balancing out the hours of studying. When, after a disastrous relationship with a raging alcoholic (and a night spent vomiting from overconsumption), I made the choice as a 30-year-old to quit drinking to excess, I was cut off socially from almost everyone I knew. As I became a more serious scholar, I drank less and less—and was, consequently, accepted less and less by my peers.

Here’s why. Only so much academic “work” takes place in the classroom: The rest is at cocktail parties, happy hours, and conferences—or final-round job interviews, which last for days, and at which candidates are often offered alcohol and expected to drink. And if you don’t imbibe? Be prepared to answer for it. Some time ago, a colleague approached me at a departmental shindig and demanded to know why I wasn’t “horizontal” yet. Oh, I don’t know—because I’m a grown-up?

But seriously: If you don’t actively partake in the “fun,” it’s often assumed that you’re either devoutly religious (and thus don’t share your colleagues’ values), in recovery (and thus judging them), or, worst of all, pregnant (goodbye, career). You can forget about getting invited to the networking events at which collaborations are hatched and insider hires made—you can, in some cases, forget about getting hired at all. Succeeding in academia is as much—if not more—about “fit” and “collegiality” as it is about scholarship and teaching. “Fit” and “collegiality” are both, by the way, often synonyms for “drinking”—and the results can be catastrophic: dalliances with students that ruin the reputation of your program; losing your job (as this pseudonymous professor tells me he did); an early grave.

Just as it does with our students, almost every single ill-advised or abusive “fraternizing” encounter in professional academia involves excess alcohol. Possibly the most egregious example is the recent scandal that engulfed the philosophy department at the University of Colorado–Boulder, in which a phalanx of greasy middle-aged nerds came off as badly as many frat brothers—worse, really, since the perpetrators defended their actions using just the kind of insufferable “pseudo-philosophical” reasoning that can only be dreamt up on the wrong side of nine shots of well bourbon.

Undergrads seem to me a lost cause. They will never stop drinking until they puke, until they beat someone up or get beaten up, until they pass out with schlongs drawn all over their faces—or, in certain tragic and utterly preventable circumstances, until they die. The more concern we voice, the harder they will roll their eyes at how intent we are on ruining their fun. Kids will be kids, after all.

So perhaps instead we should concern-troll ourselves. I’ll start. Professors of America, as you head to your department’s Christmas party or your annual hellacious mega-convention, please remember: Undergrads drink like a bunch of idiots because they are a bunch of idiots—their frontal lobes haven’t fully formed, and they don’t know what a good decision is. Faculty members, on the other hand, are fully formed adults, and presumably intelligent ones at that. They should know when they’ve had enough, especially if they’re in a professional context. They should know enough to know, in fact, that rolling their eyes at the no-fun teetotaler won’t make the problem disappear.