The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

Task force member speaks out

The last thing I needed was another committee assignment, but this one was hard to say no to. First, President Turner asked me to be on this committee, the Task Force on Substance Abuse Prevention, and, well, when he asks, I try to help. But more important, the deaths of three students, including one who had sat in my office shortly before her death, was awful, and I thought maybe this would be a way to do something. The committee has met a few times already, and I’ve begun to see how complex this problem is.

At a general meeting for people involved with AARO (summer orientation for new students), a friend of mine said that one thing we can all agree on is that we have a problem. But so far, in my own conversations, there has not been much agreement about what the problems are. Most of the problems that people have named seem to have no solutions, at least none that SMU can do much about. Not that SMU doesn’t do anything. In an early meeting, I heard a description of many programs run by SMU intended to alleviate drug and alcohol problems: education, counseling, rehabilitation, enforcement and punishment. Basically, anything that has produced some good results somewhere in the country has been tried or implemented here. SMU’s administration, student affairs divisions, police, the health center-they do everything. My guess is that students at SMU are as educated about the problems involved with drugs and alcohol as any group of students anywhere, as aware of the dangers and as informed about “good choices.” I also guess that a lot of students benefit from the programming and adjust their behavior to the norms of the new adulthood they enter when they enter SMU. And yet those three died.

I left this early meeting wondering if we have not a “problem” but a tragedy, some horrible knot of human nature that leads some to self-destruction, something we just have to live with. The task force will have to do some real thinking to do more than demonstrate that we already do all we can do.

There are many disturbing parts to the stories of the students’ deaths, but the one that bothers me most is that not only did no one intervene when they saw these people were in trouble; no one even admits to having seen the drinking or drug use, much less the slide into coma and death. Intervening is hard, I know. Seeing seems to be hard as well. In my conversations with people about these events, the one thing most say is that SMU, like many other universities, has a problem in its “culture.” Culture helps us to know what is normal, and maybe our sense of what is normal has blinded us to some dangers. But what can be done about a culture? It can’t be dictated. It can’t be “fixed.” At least I don’t think it can, since culture refers to the whole world of interactions, values, pleasures and meanings that allow us to live together. Change, I suspect, is going to have to come from a hundred different places.

We will be talking to a lot of individuals and groups on and off campus. I want to hear how those in this community are thinking about both the problems and the solutions. I am wondering how other groups are planning on getting involved. At the end of the semester, I hope we have done more than produce a report. In the meantime, we should probably all be thinking about whether and how we might be responsible to those one, two or three people in our midst who may need our help to make it through the year.

About the writer:

Dennis Foster is a professor of English and a member of the SMU Task Force on Substance Abuse Prevention.

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