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Universities to address high-risk drinking through collaborative learning initiative

Acadia’s Ray Ivany is leading the movement for a Canadian answer to U.S. National College Health Improvement Program.


Canadian postsecondary institutions have a drinking problem. Universities and colleges will need to work together to kick it.

That’s the message Ray Ivany, president of Acadia University, got across in his keynote address at the 2014 conference of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services in Halifax on June 9.

Changing universities’ drinking culture became an imperative for Mr. Ivany after the death of first-year student Jonathan Andrews in 2011. The 19-year-old died after a night of drinking with friends in Acadia’s dorms. After that, “our campus changed forever,” said Mr. Ivany.

That fall, Acadia ramped up its involvement in the National College Health Improvement Program’s Learning Collaborative on High-Risk Drinking. Active from 2011 to 2013, the learning collaborative consisted of 32 institutions ranging from small community colleges to Ivy League universities (Acadia was the group’s lone Canadian member). The group approached the issue of binge drinking as a public health crisis. Together, they aimed to reduce the harms associated with high-risk drinking and employed public health evaluation and measurement tools to develop best practices. Mr. Ivany is now calling on Canadian colleges and universities to bring a similar model north of the border, with more than 30 institutions on board so far.

“We look to universities as a society for solutions to disease, to technological advance, to social issues, for artistic expression,” he said. “You have to wonder why we can’t do the same on this issue.”

Following the keynote, the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada hosted an extended workshop at which 40 senior administrators representing 33 institutions discussed the possibility of a Canadian collaborative. Several participants disclosed alcohol-related incidents similar to Acadia’s that had finally driven senior administration to admit to a serious problem. At St. Thomas University, the accidental death of a 21-year-old student following heavy drinking and hazing with the men’s volleyball team in 2010 was the tragedy that brought the problem home for President Dawn Russell.

“We did the right things, but we didn’t follow-up [with the students involved],” Ms. Russell said during the closed-door meeting. Counselling and wellness services were offered to friends and teammates in the weeks following the student’s death, but there was no plan in place for assisting those suffering from long-term trauma. “It caused me to look at the problem more deeply: What are we doing at my university?”

If institutions are following the established systems and still the rates of risky drinking behaviours and their related issues – vandalism, assault, sexual violence, traffic accidents, sexually transmitted infections, alcohol-related injuries and fatalities – haven’t improved, then the problem is systemic, said Mr. Ivany. And systemic change requires the collection of good data to “open up a window on the problem,” he said.

Quickly amassed datasets are arguably the primary benefit to NCHIP’s approach. Its program is based on a cyclical model: members of the collaborative implemented programming or policy targeting problematic drinking behaviours, measured and evaluated their impacts and reported their findings back to the group. With new information gleaned from the collective data, participants tweaked their programs and policies and started the cycle again. The approach differs from the standard institutional procedure by requiring institutions to “act [their] way into learning rather than think [their] way into acting,” said Lisa Johnson, NCHIP’s managing director.

While the group in Halifax was largely responsive to the NCHIP model, some attendees raised concerns about how it might fit with existing realities, such as working with limited resources; involving students, parents, municipal leaders, university staff and faculty in the process; and continuing the development and implementation of campus mental health and wellness strategies.

Mr. Ivany, heartened by the group’s “orientation towards action,” said he will soon contact university and college presidents and vice-presidents responsible for student services with a formal invitation to the inaugural meeting of the learning collaborative. No date has been set for the meeting, though he anticipates it will take place before the end of October.

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