Changing the Culture

August 1, 2002
Kulley: "...but it will be a gradual process"

 Kulley: "...but it will be a gradual process". Photo: Les Todd


Officials at Duke's Counseling and Psychological Services conducted a year-long, nationwide search for an alcohol specialist before selecting Jeff Kulley. A former staff psychologist at the University of Texas in Austin, Kulley started work at Duke in May 2001, splitting his time between counseling students and addressing alcohol abuse. After his first full semester at Duke, he talked about the challenges and opportunities he sees in changing Duke's drinking culture.

Why is alcohol and drug counseling an essential service offered at CAPS?

It's just like any other university counseling center or health service. Alcohol is definitely a part of the college experience, and with it come some good things and some bad things. We want to be responsive to people who might need some help with an alcohol problem, or who maybe just need some education so they can avoid developing problems in the future.

After a full semester at Duke, what do you see as your challenges?

Just managing my time and trying to form a network to get educational messages about alcohol out there and to try to change some of the cultural beliefs and expectations around alcohol. It's a challenge to try to get in there and change the culture so that overdrinking might someday be thought of as similar to smoking cigarettes-it's not the socially acceptable thing that it was twenty years ago. Hopefully, by getting the message out there, we can change that culture, but it will be a gradual process.

How is Duke like any other college or university when it comes to alcohol issues, and what makes Duke unique?

Most universities, probably all universities, have some problems with the abuse of alcohol. That's pretty widespread; you see newspaper reports all the time. Duke is similar to other universities in that way. It's also not unlike other universities in that most students do not abuse alcohol, and in that if they do drink, they drink responsibly and in moderation.

I think, though, there are some unique characteristics about Duke that might make changing the culture around alcohol more challenging. One is that the campus is fairly insulated. Duke students tend to stay on campus to do most of their socializing. Some might go into Chapel Hill, but because Durham itself doesn't seem to attract a lot of people going out for the nightlife, students tend to stay on campus. I think that might be one of the things that contributes to overuse of alcohol for some students: It focuses more attention on the campus party scene to provide a social outlet.

What are some of the situations that lead to overdrinking?

A pretty common situation I see is a student who has some experience with alcohol-but probably not a lot of experience drinking alcohol-who during their first year goes to a party and drinks either shots or punch that's mixed with strong liquor. The student ends up drinking so much that he or she passes out or gets sick and ends up being taking to the emergency department. Very much of that has to do with students who don't really know how to make choices about drinking-how to drink in a safe way-and end up in a situation where they're encouraged to drink excessively. I think that happens a fair amount here, but not necessarily more often than at other schools. Educating that group of students and providing good information for students coming into college might help reduce some of that kind of problem.

Is it important, then, that you reach students early in their careers at Duke?

I think so. That's part of why we want to continue the tradition of providing information during orientation week, so that we do reach students before some of them who haven't had much experience with alcohol are faced with party situations, or situations where alcohol is available in a way they haven't consumed it before. The earlier we reach them with that information, the better.

As the fall semester began, a widely publicized study by the American Medical Association showed 95 percent of parents ranked binge drinking among their greatest fears for their college-age students. What would be your message to those parents?

My message would be that some concern is probably well-founded, that alcohol is available to college students, and when the restrictions of living at home are lifted, it can lead to some risky use of alcohol. I would really encourage parents to talk with their kids, not only about their message on whether their children should or should not drink alcohol, but also about some of the risks associated with overdrinking, so that students can at least have some knowledge of the more dangerous consequences. Keeping an open line of communication is important, too, to let [students] know their parents remain available to talk with them about problems or concerns that come up.

But is it the role of the university today to act in loco parentis?

The in loco parentis issue has to do with looking after the welfare of a student, as a parent would a child. When it comes to alcohol and substance issues, the university has to think of the student body as a whole, and think of behaviors related to alcohol as affecting the whole student body. When one student drinks in a risky way, there are consequences to the whole student body, whether it's disturbances late at night that interfere with somebody else's sleep or studying, or whether it's dealing with the stress of taking care of somebody who might be at risk-calling an ambulance, cleaning up after them. One student's behavior affects the rest of the student body, and the university is responsible for providing a positive experience to as many students as possible. I think it's important to respond to situations in that way. There are certain community standards the university expects everyone to live up to. And the university has to respond and take action when single students do things that interfere with the community for other students. In addition, we need to provide a safety net for students who might be at risk. So, if there are warning signs-say, students get in some kind of trouble related to alcohol or end up at the emergency room for an alcohol-related issue-then we are aware of that and provide some intervention at that point by seeing that student and assessing whether or not he or she needs some kind of treatment or counseling or education to protect his or her safety. In that respect, there is some in loco parentis.