Over the past month and a half, The Student has asked dozens of students, administrators and Oxford residents the same question: “How do you define Miami’s drinking culture?” Over the next few weeks, our coverage, both in print and in the form of a documentary (released on our website April 14) will explore the ways in which alcohol is regarded and consumed by Miami students. Our reporting will address the societal, historical and mental health-related issues that surround drinking in Oxford.

This week’s coverage includes an article from News Editor Tess Sohngen that compares Miami students’ drinking habits with other comparable universities. Read the story here.

The Tuesday, April 4 edition of The Miami Student also included a guest column from Dean of Students Mike Curme that addresses the “why” in administrative efforts to change students’ drinking habits and attitudes. Read Curme’s column here

The Butler County Coroner also contributed a guest column which warns of the life-threatening nature of certain drinking behaviors. Read Dr. Mannix’s column here.

The story below, from Asst. News Editor Ceili Doyle, takes a holistic view at the drinking culture of Miami. 

Many students react defensively to heightened attention to  heavy drinking at Miami, claiming  the school  is no different from any other.

In fact, in significant ways, Miami’s drinking problem does seem to be worse than at other campuses.

And whether it’s worse or not, the damage done in Oxford has persuaded many students, administrators and residents that drinking by Miami students is both dangerous and unsustainable.

To be sure, drinking has run amok at campuses all over the U.S. But it’s clear that Miami has emerged as a virtual case study in all the factors that contribute to dangerous drinking cultures in college towns.

“It seems that severity in the way in which drinking happens across campuses has changed to one which emphasizes binge-drinking,” Oxford mayor Kate Rousmaniere said. “The police are overstressed. We hire extra police staff Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and they are working 80 to 90 percent of their job on those nights dealing with student drinking issues.”

Miami students binge-drink more heavily and more frequently than students at other universities. They live in a town monopolized by bars that offer drink specials and themed events every night of the week. They are encouraged by the notion that there is nothing else to do but drink in Oxford.

Many students say administrators and student organizations are wrong to call first-year Erica Buschick’s death anything more than an isolated incident, however tragic.

In fact, her death is one of six alcohol-related deaths over the last dozen years in Oxford, and several other students have been seriously hurt after drinking too much.

In March of 2005 during Green Beer Day, a student was nearly killed after being struck by a train in his car on the tracks. A month later, three upperclassmen died in a house fire. Alcohol was cited as a contributing factor in the accident.

In 2007, a sophomore was killed by a train after a night of drinking, and again in 2015, a senior who celebrated his 21st birthday suffered a severe concussion and injuries after falling from the balcony at Brick Street.

Nearly a year ago on April 9, 2016, senior Timothy Fresch  died after he was found unconscious and in respiratory distress due to alcohol and drug consumption.

In addition, last semester, student Robert Null, an employee at Brick Street, was pushed off a ladder by former Miami defensive lineman Zach Smierciak, who was ejected from the bar for being drunk.

This pattern of behavior has continued as recently as Feb. 25, when a man from Lake Forest,  IL was airlifted to a Cincinnati hospital following a fight outside The Woods bar. Early in February, 21 students were treated at McCullough-Hyde Memorial Hospital for alcohol-related incidents during one weekend.

But the incident that drew the most attention was Buschick’s death on Jan. 20 with a BAC of .347. The Butler County coroner ruled  alcohol was the cause. 

Defining the drinking culture

Buschick’s death has compelled many people — students, faculty, administrators and town members alike — to take a closer look at Miami’s drinking culture, especially the prevalence of drinking to the point of blacking out — a dangerous state that can result in death.

Rose Marie Ward, professor of kinesiology and health at Miami, has conducted extensive research on the hook-up and binge-drinking cultures of young adults. She says that while Miami is certainly not the only university facing these issues, it has one of the biggest problems.

A Harvard College Alcohol survey  found that 42 percent of college students admitted to binge drinking in the thirty days before the survey. At Miami, the rate was nearly 60 percent, Ward said.

“There are some schools that only have 10 percent and there are some above the 60 percent threshold,” Ward said, “but, yes, when you look at the spread, most [colleges] are clustered around that 42 percent.”

Furthermore, Miami students tend to binge-drink on a weekly basis more heavily than the national average.

Some  26 percent of Miami students admit to binge-drinking three or more times in the two weeks before being surveyed. That’s well above the  national average of 14 percent.

Despite the statistical evidence, many Miami students assume  neither they nor their friends could fall victim to the sort of tragedies that affected their fellow Miamians.

“We did 392 substance abuse evaluations here at the counseling center last year,” said Dr. Ritch Hall, coordinator for substance abuse counseling. “I wish I could tell you how many of them walked in not thinking they had a problem and left thinking they didn’t have a problem.

“There were 188 hospitalizations last year and still [students] are not thinking they have a problem,” he said.

These 188 hospitalizations only include referrals to Hall for substance abuse evaluations.

“We all have bad nights,” first-year Abby Jeffery said. “But I don’t think McCullough-Hyde should be anyone’s end goal. I don’t understand why people do that.”

In ten years as chief of the Oxford Fire Department,  John Detherage has spoken with  many students who worry about penalties or punishments for drinking too much. But, Detherage said, they don’t think about the risk to their lives.

“Getting in trouble is not as bad as getting dead,” Detherage said. “We only reach a small fraction of the people who need help. For every ten we pick up, there’s twenty or thirty people who make it home.”

Some students love Miami’s drinking culture when they first arrive in Oxford, but in time they think twice.

Junior Matt Arvizu compared developing a relationship with alcohol at Miami to the start of a bad marriage, likely to end in divorce and unforeseen consequences.

“At first you’re in the honeymoon phase and everything is amazing,” Arvizu said. “You go out four or five times a week and everything’s great. And then slowly it’ll start to creep up on you, and for me that happened sophomore year. Everything starts to eventually lose its luster and you can never really attain the same high you got the first time you go Uptown and wild out.”

Arvizu believes the emphasis on going Uptown night after night and day-drinking every weekend breeds an  atmosphere of competition among students who are already competing in social standing, Greek life and academics.

“Everybody’s trying to one up each other: who can drink the fastest, who can drink the most,” Arvizu said. “Especially if you’re going for day-drinking with Beat the Clock, Broken Clock, etc. You’re just competing with everybody and you’re seeing who can black out faster.”

Searching for solutions

The university and several student organizations are seeking ways to reduce the number of students who binge in Oxford.

But major obstacles loom — the mentality of invincibility; the belief that in a small town like Oxford, “there’s nothing else to do;” the competition among Oxford’s student-centered bars; and the sheer number of bars that dominate Uptown’s geography.

In Ohio, neither a university nor a municipality such as Oxford can regulate bars’ hours or restrict drink specials. Rousmaniere and Alan Kyger, Oxford’s director of economic development, are lobbying state legislators to grant the town “home rule,” which would allow it to regulate  the bars more strictly.

Dean of Students Mike Curme said Oxford’s peculiar population, with 18,500 college students and only 3,500 year-round residents, heightens the impression of a town awash in alcohol.

“The geography of Oxford is very detrimental to us,” Curme said. “You walk one block off of Slant Walk and… you happen to be at the corner of the two highest-density … drinking establishments in the entire town.”

Curme expressed a great deal of concern for highly visible house parties that take place during the weekends in which 90 percent of the homes in the square mile area are student rentals.

“These parties are highly visible manifestations of this high-risk alcohol consumption that we’re concerned about,” Curme said. “There’s no reason for it to be so highly visible in the front yard: go in the back yard, go in the house and have the party. These parties can’t be open. It can’t be that an 18 year-old student new to the community who knows no one can walk into these parties and find a table full of hard alcohol or a garbage can full of jungle juice and help themselves. ”

More importantly, Curme proposed a shift in student attitudes.  He asked: “How do we move from ‘work hard, play hard’ to ‘work hard and play smart?’

The idea is to place more accountability on the students to find a solution.

The Interfraternity Council (IFC), Panhellenic Association and Associated Student Government (ASG) have proposed and hosted a variety of initiatives  ranging from a Green Beer Day forum to a “Just Call/Good Samaritan Policy” panel.

When Greek rush was approaching in January, seven sororities teamed together to promote safety above all else for new members.

The sororities changed the day on which new members could go out after  Bid Day from Monday to Thursday, while older members were instructed not to go out until Wednesday.

The initiative created alternatives to accommodate new members who were uncomfortable in drinking situations. Those alternatives included hosting a speaker or a bowling event, according to junior Katie Greenstone, a sorority member.

But Greenstone said sororities need to learn more about how to care for new members who drink too much.

“As we much as we say, ‘We love these girls, we’re so glad you’re in our sorority,’ we don’t know you,” Greenstone said. “We picked you based upon a couple conversations that we’ve had with you and you picked us, but realistically, we don’t know if you’re a high-risk drinker when we meet you.”

In ASG, Austin Worrell, junior and secretary of governmental relations, created a steering committee that is planning to address  Miami’s drinking culture.

One of his objectives is to change sections 105A and 105B in the Student Code of Conduct, which spell out violations for intoxication.

If those provisions are changed, as Worrell hopes, Section 105A would apply to those caught in possession of hard liquor, while Section 105B, a lesser offense, would apply only to those caught with beer or wine.

With the current policy, Worrell said, “a lot of students are going to drink no matter what the policy is.” The changes he’s proposing, he said, may encourage students to drink more safely.

Change comes from the bottom up: ‘It’s on the students’

Despite the administration’s efforts to promote alcohol-free alternatives such as  Late Night Miami, or working with student organizations, any change in the culture needs to start with students, Alishio said.

“Students have the ability to do this,” Alishio said, “if enough of them are concerned and recognize that ‘this impacts me.This impacts my ability to live in an environment that isn’t going to put me at risk of sexual assault, getting arrested, driving drunk or falling off a ladder.’”

The problem, according to Chief John Jones of the Oxford Police Department (OPD), is the media and the public pay attention only in the wake of tragedies and high-profile events, particularly Green Beer Day.

“Nobody, the media or bigger forces, were paying much attention when we’ve been having these conversations about alcohol all along,” Jones said. “We’ve got this problem of day-drinking, for instance, and the university was meeting with us and the police were stepping up their forces, but nobody was paying attention until we had a tragic death, and then there were hospitalizations and suddenly the microscope is on Miami.”

Jones admits that it’s easy for students to forget the tragedies of the past since they spend only four years in Oxford. But it shouldn’t take a student’s death or dozens of hospitalizations to galvanize students to make a change.

“Cracking down and heightening [police] enforcement can only do so much to change the culture,” Jones said. “It’s not the sole solution to our problem.”

The ultimate cultural shift that needs to take place is to end the pervading sense of invulnerability among Miami students.

“I think it happens at all colleges,” Arvizu said, “but I think it’s exacerbated at Miami because we’re in the middle of nowhere; because there’s nothing else to do except go Uptown, go to parties and just drink.During my freshman year, I went in thinking, ‘Oh I’m invincible, I can be the biggest party animal this college has ever seen.’ Everybody’s feeding off of one another’s excitement for drinking, and eventually it just leads to everybody becoming alcoholics.”

The  belief in  in one’s invincibility when paired with alcohol is nothing new,  but it canmake for deadly consequences, either for oneself or one’s friends.

“The thing is, it doesn’t matter what the school tells us to do, what the policy says, what the rule says or what the law says,” Worrell said “Ultimately, culture is its own animal, and if we want to start changing it…we all have to step up and take an active role in looking out for one another. Regardless of how we choose to behave, we can all choose to care for one another.”