This has been an unusually emotional semester for our campus, as we have tragically and unexpectedly lost several members of our community. Our grieving stems not just from our own personal sense of loss, but through the realization that the world has been deprived of the enormous positive impact these bright and talented people certainly would have had.

Because alcohol played a role in one of these deaths, the university has had much to say about our ongoing efforts to reduce high-risk alcohol consumption in our community.  Inevitably, much of this response has focused  on “what” we are doing, or “how” we are dealing with the issue, but I would like to shift the focus on the more fundamental question of “why” (nod to Simon Sinek).  I respectfully offer these thoughts not from my position as Miami’s sitting dean of students, but as an educator who very intentionally selected Miami as the place to begin my career almost 30 years ago.

In an important sense, Miami’s “why” — and the “why” of education more generally — is to guide individuals toward their life’s purpose.  If this goal is achieved, a most virtuous cycle is created, since a purpose-filled life is the core of personal happiness and growth, and concurrently those who act with purpose generate the greatest common good.

Miami attracted me because it was one of the finest institutions in the world in embracing this “why.”  Perhaps our greatest distinction as an institution is our recognition, reward, and celebration of engaging meaningfully with undergraduate students — both inside and outside of the classroom — toward this pursuit of the “why.”  Miami creates an environment in which students develop meaningful relationships, not just with faculty, but staff and other students, and with community members  —  the types of relationships that are essential to discovering purpose.  

The foundation of our work as educators is to create and share knowledge, and knowledge is a necessary but insufficient condition for finding purpose.  True understanding requires that theories and ideas be meaningfully applied, and experiential learning — having students engage with real problems, with real stakes, for real people — is one of Miami’s hallmarks.  Additionally, however, and perhaps most importantly, because of the relationships that develop on our residential campus within our small Oxford community, students have the space to meaningfully reflect on theses experiences, both singularly and in total.  This reflection is a critical element in the pursuit of purpose.  While this personal discovery certainly occurs in other environments, our institutional ethos and our Oxford-Miami environment — some organic and some engineered — seems to be an unusually rich petri dish for growing the why.

In such an environment, it is natural and perhaps inevitable that members of our community care deeply about each other.  The term love and honor actually does have meaning for us.  When one member of our community is successful, our collective mood is elevated.  When we lose a member, we mourn.  

Every student entering Miami has the potential to change to world for the better.  It is a privilege to work in such a positively consequential environment, no matter the role.  We are so frequently successful at achieving our why that in my faculty role, my “tough” conversations with students are often related to the difficult decisions they face because of an embarrassment of good options.  

But the why is not always achieved, a reality I see much more frequently in my administrative role.  In these contexts, as we seek answers to a more profound and more personal set of questions that focus on “how did this happen,” the common thread is almost universally alcohol or other drugs.  Above everything else, it is misuse and addiction that are responsible for preventing our students from realizing their purpose.  And while most survive, we inevitably mourn, as they have not been delivered to the “why,” and they, and we, and the world, are worse off.

Starting at new student orientation in the June prior to formally entering our community, we talk with our students about alcohol. We emphasize and celebrate that over 60 percent of each class enters Miami as a non-drinker.  And, together as a community for the first time, we talk with them about another “why” — why we care about their use of alcohol.  First, we remind them that we we are educators, and that we would be failing them if we did not teach them respect for the law.  But then we go deeper, and for many this will be their introduction to what the phrase “love and honor” really means in our community.  We explain that alcohol can both prevent them from achieving their goals, both directly by their own misuse, and indirectly through the consequences associated with the misuse by others.  In other words, the answer to the question of why we care about student alcohol use is inexplicably linked to the why of our community:  we care because we want nothing to stand in the way of discovering your purpose.

Mike Curme, Miami University Dean of Students

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