By Colton Williams
On August 18, Vice-Chancellor Reuben Brigety released a video detailing the new approach to enforcing the University’s existing drug and alcohol policies. Under these new procedures – originally articulated July 30 – any student possessing, using, manufacturing, sharing, or distributing drugs will be suspended. Should the student be reinstated, a second infraction would result in expulsion.
Brigety sat down with the Purple to further explain and discuss these policies. “We’re focused on a change in enforcement in order to give the existing policy both effect and a greater degree of coherence and uniformity,” Brigety said.
The impetus for this changed policy of enforcement – decided on in consultation with the Board of Regents – is due in part to data from the annual Healthy Minds survey conducted by the University of Michigan and used by more than 600 colleges. The survey polls the student body on matters of mental health and social behavior.
“The results of that for Sewanee are really very challenging,” Brigety said. “We are on the outer edge, more than double the national average for reported drug use among our students, as well as very high upper digit self-reported binge drinking… Over the last five years we have averaged 75-100 drug arrests on the Domain every year.”
Brigety insists that a change in the mode of enforcement of the University’s already-existing zero-tolerance policy is necessary in order to curb the problem of drug and alcohol abuse on campus. He noted that the “previously existing matrices of various types of enforcement” that attempted to “determine individual sanction based on the particular circumstances of a particular student” caused inequity in the application of sanctions.
In addition to changed methods of enforcement, Brigety also emphasized resources on campus for those struggling with addiction. “We have also long had a series of programs aimed at rehabilitation and recovery,” he said. “There are more both that have been authorized and that are coming online, with the creation of the new wellness center, and one of the first things I did when I arrived was authorize the hiring of a new counselor for mental health counseling, and there are other things that are already in the works that we will be able to announce later in the semester, early next semester as it relates to recovery from addiction.”
When asked about the new enforcement policy and the lack of distinction between specific drugs and specific individual circumstances, Brigety said “What you’re saying is, in the first instance, is that there should be some leeway for somebody who consumes narcotics for their first, second, third, which then leads you to all sorts of questions. So, what exactly is the cutoff? How many times do I tolerate your illegal activity before sanctions become more real?”
He repeatedly emphasized that any subsequent issues that may arise in sanctioning all come back to ‘first-order questions,’ namely, that all of the drugs in question are illegal and therefore should not be used by Sewanee students.
“I guess I would ask the first-order question,” Brigety said when asked about students’ concerns of the severity of punishment. “First of all, the sanctions only matter if you intend to consume narcotics. So let’s go to the first-order question. You’re not really saying the sanctions are too much, what you’re really saying is that it’s too much for something I wish to do. Which is, to consume narcotics in contravention of the law. And in contravention of the stated policies of the University that predate my arrival. Now, that’s a legitimate debate. Legitimate in this sense: that I want to be able to smoke marijuana, I want to be able to snort cocaine, I want to be able to take ecstasy, I want to be able to drop acid.”
At another point, Brigety again stressed that narcotics are illegal and will not be tolerated. “We are not getting in the business of differentiating the severity of illegal drugs,” he said. “We are going by the law of the state.”
Under these enforcement procedures, the University will not refer anyone for prosecution who is in possession of a misdemeanor-amount of drugs. “Conversely,” he said, “if you are in felony possession, which in the state of Tennessee is, by definition, enough of whatever – pills, marijuana, cocaine – to distribute, absolutely we’re calling the police and the district attorney. Because what’s the alternative? That we should tolerate drug users on the Domain? Somebody explain that to me.”
Part of the motivation for this changed enforcement is in the desire to change Sewanee’s reputation away from that of a party school.
“Sewanee is known at least as much as a party school – read: a school where students may consume narcotics without meaningful sanction – as much as we are known for almost anything else. For our Episcopal identity, or the strength of our academics, or the beauty of the natural Domain,” Brigety said.
“Are we going to be a place that tolerates drug use or not? The data are clear,” he added. “They converge on this point. And the Regents have made clear that we’re not going to be.”
Brigety addressed the criticism he has received online, saying “That comes with the territory, I respect that. I am prepared to absorb their anger in order to get the University and our community to the right place on this. And that’s what I’m going to do.”