A Series of Unfortunate Events

In the late 1990s several unfortunate events occurred on MSU’s campus in which alcohol and high-risk drinking were identified as being contributing factors. In May 1998, a civilian disturbance occurred on MSU’s campus and in the surrounding city of East Lansing resulting in thousands of dollars of property damage. The disturbance began as an on-campus protest to MSU’s newly adopted policy that banned alcohol from tailgate parties. The disturbance moved from on-campus, however, into the surrounding community. The disturbance raised tensions between the city and the university. The MSU President at the time, Peter McPherson, soon formed the Action Team in response to the disturbance. The Action Team was a committee made up of MSU students, faculty and staff, East Lansing residents, and city officials.

The Action Team was charged with discussing issues regarding high-risk drinking on MSU’s campus and recommending a course of action to improve the mutual atmosphere of the campus and community by challenging this environment of high-risk drinking. Several Action Team meetings took place in 1998, and a final report was released in November 1998 that included thirty-three recommendations for improving the campus and town environment. These recommendations fit into five categories: education; communication; health, safety, and consequences; social environment; and law and policy. Some of the specific recommendations included creating a “Safe Ride” program, increasing alcohol-free residence halls, widely publicizing ordinances that affect students before enactment of those ordinances, informing students of the harmful consequences or high-risk drinking, and educating students on appropriate alcohol use.

The education portion of the recommendations revolved around message campaigns that could reduce harm by reminding students of the negative consequences of high-risk drinking and by providing accurate information regarding the attitudes and drinking habits of other students. Rather than implement an “abstinence” or fear-based campaign, the Action Team believed that the most effective way to reduce high-risk drinking was to educate students on moderation and to encourage protective behaviors to reduce the potential for harm when drinking. It was decided that a social norms approach would be the most effective method for addressing the recommendations of the Action Team. Olin Health Center in conjunction with the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, University Media Relations and the Department of Communication began work collecting data, crafting messages, pretesting those messages, and implementing an interventional social norms campaign.

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