An Open Letter to the Iowa State University VEISHEA Task Force

On Tuesday, April 8, 2014 at Iowa State University a group of students and Ames, Iowa community members gathered near Campustown and caused considerable property damage resulting in one student becoming seriously injured. The following day Wednesday, April 9, 2014 Iowa State University President Steven Leath announced that at 5:00 pm the same day, all VEISHEA-related activities would cease. On Friday, April 25, 2014 an Open Forum by the VEISHEA Task Force will be held at Iowa State University to hear from the community and present a final report and recommendations by the end of June 2014 to President Steven Leath.

 This is an official submission and open letter to the meeting of the VEISHEA Task Force from two proud Iowa State University Alumni:

Brice Pollock: B.S. Mechanical Engineering ’10, M.S. Computer Engineering / Human Computer Interaction ’12

Kelsey Pollock: B.S. Apparel Merchandising, Design, and Production ‘10

First and foremost my husband, Brice Pollock and I feel that the VEISHEA acts of rioting and destruction of public property are without reason, ridiculous and pointless. However, we feel that the both Iowa State University (ISU) and the Ames community have taken an aggressive and arguably unnecessary approach to its “house party problem” adding to an already tense and distrustful relationship with students. Especially in issues related to alcohol, the University has taken this combative approach with the student body, instead of using them as a resource and a partner. We feel this may be tapping into a much larger issue as a nation, but will focus on specifically, ISU’s proverbial ‘alcohol problem’.

Disconnect at the student level: While attending ISU as non-greek students we felt a large disconnect between the undergraduate student body and the University in its partnership with the city of Ames. To highlight – a few examples from our tenure at ISU:

  1. The implementation of ticket restrictions and limits to attend VEISHEA concerts.
  2. Exclusion of and lack of communication with the student body in the search for Jon Lacina.
  3. A feeling of exclusion by students regarding the 2011 proposed plans to “revamp” Campustown.
  4. A visible crackdown by city police to  completely eliminate all house parties during and around  VEISHEA.
    • Even in 2011, we experienced wandering around Campustown looking for somewhere to gather, play lawn games, drink safely/in moderation and have a good time. This led to a lot of walking, in-and-out of houses while police seemed to be just 10-20 minutes behind – even if the party was not producing unsafe behavior, excessively loud music, or hoards of college students showing any tendency of “becoming violent” it was dispersed.

Since 2009 the unspoken, zero-tolerance house party policy has drastically increased pressure on parties and underage drinking as well as introduced unnecessary tension between students and those with authority. The crackdown also has been felt as the driver for unpopular VEISHEA policies attempting to reduce and eventually eliminate the student-run event to be rid of its associated ‘alcohol problems.’ Why is the university willing to add such tension to its relationship with its student body over this issue? Has  collegiate drinking become a significantly worse issue now than in the 1960’s era of “Animal House” or when kegs were notoriously being consumed in the stands at ISU football games? We encourage more data, but some resources [1][2] have indicated this not to be the case.

The University also appears to have negatively targeted the “work hard/play hard” attitude. This attitude is not unique to the higher education community and is widely accepted and practiced in the Silicon Valley software industry, where we currently live, and elsewhere in the nation. Personally and anecdotally [Brice], social drinking two nights a week throughout college was essential to socialize, settle my brain, and mentally reset to keep the vigorous and largely independent academic schedule that was required in undergraduate studies.

We aren’t asking for the University to start sponsoring drinking parties or installing kegs in the football stands. A solution has to build at the grassroots level and be a middle ground for ISU students and their families, faculty, administration, and leadership.

Leadership transparency: An open public forum and task-force is a great first step. We advocate for a more transparent University leadership to address the questions below:

  • What are the short-term and long-term trends in student drinking, specifically at ISU? Has it affected ISU students, staff, and faculty and if so, in what ways?
  • In University policy and enforcement, do they agree there has been a significant and aggressive zero-tolerance policy to house parties or alcohol-free gatherings? Is this a new effort? If so, has it come directly from the ISU Police Department, the University, or in partnership with other organizations?
  • What data does the University have to support their claims that there is a problem with house parties, underage drinking, and violence in the Ames community both associated and disassociated with VEISHEA? What effects has this problem had in the community? Lower graduation rates? An increase in underage, alcohol-related hospitalizations? This should be a data-driven, direct answer outside of anecdotal evidence.
  • Outside of direct police enforcement such as arresting and citing community members, what efforts has the University made to decrease undesirable behavior?
    • What does the University define as “undesirable behavior”? Underage drinking in all forms? Casual, off-campus drinking? Over-21 binge drinking at bars in Campustown?
    • Has the University made an effort to communicate these expectations to students in a medium widely accepted and frequently trafficked by students? (Such as: Twitter, during football games, student organization advocate groups, Greek Week, ISU Daily)

Small changes, big impact: In our combined professional experience we understand that politics, logistics, and the law all have to be navigated while implementing change. We suggest the following small, but possibly very effective solutions to improve the safety and fun of VEISHEA:

  • Create a specific “VEISHEA Safety Committee” comprised of a large body (100-200) of student volunteers to flood Campustown every night from 7 pm – 2 am and direct students to activities going on during the evening. Help them find where CyRide picks up students. Partner with Vitaminwater and hand out non-alcoholic drinks or Jack Links for beef jerky. Whatever college students are into these days – give the Safety Committee a reason to positivelyinteractwithVEISHEA-goers to simply direct traffic to where it needs to be before it becomes a problem. A student becomes unruly? Equip all committee members with training on how to safely handle the situation.
    • Why a Safety Committee handing out free stuff? Thinking like a buzzed (or drunk) college student, my three priorities are: 1. I’m thirsty 2. I have to pee 3. Where’s the party? Empowering students to keep the mood light, give them some protein or a non-alcoholic beverage, and getting students to a more controlled environment is only going to create a better, and safer atmosphere.
  • Create open, accessible, and relevant support or communication groups for students around weekend and  VEISHEA activities. This would help students openly process their experiences with drinking and find resources toempower them to learn their physical and emotional limitations around drinking. Think a book club for hung-over college students with good snacks.
    • This would need to be a safe environment. Standard mental health counseling rules should apply here.
  • More events before and during  VEISHEA. Especially ones like that delicious pancake feed at 1 am. Add more late-night, fun, and buzzed-about events that students actually want to attend, and hopefully put a little food in their bellies.
    • Having some smaller lead-up events to VEISHEA helps to diffuse a big “kick-off” effect.

The broader conversation: While this letter is about VEISHEA, broadly this is a discussion of the drinking culture at ISU. If the University wishes to influence this culture we suggest implementing a similar positive incentive structure as proposed for VEISHEA in place of the current strategy of penalties and enforcement. This will likely require discarding the current black and white policy regarding alcohol in favor of a more productive goal of safe consumption and moderation.

In closing, while Brice and I feel very strongly around the efforts to create a more productive relationship between ISU and the student body, we understand that we now have some distance (literally) between our past experiences at ISU. We hope that this effectively contributes to the conversation happening today and leads to a more fun, happy, and safe college experience for everyone.

Is it VEISHEA yet?

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