IOWA CITY - The rate of University of Iowa students who report engaging in high-risk drinking has fallen 16 percentage points since 2009, moving it closer to the national average, according to newly-released statistics.
UI President Sally Mason cited the reduction in dangerous drinking among students while meeting with reporters Tuesday, but she also stressed the university's need to continue improving as it focuses on overall student safety.
“Five, six years ago, I was frankly embarrassed by rates of binge drinking that exceeded the national average significantly,” Mason told reporters. “Our rates have now come down to look much more like the national average, and we hope obviously to continue working on this and drop them even further.”
Mason made the comments after a weekend that saw the university's first sexual assault report of the academic year and the evacuation of a residence hall while members of the Johnson County Drug Task Force and the Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement investigated suspicious chemicals found in a student room.
UI officials have released few details about those events, including the Sunday night incident that evacuated 500-plus students from Slater Residence Hall for hours and sent one student to the hospital. But, Mason said, the university is taking them seriously and is continuing to implement programming and take action to address student safety on campus.
“My desire is to have this dealt with swiftly — it's very bad choices being made by a single student,” Mason said about the residence hall investigation. “Bringing the whole issue of reputation to bear by just one student out of 30-plus thousand is not a good thing.”
UI officials and investigators on Tuesday did not release more details about the residence hall incident. But Mason said the university keeps close tabs on student drug and alcohol use, and she pointed to recent improvements in a 2014 National College Health Assessment report.
The assessment shows that 54 percent of UI students polled earlier this year reported having five or more drinks at least once in the past two weeks, compared with 70 percent in 2009. Likewise, 25 percent of UI students earlier this year said they used alcohol on at least 10 of the last 30 days, down from 36 percent in 2009, according to the report.
Even those improved percentages are worse than the national rates, but Mason said they represent a marked improvement for the university, which was named the top party school in the nation by the Princeton Review last year and earned the No. 2 spot this year.
“We were kind of off the charts, and that's not a good thing,” she said. “For me, the good news there is we are actually seeing significant improvements in lowering the rates of binge drinking and frequent drinking by students on our campus.”
More than 27 percent of the UI student respondents reported not using alcohol at all in the past 30 days, but UI Vice President for Strategic Communication Joseph Brennan said the university is not satisfied.
“While we are moving in the right direction, we also recognize these are levels of high-risk drinking behavior that are cause for concern,” he said. “Clearly we have a lot more work to do.”
Regarding drug use, the report shows 23.9 percent of UI students reported using marijuana in the last 30 days — tying the university's lowest rate since the early 1990s. Use of other illicit drugs is much lower among UI students, with 4.5 percent reporting using cocaine in the last 30 days, according to the report.
When it comes to sexual violence, 8.9 percent of women reported sexual contact without their consent in the last 12 months, 4.6 percent reported attempted rape, and 3 percent reported being raped within the past year, according to the report.
“Sexual assault is not acceptable behavior on this campus at any time,” Mason said Tuesday.
With fall classes now in session, Mason addressed progress the university has made on a “six-point plan to combat sexual assault” that she debuted following campus protests last school year.
The campus now offers two Nite Ride vans, providing free late-night rides for women on campus seven days a week. And, Mason said, she acquired funds over the summer to continue the university's Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner training program, which provides support for sexual assault victims.
Incoming students this fall also engaged in a new online training program after some people complained about the quality of previous programs. And the language of campuswide warning emails has been revamped following student concerns about victim blaming in the previous messages.
Mason told reporters Tuesday that a student advisory group is continuing to meet and provide feedback on how to improve campus support and the overall environment — like where additional lighting is needed.
“We want to make this campus safer, without a doubt,” she said.