The president of Iowa State University frequently stays out late to mingle with students hitting the town—and help them stay out of trouble, Kellie Woodhouse reports for Inside Higher Ed.
Steven Leath became Iowa State's president four years ago, leaving his role overseeing the University of North Carolina's research programs. He is known as an outgoing, charismatic leader. Once a week, he and his wife have dinner at one of the school's fraternity or sorority houses.
But his most unusual way of connecting with campus may be his habit of patrolling the streets late at night and talking to students, many of whom are drinking—sometimes to excess. But Leath is not there to party; he wants to help.
Challenging the binge drinking culture by encouraging students to drink
Although he strives for a hands-off approach, Leath is accompanied by a university police officer most nights. "Anyone who's a danger, a danger to themselves, you've got to do something about it," he says.
Woodhouse followed Leath around the night before Halloween, chronicling how he intervened to help students. For example, Leath and Jerry Stewart, the university's police chief, saw a drunk student climb into the trunk of car. At Leath's prompting, Stewart stopped the car before it could drive away. The two men told the students it was time to take their drunk friend back to the dorm.
"That kid looked in rough shape," Leath says. "I think we did a good thing back there."
Those types of hands-on interventions aside, the main reason Leath goes out is to encourage smart choices. His golden lab Quill helps ease the nerves of skittish students not used to seeing the president during their nights on the town—like when Leath made a 1 a.m. appearance at the line for a local hot dog shop.
As Woodhouse writes, someone in line yelled out, "Oh, my God. How do I know you? You're the president!" Leath kept his cool. "I'm just here to check on you," he said in response. "Just making sure everybody's having fun, but being safe at the same time."
Changing a binge-drinking culture
Leath's patrols are part of a larger university effort to control excess drinking and the problems that go with it, like sexual assaults and accidental injuries.
In 2014 he ended a longtime spring tradition called Veishea, which he said had devolved into a "weeklong alcohol-fueled party." On big partying nights, like homecoming and Halloween, the school now sets up a pancake tent near the local bars to tempt students with a high-carb meal instead of continued drinking.
A safe-rides program made more than 7,000 trips last year, and student ambassadors patrol popular areas to help partygoers and spot problems.
The goal of those interventions, including Leath's patrols, is to stop dangerous situations before they develop. "If you get someone making the initial stages of bad decision, that's when I want to get to them and educate them and either talk to them or scare them," he says. "Whatever it is so they do the right thing."
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Many students seem to appreciate the outreach. Freshman Samantha Duvalle—who met Leath near the hot dog line—said, "It makes you realize that people like that care about you and it helps you make smart decisions."
Others seemed to get a laugh out of this gregarious president and his four-legged companion. "Make good choices, Quill," a student yelled as they passed Leith.
"See, they listen to me," he responded (Woodhouse, Inside Higher Ed, 11/10).
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