MADISON, Wis. — The University of Wisconsin-Madison's ranking as the nation's eighth-best party school was met Monday not with a toast but a sigh by those who work to curb underage drinking and the problems that go with it.
"It's always unfortunate to make the rankings in a negative way," said Mark Woulf, a 2010 UW-Madison graduate who now serves as the city's food and alcohol policy coordinator. "Yes, we get negative press for the drinking culture in Wisconsin and the university of, but the vast majority of students who do drink do it responsibly."
The University of Iowa was designated by The Princeton Review as the nation's top party school in its annual listing on a list determined by 126,000 students in a nationwide survey. UW-Madison's ranking increased from 13 a year ago to eight, just behind Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and ahead of Penn State University in Happy Valley, Pa.
Alcohol-related "partying" is only a small part of the college experience for most UW-Madison students, said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, executive director of University Health Services on the UW-Madison campus.
Alcohol-related disciplinary referrals and the number of students taken to detox have been relatively stable for recent years, but "high-risk alcohol use remains a pressing public health problem which negatively impacts campus safety and student's academic progress and well-being," Orman said in an email statement.
City of Madison and university officials have taken a number of steps in recent years to try and address the drinking problem, including passing an ordinance in 2012 designed to crack down on large house parties and working to provide more entertainment options for students who aren't of legal drinking age.
A number of educational efforts have also been undertaken. Starting this fall in Madison, all incoming students will be expected to complete an online education program about alcohol abuse.
Given that changing the college-aged drinking culture is difficult, the focus instead has turned to teaching students to take responsibility for themselves and their friends and knowing the penalties and risks they face for their choices, Woulf said.
"You're not going to stop college-aged drinking. I think that's pretty clear," Woulf said. "If you're between the ages of 18 and 22 and going to school anywhere, you're going to experiment with underage drinking."
By at least two measurements, attempts to cut down on problematic drinking on campus are having some effect. According to UW-Madison Police, the number of citations for underage alcohol drinking and the number of students sent to detox are both at five-year lows. In 2012, there were 709 tickets for underage consumption, down from 952 in 2008. Likewise, the number of students sent to detox in 2012 was 115, down from 122 in 2008.
The Madison Police Department also works closely with the university to address alcohol use. The officer assigned to the area near campus where fraternity and sorority houses are located works with the Greek system to educate them on alcohol-related issues, said Katie Crawley, spokeswoman for Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. The community policing team also works directly with bar owners and staff in the campus area and beyond, she said.
"When I started my freshman year, there was no talk in orientation or any sort of things in the dorm about alcohol, even though we all knew coming in what the reputation was of Madison as a party school," Woulf said.
A bill in the Legislature up for a hearing next week before the Assembly's Colleges and Universities Committee addresses another problem related to underage drinking. Known as the "Responsible Action Policy" proposal, it is designed to encourage young people to seek and obtain emergency assistance for themselves and others without fear of getting busted for underage drinking.
Under the bipartisan measure, a student who seeks and obtains emergency assistance and cooperates with police would not be subject to serious disciplinary actions from the university or police for their own alcohol consumption.
Bill sponsors say there are nearly 200 campuses nationwide — including all other schools in the Big Ten— that have some form of the law in place.
The proposal is endorsed by the Tavern League of Wisconsin, United Council of UW Students, and Associated Students of Madison. It is sponsored by Democratic Sen. Fred Risser, of Madison, and Republican Rep. Joan Ballweg, of Markesan.