On the rocks in every way

April 8, 2005

Drinking has long been an element of the scholarly life, but is alcohol addiction among academics increasing as their workload rises? Anna Fazackerley reports on a delicate subject.

An academic cycled home from his Oxford college one evening. The next day the puzzled professor - a brilliant history scholar - told friends that, throughout his journey, he had seen strange lights coming towards him. His colleagues knew better than to wonder whether there had been some sort of alien presence on the A roads. It was clear that the academic, having consumed an alarmingly large amount of wine and cognac, had cycled all the way home on the wrong side of the road.

The media and the Government may be obsessed with binge drinking among the young, but students are not the only people in universities who indulge in some seriously heavy drinking.

Although there has been no survey of alcoholism in academia, it is not difficult to find anecdotal evidence of a problem. Alcohol is an integral part of many academics' lives. One scientist from Oxford University, when asked whether he knows any academics who have an alcohol problem, replies:

"Do I know any who don't?"

He explains that many academics treat their college as a sort of gentlemen's club, adding: "Frankly, colleges are, to many people, an excuse for an awful lot of boozing."

Gillian Evans, professor of medieval history at Cambridge, made the decision early on in her academic career that it would be safest to avoid alcohol completely. "In Oxbridge colleges, the feasts held six times a year are really Edwardian banquets. You're talking about eight courses with a different wine with every course, starting with a sherry and finishing with cognac for those still standing," she says.

Nonetheless, Evans believes that the majority of university drinking is a relatively "civilised accompaniment" to the business of academia.

Keith Dockray, a retired senior lecturer in history at Huddersfield University, argues that drink helps to oil the wheels of learning. He recalls evening seminars for masters students when the caretaker would throw the class out at nine o'clock and they would all adjourn to the pub.

"Usually the second half would be better than the first half in the classroom," he says.

There is a bleaker side, though. Many academics can name colleagues who have killed themselves by drinking too much. Patrick Wormald, the much-liked historian who played an important role in redefining the history of Anglo-Saxon England, died last year at the age of 57 after a long struggle with alcoholism.

His friend Alexander Grant, a reader in medieval history at Lancaster University, recalls: "It was dark nights of the soul. Patrick's stuff was brilliant, but he was always criticising it. When you doubt yourself, it is easy to have a drink."

Grant argues that academics are not very different from actors when it comes to alcohol. "Many of us are like Richard Burton or Peter O'Toole.

Like actors, we stand up and present ourselves to students," he explains.

"After lectures you wonder, 'Have I put on a good performance?' and the alcohol helps the feeling of deflation when you come down off the adrenalin high."

Wormald is far from the only alcoholic academic Grant has known - and all of them suffered from a feeling that their work was not quite good enough.

But casual observers and experts agree that in today's university - particularly if it is not a collegiate institution - this sort of habitual, destructive drinking is quite likely to be a solitary affair.

Leslie Gofton, a sociologist at Newcastle University who has researched consumption and social change, explains: "When I was a young lecturer, 30 years ago, you were expected to go down to the pub on a regular basis, but I can't remember the last time I did that with my colleagues. In general, I would say the level of social drinking among academics isn't what it used to be."

He points out that even the heaviest drinkers on campus used to want to be part of a group, but now academics exhibiting signs of addiction are more likely to do much of their drinking in secret.

One factor in alcohol-related problems could be the university itself. Many academics say that they have been put under extreme pressure by the culture of performance targets, heavy teaching loads and increased administration, which can drive a person to drink too much.

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, has studied stress in different occupations.

He has found academia to be among the worst.

"My own view is that people reflect stress levels in different ways," he says. "Some will consistently work long hours, some will damage relationships outside work, and certainly some will consume alcohol."

Griffith Edwards, founder of the National Addiction Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, agrees that a person under pressure may resort to drink. He describes academia as a world of "chronic strain". But he emphasises that academia probably does not have a disproportionate number of people with drinking problems, although he has no shortage of stories about inebriated academics.

"I've seen a bright young academic fall out of a window drunk," he says.

"I've seen an older academic who tore his career to bits. I've seen a distinguished senior academic who was totally unstable at evening functions - he was very sexually provocative, aggressive and would often say the wrong thing."

Edwards has had a number of frantic calls in the middle of the night from university managers who want an academic to be signed off as sick and removed from the premises as quickly as possible.

He argues that, "while not making a hearty, pompous job of it", academics should remember that they are role models with a general ethical responsibility to students in their care - and that means not getting totally drunk and making sexual advances.

Like many experts in the field, Edwards is not sure that universities necessarily need to be on high alert for staff with alcohol problems.

However, he wants drinking to be brought out of the shadows.

He urges academics to take a proper look at their drinking habits. "The trouble with alcohol is that talking about it is often seen as preachy. But this is a health issue. It is about having a good life. Discussing drinking should no longer be taboo."

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