Prevention Profiles: Take Five - Dr. Eric Davidson (Eastern Illinois University)


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Dr. Eric Davidson, Interim Director for Health and Counseling Services at Eastern Illinois University, is our guest for this month's podcast episode. During his second visit to the podcast, Eric discusses how biennial reviews can help campus programs, the similarities between substance use prevention and COVID prevention, the benefits and challenges of being involved in a statewide initiative, and more.

Rich Lucey:  Hi, I'm Rich Lucey, Senior Prevention Program Manager in DEA's Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section.  And welcome to this episode of our podcast series, Prevention Profiles: Take Five.
Our guest today is Eric Davidson from Eastern Illinois University.  So let me tell you a little bit about Eric before I welcome him onto the show.
Eric currently serves as Interim Director for Health and Counseling Services at Eastern Illinois University.  He also serves as Director of the Illinois Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Other Drugs and Violence Prevention, assisting two and four year colleges within Illinois to improve their substance misuse prevention programming. 
Eric serves the Vice President of Student Affairs in Assessment, Evaluation and Research matters and he has advised several student groups including BACCHUS, Heath Fair Planning Committee, Alpha Phi Omega, as well as serving on several masters level thesis committees.
Eric is a member of the American College Health Association's Alcohol and Drug Task Force and the NASPA Alcohol and Other Drug Knowledge Community. 
Eric earned his PhD in Health Education from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.
With that, Eric, welcome to the Podcast.
Eric Davidson:  Hi, Rich.  Hello, everyone.
Rich Lucey:  So glad to have you back on and I know it's been almost three years since we had you on the podcast series.  Actually, was the year we launched, back in 2018.  So glad to have you back and to talk about some continuing issues that are certainly relevant to colleges and universities and certainly, some new issues that are currently on the radar screen of institutions of higher education.
So let me just jump right into our first question.  Any college or university that receives Federal Financial Assistance is required to comply with the Drug Free Schools and Campuses regulations, something I'm pretty familiar with from my time as I started my federal career at the U.S. Department of Education.
And we know from those regulations that one of the requirements is for schools to conduct what's called a Biennial Review, which means basically, they need to review their prevention program's effectiveness and the consistency of their disciplinary sanctions every two years.
So how do you, and you are probably one of the most, if not most, knowledgeable practitioner I know out there on the regulations.  You've, we've got your checklist on our website as a sample for people to look at.  I know you've done trainings on it.
So with all that knowledge, how do you help schools get past this being just a federal mandate, and rather have it been seen as good prevention practice?
Eric Davidson:  Excellent.  I always like to start with what Beth Durico#, who really mentored me in this area, what she would used to say and that there's the letter of the law and there is the spirit of the law. 
And you know, a lot of people focus on the letter of the law and checking off boxes and being compliant.  But when we really look at the intent of the law and why congress created it, it really is to make our campuses healthier, it's to make our campuses safer.
And in the Biennial Review process is really a quality improvement, an evaluation assessment project; it's also a strategic planning process. 
So I like to take the words of Peter Lake and basically say, you can be compliant but not engaged in good practice in prevention.  But if you're engaged in good practice in prevention, you are more than likely going to be compliant.
So when we look at the creation of this act, you know, it was written in the late 80's, it was put into play during the days of Marky Mark, with his big hit in the fall of 1990 when I was a freshman. 
And when we look at what has happened in substance use prevention in health promotion and higher education settings, so much has changed, so much has evolved.  And I think the authors of the act really intended for us to continue to evolve and modify and adapt what we do to address substance use based upon good practice, evidence based programs, data driven planning, you know, all the things that we now associate with a good quality, comprehensive substance abuse prevention program.
And that really, probably transcends and is far more than what the letter of the law anticipated back in the late 80's.
I think that it's important for us to do it.  None of us have gotten into higher education just because the work.  Most of us get in it because we want to make a difference, we want to help our students live great lives and achieve great goals and dreams.  And substance abuse and addressing it is part of that and no one wants to have a mediocre program. 
And I think that’s where the Biennial Review really comes into play.  It allows campuses to look at their strengths, their weaknesses, what might be the opportunities, really assess what they're doing.  And then during the next Biennium period, really make some goals and some objectives and really try to enhance what they're doing in terms of programs, interventions and policies to do a much better job at making the campus healthier and safer. 
And I think, through that, that’s good prevention and that aids the compliance aspect.
Rich Lucey:  You know, I'm so happy that you've used some of the terms that you did around quality assessment, strategic planning, I mean, obviously, when I worked at the Department of Ed and I was talking to schools and the former Higher Education Center about, you know, the Biennial Review and the compliance issues and such, which was two decades ago.  I mean, that was you know, hard to believe it was, you know, 20 years or so ago. 
But you know, without being too facetious about it, part of what I would say to schools, which is exactly what you just said.  Why wouldn’t you want to take a look at your program every couple of years to make sure that its doing what you have set it out to do?
Eric Davidson:  Exactly.
Rich Lucey:  I mean, forget about the fact you have to do it, you know.
Eric Davidson: 
Right, right.  To me, it makes sense.  Our students are always changing and evolving, we should be changing and evolving with them.  We want to make sure that we're doing what we say we do.  We want to make sure that what we're doing has an impact and an effect.  And the best way of doing that is by bringing people together.
I give the analogy of the accreditation processes that our universities go through.  In many ways, a Biennial Review process is very similar.  You're collecting data.  You're analyzing what's going on.  You're making some preliminary assessments and decisions.  And then you're making recommendations on how to move forward.  Very much similar to an accreditation process.
I think the other benefit of a Biennial Review is once you have compiled all data, there's always things that you can brag about and share with the institution.  I think it’s a great communication tool with those in the institution as well as those community partners about what is really going on and what you're really doing and what seems to be effective and impactful.
And then it also sets up a situation where, you know, you identify some needs, you identify some wants and from that, you can have some communications with potential funders, donors, other sources of funding and really continue to strengthen your prevention programming.
Rich Lucey:  The other thing, also without mentioning the spiff by name...
Eric Davidson: 
Rich Lucey:  The strategic preventions framework, obviously, you talked about the evaluation aspect of it, which is a critical part of the strategic planning process.  So I'm really happy that you mentioned that. 
Also, I am extremely happy that you got in a reference to 80's music and I do expect some type of reference to Star Wars as we move on.
Eric Davidson:  Definitely.
Rich Lucey:  So with that, let me go on to the second question, which really is the, what I consider the first part of the regulations.  I always kind of broke it down into the two parts, and that has to do with the policies.
So in addition to the Biennial Review, the other part of the regulations requires schools to distribute, annually, their alcohol and drug policy to all students, faculty members and staff.
And I know there are challenges with that.  So, what, from your perspective, are one or two of the biggest challenges that schools experience around this part of the regulation?
Eric Davidson:  Definitely.  This is the one area of the Drug Free Schools and Campuses Act that is really well written and spelled out.
A lot of the other parts of the act are kind of vague and ambiguous and left up to the institution to make some assumptions of what meets the criteria and what doesn’t. 
A think a lot of schools that I've worked with make an assumption that they have all of the content, they have all of the information that is needed and required and may end up having a notice that’s a half page or a page in length.
And really, when you sit down and you look at all of the content that needs to go in regarding the local, state and federal sanctions, the names and characteristics of the substances, the listing of consequences that may happen to students who are in violation and all the stuff that needs to go into that notice; it's much more than a page.  It's much more than two pages.  It probably should be no less than ten pages, depending upon what size of font and things like that.
So I see a lot of schools going oh, we have met it and they've not hit the five criteria that are required.
I think another issue that a lot of schools have is distributions.  We have not gotten a lot of guidance from the department as to what constitutes good distribution and bad distribution. 
You know, up until 2006 electronic email distribution was not given any guidance whatsoever.  We got a little bit more, saying we could use email as long as the entire body of the policy notice was in the body of the email.  But it's only been within the last two or three years and a final program review finding for a college that there was something in black and white that said, you can send email out to all mandatory recipients and simply put a url link linking to a website.
So you know, we're seeing more and more schools move that way.  It's making life a lot easier for schools.  But you know, making sure that we're distributing it right, that everybody gets it at least once within an annual term of 12 months.
So unlike Clery, where there may be one large distribution to everybody who's on the roster on September 1st, this requirement says you've still got to follow up.  So when you have new students in the spring, they need to get the notice.  New students in the summer, they need to get the notice.  When you have new faculty and staff join after your preliminary and major distribution, they need to somehow get it.
So it's making sure that people understand that there are some differences between this regulation and the Clery Regs, particularly in terms of distribution.
One of the things that I have a conversation with about, and people, you know, kind of scratch their heads and go oh, we hadn’t thought about that is that everybody who gets one credit of academic credit or more, needs to get this notice.
And with so many colleges and universities partnering with high schools and offering dual credits, one of the questions I often ask is are you getting the policy to those high school students that are now earning credit from your institution?
And a lot of times, it's something that very few people have actually thought about or considered.  So you know, there's always some areas of improvement in growth.
Rich Lucey:  Yeah.  Well, I know that when we were in the process of building with our web team,, one of the sections I was adamant about have including on the website, and its prominently on the homepage, is the Drug Scheduling and the Penalty section.  And our web content manager, who gives us our analytics every month, I think would agree with me that, without fail, that section of the website is visited the most often. 
Eric Davidson:  I bet.
Rich Lucey:  And I attribute that because that is one of the five different sections that have to be part of the policy, which are, you know, what are the sanctions for violating the policy and a lot of people will turn to the Federal Trafficking Penalties and such and include that.
So it doesn’t surprise me.
Eric Davidson:  Yeah.
Rich Lucey:  That so many people are looking at that section of the website.
Eric Davidson:  And I would say thank you for doing that.  In my younger days, I was more intimately involved in the development and creation of my institutions Biennial Review and that would be one of the more painful experiences.  Because, I'm sitting here, I'm not a lawyer, I don’t understand judicial code, I don’t understand judicial sanctioning.  I would try to get help from our university campus police.  I would be trying to contact our local state's attorney and you know, can you look at this over and can you make sure its updated and everything's where it needs to be and a lot of times it was difficult getting that help.
So knowing that there's a resource available that people can go to, to pull that down is really great and I would say on behalf of the field, thank you for doing that because I think that really does fill a vital need and role. 
Rich Lucey:  Absolutely.  Before I move onto the third question I have for you, kind of an adjunct question, it does relate to the Biennial Review.  I meant to bring that up before, is the whole issue of every two years doing this.
And I know that when we were creating the compliance document, that is still downloaded pretty frequently and visited on the website, which I'm glad, even though it's not yet been updated by another agency.  You know, the guts of it are still really important and relevant.
I wanted to get you to chime in on this idea that typically people think that it only happens in the even numbered years.  And I think that what we found when we were developing the document, is because the Regs were enacted in an even numbered year, 1990, that’s why people thought it had to be every two years in an even numbered year.  But we kept saying no, if you hadn’t done one in a while, first of all, do it.  And if its 2021, and it's an odd numbered year, that’s okay, just, the idea is do it. 
Eric Davidson:
  Exactly, exactly.  And it's one of the differences between the Drug Free Schools and the Clery Act.  Clery is very specific, it's very defined, it's very prescribed.  Everything is pretty well written out.
The Drug Free Schools Act is somewhat vague and ambiguous and as you said, it's really a matter of practice because we first were required to start doing things in 1990, the first Biennial Reviews were expected to be put together in 1992.  And while it’s a matter of practice and probably tradition, there's nothing in the regs that specify that you have to do it every even year.  The important thing is, is that you're doing it every two years.
Rich Lucey:  Right.
Eric Davidson:  I have talked with a lot of schools that had been neglect and realized their neglect and you know, I'll typically say to them, start where you're at.  And if it's an odd year, work backwards and do what you need to do to cover the last two years. 
I always get asked, well, is it a federal year, is it a fiscal year, is it supposed to be done by June 30th, September 30th, December 31st?  And again, I think this is just one of those matters of tradition.  You know, many people say you have to have it done by December 31st and you know, you cover the two previous academic years.
But I have known schools that are under trimesters or under the quarter system and based upon how they operate, the fiscal year doesn’t really work well.  The federal fiscal year doesn’t work well and the calendar year doesn’t work well. 
And I think as long as you are consistent with your practice and you maintain that consistency over time, I don’t think, if auditors come, they will give you that difficult of a time over it.
Rich Lucey:  I agree.  And that’s really, really good advice so thank you for doing that. 
So let me get back onto my third formal question.  So we are obviously coming off one of the most momentous years in recent history for so many reasons.  And I mentioned, you know, in introducing you, one of the hats, or probably the biggest hat you're wearing right now is Interim Director of Health and Counseling Services there at university.  So from your perspective leading the schools Health and Counseling Services, looking in the rearview mirror, and I know it, you know, we're only down the road a little bit from 2020, but what are some of your lessons learned as it relates to preventing not only COVID-19, but also that interception with preventing substance misuse among college students? 
Eric Davidson: 
Yeah.  In addition to directing Health and Counseling, I also led our Emergency Management Team.  So you know, it's been real interesting reflecting on the COVID experience in a lot of the parallels with my substance abuse experiences.
And you know, in many ways, I'd like to say, if you look at what your institution has done to address COVID and all the people and all the units that have been brought together and all the collaborations that have been built, and looking at things from a systems approach and looking and figuring out how to address COVID from a socio-ecological approach and looking at individuals and groups and the larger community and public policy, a lot of the things that I think institutions have done well are the same actions and the same activities and the same functions and roles that those institutions that have addressed substance use successfully have employed.
I mean, really, the things that we say are great comprehensive substance abuse prevention, are the same for great comprehensive COVID use. 
There's just a lot of parallels and I really think, if you've mastered one, you should be able to apply it to the other and be able to master the other. 
There really are a lot of lessons learned from each of the two domains that are applicable to the other. 
I think collaboration is key.  You know, a lot of times, there are campuses who will leave the role of substance abuse up to one person and that person kind of becomes the alcohol czar and they're expected to take care of the whole institution.
Well, if we had taken that approach with COVID, that institution would have failed greatly.  They just would not have been successful.
So I think collaboration is key among key constituencies.  I think its key with off campus partners, you know.  Many campuses are probably partnering and communicating with their local county health department and when we think about substance use, that same type of collaboration and communication is really important and needed.
I think one of the nice things about COVID is that very few individuals have taken sole responsibility and ownership.  You know, it is something that has been institutionalized and we find that universities that institutionalize their prevention are effective and do great work.  And again, another parallel there. 
I think the other that I've been thinking about lately, regards moral leadership; the ability and the courage to do the right thing.  The ability to make hard decisions and take difficult actions in light of a good number of individuals not being happy about it.
You know, closing down residence halls, limiting numbers of people living in residence halls, closing down dining centers, you know, the things that often make a traditional campus a traditional campus and add life to it.  We've not been able to do as well or as great or as frequent as we would typically do during any other time.
And you know, that’s been hard on our students.  It's been hard on our staff and faculty.  It's not been popular.  You know, people have made some hard decisions on some things that are unpopular and it's probably greatly impacted the number of positives that a campus has seen.
So again, a whole lot of similarities.  I think there's a lot of things that can be interchanged. 
Rich Lucey:  You know, I'm so glad that you mentioned those parallels to substance misuse prevention because they are many and they are great. 
You know, we talk about public health crisis that COVID-19 has, you know, we have faced that public health crisis and yet, I have been continuing to say to our colleagues as well as those who are meeting for the first time, let's not forget that substance misuse in general society let alone on college campuses has been a public health crisis for a long time.
Eric Davidson: 
Rich Lucey:  And you know, I channel, you know, I channel Fran Harding, my mentor all the time.  Our common, you know, good friends and colleagues, Joan Masters, Dolores Cimini, Catherine Wester, Jason Kilmer, David Arnold, you know, all of those folks in the field talk about the fact that you know, we are the ones who are best prepared to help with this crisis because we know from working in prevention, you know, around substance misuse, that suits us very well to help with this public crisis, this public health crisis as well.
Eric Davidson:  Very much so.  I'm so thankful for all the training and skills and knowledge that have equipped me for substance abuse prevention because again, as leading our Emergency Management Team, and now being involved with testing and getting ready for vaccination, you know, a lot of those public health skills, a lot of those prevention skills; I'm employing every single day to try to advance our COVID mitigation prevention and intervention initiatives.  And again, hand in hand. 
You know, on our campus, one of the concerns that we had, like many other campuses would have been and will probably be in the coming weeks as it warms up, you know, off campus parties and how COVID is spreading from the off campus parties.
And you know, with threat comes opportunity and the threat of COVID presented an opportunity to start having some conversations with our off campus partners and community about off campus alcohol use and how we're addressing it.  And kind of revisiting some of the lessons that we had learned when, you know, we had some federal grants to look at under aged drinking a few years back.
So despite the threat, we found the opportunity and we feel that we were able to be effective at addressing some of our off campus drinking. 
Rich Lucey:  So let me switch gears off of COVID for a bit and go onto my fourth question, which has to do with one of the other hats that you wear and that’s Director of the Illinois Higher Education Center.
I've been honored to have been asked a couple of times to present to your members and such and really happy to do that.
So, you're involve with, you know, as Director of the Illinois Higher Ed Center, a statewide initiative around preventing drug misuse among college students.  I started my entire career overseeing your state's initiatives on this very issue.
So what are some of the benefits and challenges that you, you know, have, can arise from being involved in a state wide initiative?
Eric Davidson:  I think the greatest challenge is getting to meet other people.  Earlier, you had a whole string of people that we work with and we associate with.  And the reality of it is, is if it weren’t for state initiatives, I probably wouldn’t know as many of those people and I probably wouldn’t know them as deeply as I do.
You know, I think state initiatives help breakdown silos.  I think they facilitate networking and interactions, which I think is really critical, whether you're running a statewide level initiative or if you are a practitioner on your campus.  It's important to break the silos and interact with other people.
When I was a younger professional and I was more of a member or representative of the Illinois Higher Education Center's initiatives, you know, I was able to develop some great friendships with some other providers within the state, which really lead to a lot of sharing and interacting.
You know, if I was having a problem, if I was having a challenge, I was able to find someone else in the state that I could call and say I know that you've attended to this or you've dealt with this before, can you kind of help me walk through it, provide me with some of your lessons learned.
You know, often times, there were other people that we having the same challenges and the same experiences so it was refreshing to know that I wasn’t the only person who was having difficulties with their administration or getting prevention to be a priority or figuring out how to fund a group of student peer educators to get to the national conference.
So you know, that collaboration and coordination between professionals and institutions not only helped me grow, but also helped me grow my local programs and initiatives.
You know, some of the challenges are networking and sharing is hard, making substance abuse a priority can be a challenge, especially in today's age, when we're dealing with COVID, we're dealing with mental health, you know, decreased enrollments, funding issues.  There's just a lot of things on administrators plates and practitioners plates, vying for their time and I think that’s one of the benefits of a state initiative, is it helps to continue to put the issue of substance use prevention on the forefront.  It shows that it’s a priority, it’s a need and helps provide some reinforcement to the local providers.
You know, as funding has become more competitive, I think the other great thing about a state initiative is that it helps pull some resources.  It provides training and professional development for professionals that otherwise might not get.  Some of the latest trends and practices and evidence based programs, because money's tight and you know, COVID has been good in that its helped develop some innovation.
So I'm hoping that, you know, the state initiatives will be able to kind of ride the wave and use what we've learned and continue to be able to expand our reach and our connections to the many constituents that many of the state initiatives have.
Rich Lucey:  I know that, of course, when I worked in New York, just the sheer size of the state, you know, presented geographic challenges and we always ran into things like you know, the issues for New York City or Long Island, were seemingly different than those in the Adirondack Mountains and out west in Buffalo and Rochester and such. 
With a state like Illinois, do you find similar challenges, with like say Chicago as an epicenter, just like New York City was the epicenter.  We used to say, you know, there's a lot more to New York State than just the city.
Eric Davidson:  Yeah, yeah.  We see that and in Illinois, the big joke is that interstate 80 kind of separates Chicago and northern Illinois from the rest of the two thirds of the state. 
But you know, we definitely see geographical differences with schools from different regions.  You know, there's diversity between four year institutions and community colleges, privates and publics.  In our system, we've started attracting some nursing schools.
So I would say that our group of affiliates are very diverse and eclectic and you know, when we were meeting physically, it would be a challenge to get everybody to come to one spot in the state because, really, when I think from one tip to the other tip, its easily a six or seven hour drive difference.
And even then culture, like in Chicagoland area, if it's over 45 minute drive for them, even though its only 20 miles away based upon traffic, they won't probably come.
And downstate, you know, they'll drive up to two to three hours away, comfortable and not blink an eye. 
Rich Lucey:  Yeah.
Eric Davidson:  So it is a challenge and hopefully, we'll be able to leverage the technology to overcome some of those barriers and pull people together with more like characteristics and identities and get them to share more than what we've been able to do in the past. 
And again, that’s the opportunity from this crisis called COVID.
Rich Lucey:  Yep.  Well as we start to wrap up the interview, I've come to the fifth question, which is more or less the common question that I ask all of the guest on the show. 
And that’s, you know, you're words of encouragement.  What would you say to encourage the professionals who are working to prevent drug misuse among college students and the students themselves?  We know they listen as well and what do you say to them?
Eric Davidson:  I had an idea and then I was going to like how do I bring the Star Wars in.  I was going to say always in motion...
Rich Lucey:  Well I was waiting for you, you were going to say may the force be with you.
Eric Davidson:  Is the future, may the force be with you, yeah. 
I would say don’t give up, have a growth mindset.  Really try to stay away from a black and white mindset.  Really be open to growth, be open to new ideas. 
I'm a child of prevention, meaning that I grew up in prevention programming in [inaudible] and I stayed with it when I was in college. 
And you know, my experiences led me, plus my family experiences, I kind of had a very black and white view of the world.  And when I came to college life, and started working, I think I probably had a more adversarial approach to bar owners, liquor store owners, you know, the industry.
And it took me awhile to overcome that black and white mindset and really develop a growth mindset and see that you know, they're business folks, they're trying to make a living.  They're really not happy with the scene that is going on and you know, they're just tired of being blamed all the time and being seen as the devil.
And once I took that growth mindset and really changed that attitude and looked at them differently, my relations with them got a little bit better, more collaborative, more positive.
And really when I think about that mindset, not only with the industry but other folks on campus, other potential partners in the community, being more open minded, more flexible, more malleable, less black and white, less concrete, has really helped me become a better practitioner, a better administrator.
And I really wish it was something I had developed and grown into much, much earlier in my career because I think I would have had far more successes on my campus.
So I would say be open minded, work on growing, you know, figure out your biases and really try to work through them.  and lately, my kids are going through the Leader In Me program at school, which is kind of a derivative of Steven Cubby's work, so you know, lately, I've been hearing my kids say a lot, and I've been saying to myself a lot, you know, seek first to understand and then be understood and that seems to be really great advice.
And even though I've known it for years, I'm living it now and it seems to be much more productive. 
Rich Lucey:  Well, you've given some great practical advice throughout the interview and just hearing you in this last  you know, response to this last question, it's almost like the, what does the, you know, years of experience professional Eric Davidson, tell the entry level, you know, professional Eric Davidson. 
Eric Davidson:  Yeah.
Rich Lucey: 
You know, it sort of is that, you know, if I knew then what I know now, but here's what I know now so let me impart it.
Eric Davidson:  Exactly.  Exactly, some day there may be a DeLorean that will allow me to go back to 1994 and give that advice to myself.  But for now, I'll just have to stay where I'm at and dream of the force.
Rich Lucey:  Yeah, well you are a fantastic guest, Eric.  I've really enjoyed...
Eric Davidson:  Thank you.
Rich Lucey:  Having you on this episode.  Again, great advice, some terrific takeaways for our listeners on some very, extremely timely and relevant issues that schools need to be dealing with.
So again, very conversational, it's just so great to talk to you.
Eric Davidson:  Yes.
Rich Lucey:  On these various issues.
Eric Davidson:  It's always good to be with you, Rich, and talk and thanks for having me on the show and thank you for giving me this high opportunity because it really has been kind of a highlight of my week and I'm pretty excited about it.  So thank you for having me again.
Rich Lucey:  Absolutely and for our listeners, we really appreciate you tuning in to this episode as well as all of our past episodes at the podcast series, which you can of course find on
So with that to our listeners, I will say thank you for listening and have a great day.