The conference of educators, students, elected leaders, health officials and law enforcement authorities took place just a short stroll from the Mankato bar where Amanda Jax, 21, drank so much that she later died.
Suzanne Williams said it's up to the more than 300 people sitting in the room, sipping coffee and nibbling on hotel muffins, to eclipse that tragedy with a more positive message.
"To be quite frank, I don't want to be known as the community that drinks too much. I don't want to be known as the community that doesn't do anything," said Williams. "We have so much more to be proud of. So much more. Don't let this be the defining issue for your community. Let the solutions be your defining issue."
Williams knows the problem from experience. She is vice president at Minnesota State University, Moorhead. In 2003, Moorhead student Jason Reinhardt drank himself to death on his 21st birthday. Another Moorhead student, Patrick Kycia, was drunk and disoriented when he drowned in the Red River in 2005.
Williams said it takes such tragedies to wake the public up to the dangers of drinking, and get behind solutions such as curbing advertisements that steer young people toward heavy drinking.
"We've got ads by bars that are touting, 'Show your MSUM student ID.' It actually says that. 'Ladies drink free,' or 'Show your student ID and get two for one, three for one, belly buster.' You know what I'm talking about."
University officials are working with legislators to give universities power to contact parents when students violate campus drug and alcohol policies.
Williams said the efforts of the university and city leaders in Moorhead have helped reduce the number of students who admit on surveys that they drink large quantities of booze in a short amount of time. But she says the percentage is still higher than the state average.
“I don't want to be known as the community that drinks too much.”Suzanne Williams, VP at Minnesota State University, Moorhead
A student panel at the Mankato summit offered insights about what they think might work to address the complexities of over-drinking.
MSU Mankato senior Andrew Miller said officials should do a better job of consulting with the targets of their message.
"Talk to us. Talk to the students. If it's our problem, we want to have that dialogue," said Miller. "I don't understand the importance of bringing in a keynote speaker from Moorhead, or talking to university officials. Talk to the students. We want to talk about it, to be quite honest."
Miller also objected to the idea of giving universities permission to go straight to students' parents.
"We're 18, 19, 20. I'm 23 years old. I'm still an undergraduate. I don't want my mom called if I get in trouble," said Miller. "If, by now, I'm not an adult willing to take on the responsibility of what I do wrong, you've lost me. I'm wasting my time. I'm obviously not going to become an adult."
The bar that served Amanda Jax closed this week because of lease and liquor license challenges. Prosecutors declined to pursue charges, but Jax's family is poised to file a civil suit against the owners and the friends who failed to help the unconscious 21-year-old.
Another Mankato State student, Douha Seit, warned that events like this summit risk being dismissed by people if the message is tied to past problems, like the deaths of Jax, Jason Reinhardt and others.
"It really bites how we start hearing about these safety issues and problems after some accidents or unfortunate events take place," said Seit. "In my opinion, education on your safety and your well-being should be more proactive. Right now it's more reactive."
"It's never too late," Seit added, "but when something's reactive, more than likely people think it's just information shoved down your throat, and not really trying to educate you."
Seit said the message is often lost on people who hear it for the first time when they reach college.
"It needs to be engraved in people's minds at a very, very young age," said Seit. "If you see your kids picking up ants and about to eat them, tell them to drop the ants, and tell them that alcohol is also bad for you. That young."
Organizers collected dozens of ideas from those gathered in the meeting room. They hope to compile some type of consensus about what people believe the problem is, what the sources of that problem are, and how to go about addressing it.
University and city leaders will post those ideas on a Web site, and identify volunteers willing to follow up with solutions.