HARVARD OFFICIALS HAVE FOUND few things more vexing than trying to devise an enlightened policy on campus alcohol use. Disturbed by occasional incidents in which drunken students have scuffled with police or with one another, administrators feel they must do something: The Administrative Board "admonished" seven students last year for "drunk and disorderly behavior" and required one to withdraw. But divining a policy to govern less blatant cases of abuse really makes administrators squirm. At the core of the issue is the tension between the College's role as a haven for individual liberty and free expression and as a shaper of values, So it is not surprising that officials are reluctant to tamper with alcohol regulations. They act only when they must, like when Massachusetts jacked the state's drinking age up to 20 three years ago.
Until several months ago, administrators had reason to be happy; The drinking codes they had so laboriously crafted in 1978 remained a good compromise that inspired little grumbling. Under a broad interpretation of state law, House masters could allow alcohol at parties in House facilities, so long as they were restricted to House members and their guests. Not that the College wanted to discourage campus-wide camaraderie: It was just that if all undergraduates could show up and drink, the master's tenuous legal status as a surrogate parent for his House members would lose its validity. That approach didn't bother students much; so many masters exercised a salutary and complete neglect of the codes to make interhouse booze bashes almost weekly occurrences.
But that arrangement hinged on the fact that Archie C. Epps III, dean of students, had no idea the rule was only sporadically enforced. Earlier this term, Epps said he was aware of only one case in the last three years in which alcohol was served at a House party open to students from other Houses; he has since learned differently. Some masters say Epps first became aware of the violations after students in several Houses that had enforced the rules to the letter complained to him. Another theory has Epps learning of the violations in the wake of a Mather House incident this fall in which a student at a party with alcohol fell down a staircase and cracked his head open.
Either way, Epps now means business. If you don't believe that, just ask the students of Quincy and Mather Houses-Epps recently denied them alcohol permits for open Halloween parties that you could have found in at least a handful of Houses last year. Dean Fox allow that "It's apparent there have been come inconsistencies" in how masters applied the policy in the past; as a result, Epps is now acting to insure that no House steps outside the policy and that Harvard is not susceptible to charges of flouting the law. When the House masters meet together next week, to review alcohol policy, they will almost certainly emerge with renewed pledges to obey the no-alcohol-at-open-parties rule. This, time, they agree, Epps will make sure they mean it.
THE PROBLEM WITH the tough new approach is that it will never stamp out excessive drinking; it will merely rechannel it "into bars and onto streets," in one master's words. Harvard's cautious policy of forbidding all interhouse drinking will keep it on the right side of the law. Yet in pushing drinking away from the relatively controlled environment of House parties--where masters are expected to be present if alcohol rears its ugly head--the College's get-tough policy only redirects it to where it is most dangerous. The state's 20-year-old drinking age law actually led to an increased incidence of drunken driving accidents among teenagers. Harvard's new efforts to enforce its drinking policy and to keep the law off the University's collective back, ironically, could be equally counterproductive.
An unintended casualty of the suddenly strict enforcement of the alcohol codes will be the impact on interhouse mixing. Like it or not, students will choose a wet party over a dry one. By confining alcohol to in-House gatherings and parties in student rooms, the College effectively cordons off students from those in other House-at least on Friday and Saturday nights. Already the Student Assembly has cited grave problems organizing College-wide dances because of the alcohol ban. At an institution where separatism has emerged as a key problem in recent years, that impact is ironic indeed. Harvard can try all it wants to bridge the racial and other gaps separating the Houses. But if its policies towards activities as central to the student social environment as parties work to keep Houses apart, it will never succeed.
ONE SOLUTION DOES exist that most students and some masters seem to feel would put teeth into Harvard's policy, keep it absolutely legal, and foster none of the separatism encouraged by the tactics Epps has selected. Allow alcohol at interhouse parties-but serve it only in separate rooms to enter which students would have to show proof of age. Students would be forbidden to bring alcohol from that room.
Though some Student Assembly members, in criticizing Epps' "too restrictive" approach, have called for that policy, administrative approval is unlikely. Dean Fox says the masters rejected the idea three years ago, because they felt it would separate students along age lines and might prove "in-convenient." But separatism on an ephemeral criteria like age seems hardly a big stumbling block. Convenience, it seems, refers to the administration's wish to avoid rethinking a difficult, perhaps "inconvenient," issue like alcohol policy. Maybe the College is right--perhaps its aggressive prohibition on most campus drinking will restore legality to Harvard's alcohol policy with no ill effects. But if a student driven off-campus to drink is ever involved in an ugly incident--and it's all too easy to envision a scenario for one--College administrators could find themselves acing some tough questions.