When construction workers dug up the Yard last year for dorm renovations, they unearthed hundreds of wine bottles from Harvard's earliest days. For as long as this University has been around, alcohol has been a part of it.
This summer, the Massachusetts legislature did its best to end that tradition, when it eliminated a longstanding loophole in the state's legal drinking codes.
Previously, it was illegal to serve a minor in Massachusetts. But Massachusetts law contained no rules against drinking alcohol that, say, dropped from the sky--a curious phenomenon that seemed to happen often in Cambridge. The Puritan holdovers in the State House have made it officially illegal for minors to possess alcohol, meaning even Corona from the clouds is off limits.
The new alcohol law places a new burden on proctors and tutors, most of whom were comfortable with the longstanding look-the-other-way approach to alcohol policing. So far, the administration has placed a renewed emphasis, at least verbally, on enforcing the rules.
It's a shame that Harvard has to jump through more hoops now to observe, or make the pretense of observing, one of our nation's most ill-conceived laws. The mandatory drinking age has always been a model of paternalism and inequity. We've all heard the complaint: An 18-year-old American male can fight and die for his country, but can't come home and drink a legal beer.
Fairness aside, the new law has immediate, practical consequences for Harvard. For one, it limits the College's ability to advise about drinking. The administration has already prohibited the peer group Project ADD ("Alcohol and Drug Dialogue") from continuing to hold mandatory informational meetings in first-year proctor groups. College officials balked at counseling students to break the law "responsibly," and feared that the program might make Harvard susceptible to liability suits. The decision raises the question: Is it better to preach abstinence or responsibility? We tend to think counseling is preferable to simply pretending a problem doesn't exist.
The de-sanctioning of official advice may bring about a frightening consequence of the alcohol law: an increased campus health risk. Under-21 students who got seriously ill from drinking once could turn to tutors and proctors. Now, their friends may be reluctant to seek assistance, since asking for help will mean admitting a transgression.
Nearly every weekend, a few excessively drunk students wind up in the emergency room. But every time an ambulance is used, pertinent information is recorded and, eventually, relayed to the administration. So students may also be less likely to seek crucial medical assistance if it leads to getting "busted" for possession.
Harvard should encourage continued communication by assuring that if students seek help in a medical emergency, their punishment for drinking will be lenient. The administration should continue to support alcohol advising programs, in spite of fears of legal libility. After all, campus groups have been counseling about drug abuse for years.
The law is the law, paternalistic as it may be. But Harvard should do its best to ensure that a rule designed for protection doesn't meet its potential for destruction.