Please, Sir, Could You Drink Somewhat Less?


Thanks to alcohol, a friend of mine celebrated the wee hours of Halloween at Mt. Auburn Hospital just over a month ago. As his escort from a masquerade party to the emergency room, my spookiest moments were conversations with real nurses, decidedly less seductive than those we left behind, and real doctors who, stuck with the dregs of weekend duties, were in no mood to dance. The trick of that weekend was that party abundance, a rare treat, came with an abundance of excess. Twelve students were admitted to University Health Services (UHS) for alcohol abuse in two days, making it the busiest weekend so far this year, according to Director of UHS David S. Rosenthal ’57.

Halloween horrors like these are the reason that the Committee to Address Alcohol and Health was created, with the daunting responsibility to “reduce excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol abuse” by “review[ing] all institutional prevention, education, outreach and treatment services.” I say daunting, and certainly unenviable, because I doubt that any committee could have prevented my friend’s sojourn at UHS. He generally drank responsibly and thought that he knew his limits. On that night, however, as he struggled through the senior year rat-race to find a sweet gig for next fall, he set out to get blitzed. The $300+ ambulance ride was not part of the plan, of course, but he craved some temporary amnesia and the itch to dance his cares away. Alcohol delivered.

University Provost Steven E. Hyman wisely acknowledges that among dangerous cases involving alcohol, most drunkenness is deliberate and most bingers already know alcohol’s dangers. The committee, he told The Crimson, is “starting from the position that students carry understanding about alcohol but don’t always act on it.”

This recognition should not diminish the importance of education about responsible drinking, of course, given that some students have virgin livers and little knowledge of alcohol, particularly in the Yard. Inexperience surely played a role in the fact that first-years were three times as likely as upperclass students to be admitted to UHS for alcohol abuse this September. The College’s current abstinence-only approach is little more than negligence masquerading as naivete.

In an interview, Assistant Dean of Freshmen James N. Mancall agreed with my abstinence-only characterization of current College policy but warned that Massachusetts state law prohibits officers of the University from appearing to acquiesce in underage drinking—casting an ominous legal gray over their ability to teach responsible partying. But healthcare providers are legally sanctioned to provide medical advice on alcohol, according to Rosenthal, the director of UHS, because the law recognizes that student health and safety, not discipline, are UHS’s sole responsibilities.

The statutory straightjacket on officers of the University makes it critical that UHS serve students the ABC’s of alcohol abuse. The College and UHS should work this year to create a realistic and unflinching health program that can begin next fall. It should include a lively presentation during orientation week and engaging outreaches in first-year dorms and upperclass Houses. If the program’s organizers can recruit upperclass students 21 years-old and older to help lead the program, its messages may be more likely to stick.

Cultural Beer Goggles

Most students, however, have already heard many of the warnings UHS might impart—such as “beer before liquor, never been sicker;” if you are lighter in weight, you are more likely to be a lightweight with alcohol (fancy that); and even if a party punch does not taste saturated with alcohol, it probably is—as your liver will be after a few cups.

The allure of room-spinning and responsibility-dissolving drunkenness lurks deep in the national student ethos, and save for a cultural lobotomy—something beyond the reach of any committee—stories like my friend’s are here to stay. Movies from Animal House to Old School glorify drunken debauchery, traditions of fraternity and sorority life institutionalize it, and reliance on substance-abuse for liberation within the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s—whether from authority, inhibition or culpability—lends it legitimacy among social and intellectual elites.

All this, and a surfeit of dangerous drinking, Harvard’s social culture shares with universities nationwide. The unique bipolarity of our campus’s social scene, however, takes root in the very traits that Harvard’s selective admissions process encourages. Many students who survive Byerly Hall owe their success to their unrelenting superegos, flogging them onward towards ever more precocious achievement. Torn between an exceptionality they love and a normalcy few others will acknowledge, Harvard students find themselves attracted to a manic social scene that is stodgy by week and unmoored by weekend. Dr. Perfection and Mr. Lush co-exist tensely somewhere between Harvard’s academic grind and the wassailing grind-fest of Harvard State University’s parties.

Inside the sweaty walls of a Harvard weekend, drinking logic often defies the basic premise of social norms programs: that if students overestimate their peers’ drinking, they will drink more than they would otherwise. Instead, there’s a part of every partier that wants to be an exception to stereotypes of straight-edged Harvard. All the better, for some, that a full 68 percent of Harvard students did not drink five or more drinks during a typical two-week period in 2002, according to a National College Health Assessment survey. That only steels their minoritarian dash. After all, what better way to drown dorky Harvard stereotypes—and dorkier Harvard realities—than to ape our non-Ivy League peers and co-opt the carouser’s cachet?

Unless the committee can redefine state school cool—fat chance—then there’s little hope of using social norms to dissuade many students from drinking like Dionysus.

Whoa There, Partier

Even if most Harvard drunkenness cannot be massaged out of campus culture, damage control may be easier here than anywhere else. When heavy drinking cannot be prevented, responsible partiers might intervene before drunkenness becomes alcohol poisoning. Prefects and members of Crimson Key are renowned for their presence on the weekend prowl, and given their ambassadorial responsibilities for the University, the College could mandate that their leadership design a training program on safe partying and safe party hosting that they would then administer to their members.

If approached realistically, such a program could encourage prefects and members of Crimson Key to make gentle suggestions to party-goers and party hosts when fetes they attend grow out of control. Both groups have their notoriously irresponsible members, of course, but the responsible majority could certainly help restore order: they could implore hapless hosts to mind the alcohol, man the door to control crowds and deny drinks to revelers who no longer recognize what or how much they are drinking. These trend-setters could also urge the friends of far-gone guests to walk their wounded home—or, in the worst cases, to UHS.

More underutilized still, however, are the officers of the University who students live with and know best. Because proctors, House Masters and senior tutors have divided duties to students—at once disciplinarians, academic advisors and surrogates of safety—students are sometimes wary of turning to them with questions like the one I asked my senior tutor when considering taking my friend to UHS: should I seek help, or am I overreacting?

This reluctance is particularly acute among first-years, who arrive from high school with a latent distrust of authority that, compounded by signals from University officials, drives drinking underground. First-years are told during orientation week that absolutely no alcohol is permitted in the Yard dorms, that proctors will report any instances of underage drinking to the Freshman Dean’s Office and that prefects must avoid their prefectees like the plague anywhere alcohol is served. “Because of the perception of strict enforcement of drinking rules,” says a former assistant dean of freshmen who spoke on condition of anonymity, “freshmen more than anyone else tend to conceal their drinking in ways that may be more harmful—such as drinking more quickly or drinking at off-campus locations that may be less safe.”

Outside the Disciplinary Box

Proctors and house tutors may be in the best position to enforce the ban on underage drinking, but they are also in the best position to protect students who are reluctant to confide in strangers at UHS. Given the mantra among administrators that alcohol is a health issue before it’s a disciplinary issue, the College should de-emphasize the disciplinary role of proctors and House tutors to foster these critical and often difficult conversations.

The College should also clarify the disciplinary consequences for underage drinking so that students know not to hesitate in emergency situations before enlisting the help of those with disciplinary power. On the whole, penalties are neither unreasonable nor particularly severe. “Students almost never come before the Ad Board merely for getting drunk,” according to Assistant Dean of the Faculty David B. Fithian, who was secretary of the Ad Board for three years. First-years may get a warning from their freshman dean, but those warnings leave no trace on one’s transcript. They do follow first-years to the Houses, but senior tutors are not likely to dwell on them in cases that involve only underage drinking. “It doesn’t bias me in any way,” according to Adams House Senior Tutor Michael R. Rodriguez, “it’s just one more piece of information that I know about a student.”

The committee should also consider designating student health advocates who, with no disciplinary or academic responsibilities, would serve as trusted resources when students fear the disciplinary or academic repercussions of reporting health crises. These health advocates would likely be exempt from the legal gag on conversations about responsible drinking, given their role as health care providers and their insulation from administrative responsibility. Whether registered nurses or graduate students with health training, they should be tightly integrated into residential life. If first-year dorms and upperclass Houses are too cramped to house them, then they should frequent study breaks and dining halls to make their faces familiar.

Out, Damned Spot

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, alcohol “provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance”—to be lecherous, in this context—just as the College’s rhetoric about health “provokes the desire” to seek treatment while its disciplinary rhetoric drives alcohol underground and “takes away the performance” of getting help. The committee must persuade students that it understands their partying, respects their desire to drink and above all, will not be disheartened—or draconian—when students continue to party hard, because they will. Instead, the committee should ensure that student health is jeopardized neither by state law nor by a prudish disdain for student habits. The pursuit of drunkenness, like it or not, is here to stay. But health crises that lead to tragedies like Scott Kruger’s, the MIT first-year who drank himself to death in 1997, can be avoided through the committee’s care and diligence.

Blake Jennelle ’04 is a social studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.