Route to 21: Drinking Age Arrives

One weekend in October 1983, Leverett House threw a party that almost everyone agreed was totally lame. There were never more than 25 people in the room at a time, A. Brent Truitt ’84, then Leverett House Committee Chairman, told The Crimson at the time.

“People came to the door with their money and asked ‘Where are the kegs?’ and we said ‘Go to Winthrop House.’ We turned away hundreds of people,” Truitt said in 1983.

Why no kegs? Since 1979, Harvard had banned alcohol at college-wide events as part of a policy spearheaded by then Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III. But enforcement was spotty, according to people who were students at the time.

By 1984, both Harvard administrators and the State of Mass. stepped their efforts to make alcohol less accessible on campuses. At Harvard, House Masters were now being forced to comply with the long-standing regulations banning alcohol at House or campus-wide events, and lobbying groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving succeeded in pushing through legislation in Dec. 1984 that raised the state’s drinking age from 18 to 21.

FROM THE STATE HOUSE...TO DUNSTER HOUSE

In 1972, 18 year-olds in Mass.—who since 1969 had been drafted to serve in the Vietnam War—were granted to the right to vote in federal elections and the right to drink in their home state.

But over the next decade, the Massachusetts state legislature tried to raise the drinking age to 20, but failed when Gov. Dukakis twice vetoed bills brought to his desk. Almost immediately after Edward J. King replaced Dukakis as governor in 1979, advocates of the change succeeded and the drinking age was raised to 20.

The College followed the State’s lead, implementing a slew of changes to a formerly lax alcohol policy. In the Spring of 1979 Epps and House Masters banned House happy hours, a relatively new institution where Houses served alcoholic beverages to all of their residents. Epps also issued revised guidelines that fall, banning alcohol from college-wide dances. In addition, liquor was only allowed at senior class functions, and would only be served to students 20 years or older who presented their IDs. To serve alcohol at private parties, students were required to buy temporary liquor and public entertainment licenses for $57, the equivalent of $166.93 in today’s currency.

When Dukakis returned to the governorship in 1983, he faced pressure to raise the drinking age still further in an effort to curtail drunk driving.

Over the next several years different Houses enforced college alcohol policies with varying degrees of strictness, according to several members of the class of 1984.

“I guess they weren’t carding very aggressively back then,” said Michelle M. Seery ’84, who added that the change in the drinking age did not have an impact on her life.

There was even a failed proposal in 1984 to ban alcoholic drinks larger than 16 oz., which, if passed, would have eliminated the Hong Kong’s 30oz. scorpion bowl—an ambiguous but eternally popular blend of liquor and juice.

“I would think if they raised the drinking age, [the Kong] would go out of business—no one over 21 would buy that,” said Hillary G. Tarazi ’84.

Several alumni remembered their Houses finding ways to get around the College’s drinking policy. Some said that House Masters would hold open houses where alcohol was served from 9 p.m. to midnight on Saturdays, while a alcohol-free party was occurring in another part of the House.

“I assumed that everyone who drank at house functions was of age,” said Reineir A. Cruz ’84, who was Adams House’s social committee chair.

But in 1983 the tides were turning again. In October, Governor Dukakis ordered an increase in the number of roadblocks in Boston and Cambridge in an attempt to reduce the number of drunk drivers. That same month, Dean Epps renewed the ban on alcohol at House functions. Then Assistant Dean of the College Thomas A. Dingman ’67 told The Crimson in 1983 that the announcement came in response to a perceived inconsistency in the way Houses enforced the alcohol policy.

EFFECT OF AN AGE

Despite the changes, a number of members of the class of 1984 said that they do not believe that increasing restrictions on alcohol during their last year of college reduced student drinking, though it may have meant that students drank more off campus.

“Overall the policy was probably a negative because it forced students away from more supervised gatherings into off campus ones,” said Robert A. Henderson ’84.

Several alumni—both those who said they drank in college and those who identified as non-drinkers—said that the change in the college policies and the drinking age did not affect their lives. Some were already 21 by the time the law took effect; others said they primarily drank at private parties where the hosts had apparently had no trouble acquiring liquor.

“Most of the drinking that I remember took place in dorms,” said Scott D. Segal ’84, “The drinking age was not exactly the major issue.”

But others said that the college’s alcohol policy had a forceful impact on House events.

“We were in a setting where there were things that the houses simply couldn’t do, that they’d been used to doing,” said Ari W. Epstein ’84, a former Dunster HoCo co-chair.

“The binge-drinking crowd is always going to find alcohol. But casual drinkers suddenly couldn’t have drinks at a party,” he added.

“It was really helpful, back when it was legal, that the college could officially be there when freshmen were drinking, to keep an eye on them,” Epstein said.

But there is no evidence that lowering the drinking age will result in healthier or safer drinking habits among young people, according to Harvard’s current Director of the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Services, Ryan Travia.

Still, alumni did not remember any major fallout over the higher drinking age. Some alumni said that as far as they could recall, drugs were actually more prevalent on campus than alcohol in the early 1980s.

“It seemed like at that time the people who were enforcing the rules cared more about alcohol than about drugs,” Henderson said.

Robin Selinger ’84, who says she has never been much of a drinker, recalls being given a brownie on her birthday freshman year, which she only later realized was laced with marijuana.

“I called my mother and said ‘Help!’” she said. Her mother told her to sleep it off.

—Staff writer Sarah J. Howland can be reached at showland@fas.harvard.edu.