Dangerous Drinking on Campus

Evelynn M. Hammonds

There has been a lot of recent discussion about the College’s alcohol policy. Those of us in the administration are, as always, deeply concerned about dangerous drinking on campus, and thought it important to address some misconceptions about the issue.

Binge drinking—four or more drinks within two hours for a woman and five or more for a man—is not a normal part of social development or of “learning to drink.” It is a specific type of alcohol abuse that jeopardizes a person’s health and well-being. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a leading cause of premature death among students age 18-24 is alcohol-related injury. Nationally, more than 1,700 alcohol-related deaths occur each year. Furthermore, new research by Dr. Marisa Silveri, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, indicates that alcohol use by those under the age of 22 may impair brain development, particularly “executive functions” such as planning, memory and decision-making. It’s not surprising, then, that underage drinkers are more likely to experience problems in college, such as higher absence rates and poor or failing grades.

Aside from the fact that Harvard—like any University that receives funding from the federal government—must observe and abide by the national minimum drinking age of 21, there is a strong link between underage drinking and dangerous drinking. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that about one-quarter of youth who drink do so intensively. Far from furthering student social development, underage drinking is associated with social problems, violence, and a lack of participation in activities. Moreover, people who begin drinking before age 21 run a greater risk of developing alcohol dependence later in life.

The College’s alcohol policy is designed to safeguard the health of students and to create an environment that gives undergraduates the best chance to learn and grow at Harvard. Over the last decade, the College has built an extensive network of resources to address the problem of dangerous drinking and to educate students about the risks of drug and alcohol use. These resources include the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Services, AlcoholEdu, and Alcohol Communication and Education Skills training.

The College’s approach also includes an amnesty policy that allows students to seek medical care for alcohol-related illness with no fear of disciplinary action. In fact, this policy allows us to capture information about alcohol abuse that would previously have gone unrecorded or unnoticed. This policy may account for a good deal of the surge we’ve seen in recent years’ admissions numbers to Harvard University Health Services.

In light of these facts, it is puzzling to hear the calls from some quarters for a more relaxed policy on alcohol use and underage drinking. It’s even more confounding to see the Harvard-Yale tailgate used as an example of the need for this change in approach. In fact, the health and safety measures put in place for The Game—prohibiting alcohol from being brought into the student tailgating area and closing it at game time, prohibiting drinking paraphernalia that promote rapid consumption of alcohol, providing non-alcoholic drinks and food free of charge to all students throughout tailgating hours—have been a resounding success.

Although some undergraduates contended that no one would attend the tailgate in 2006, when the new measures were implemented, 9,200 students entered the turnstiles on the morning of The Game. The overall number of medical transports for acute alcohol intoxication were nearly eliminated between 2004 and 2006. The number of admissions to HUHS decreased by 87 percent, and the number of alcohol-related incidents/ejections decreased by 71 percent.

The lesson of The Game is that the development of a clear, consistently enforced policy can have a dramatic and positive effect on the problem of dangerous drinking and on student life at Harvard. Since 2006, this approach—modified to allow House Committees to bring beer and wine into the tailgating area—has contributed to a change in College culture. Increasingly, students see social activities not as an opportunity to drink themselves sick, but instead as a chance to connect with each other and to enjoy the signature events of their Harvard College experience. Continued oversight and education, not a retreat from the success of recent years, is needed to extend this trend, and to safeguard the health and safety of our undergraduates.

The College’s efforts to educate students on the topic of alcohol and dangerous drinking will continue.  To this point, I invite you to attend an event this Wednesday, Mar. 9 from 6 to 7:15 p.m. in CGIS S010 featuring a lecture by Dr. Marisa Silveri, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Associate Research Psychologist at McLean Hospital, titled, “The Maturing Brain and the Impact of Binge Drinking on Neurochemistry.”  Dr. Silveri will speak about the consequences of binge alcohol use on brain chemistry and how this impacts impulse control and cognition in the college-age population.  I hope you will join this interesting event to learn more about these effects.

Evelynn M. Hammonds is the Dean of Harvard College & the Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies

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