The College's first standardized alcohol policy leaves some questions-- including the status of a beloved drinking game-- up for debate.
The game’s set-up is simple. One table, a few red cups aligned to form a triangle, and two ping-pong balls are the basics required for college students to play beer pong.
While the rules may not be complicated—players throwing a ping-pong ball into a cup at the other end of the table with the intent of making members of the other team drink—its competitive edge raises questions regarding its place within Harvard’s new alcohol policy.
For the first time in Harvard’s history, the College introduced an extensive alcohol policy in March that prompts stricter regulations on excessive and underage drinking and standardizes the alcohol policy between Harvard’s 12 Houses. The policy is the result of a long tug-of-war between students and administrators over alcohol’s place in the Harvard undergraduate community.
The new policy does not appear to resemble anything that has come before it. Almost mimicking the game of pong, the policy’s language goes back and forth between specificity and vagueness, teetering on a thin line between providing a unified set of rules and leaving room for interpretation.
CREATING THE POLICY
Administrators have said in the past that concerns about students’ health alone prompted their formation of a new policy. Since 2008, admittances to University Health Services due to alcohol-related sicknesses have been on the rise. In the 2010-11 fall semester, admittances had almost reached the total of the entire 2009-10 academic year.
Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds emphasizes that the policy’s main goal is to teach responsible drinking.
“Our goal is have a policy that helps everyone be responsible to themselves, to their friends and to the community, that reduces high-risk drinking and that complies with the legal drinking age. Every year we’re going to keep working at this, to help people be better educated and to try and support a culture where there’s more responsible and healthy attitudes,” Hammonds says. “Every year we’re going to keep working at this, to help people be better educated and to try and support a culture where there’s more responsible and healthy attitudes.”
In March 2011, Hammonds began her crackdown on underage and excessive alcohol drinking by publishing an op-ed in The Crimson the day before river run—a tradition in which students take shots of hard liquor in front of the House they hope to live in the following academic year. Hammonds then sent a memo to House Masters in March of last year, asking for more consistency in their enforcement of alcohol policy.
A few weeks later the Pforzheimer House Committee canceled its biannual Pfoho Golf event—a drinking game in which students travel to designated rooms called “holes” and drink either alcoholic or non-alcoholic refreshments at each stop. At the time, the House Masters said the organization of the activity did not follow the College’s ID-checking policy for House-sponsored events and promoted drinking as sport.
But one of the biggest shocks to students came at the end of the month when the College announced that hard liquor was no longer allowed at off-campus House formals. Previously, the administration had drawn the line at on-campus House formals only. A year earlier, in April 2010, Dean of Student Life Suzy M. Nelson announced the College’s ban on hard liquor from on-campus formals after the Cambridge License Commission stopped issuing all-liquor licenses to students.
The policy change disgruntled some students, including those who found formals to be a safer space for drinking activities than off-campus options. These students argue that ever-more stringent alcohol regulation at college-sponsored events increases the relative attractiveness of final clubs, where alcohol flows more freely.
But because final clubs are outside the scope of Harvard’s jurisdiction, administrators find themselves in a difficult position in trying to fulfill students’ social demands while ensuring that they follow Massachusetts law.
“Students sometimes want to push the limits of how much they can drink, and we want to push the idea that it’s possible to drink responsibly.” Hammonds says.