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IN PAST years, first-year students needed all of five minutes on the Harvard campus to discover that the University's policy on underage drinking was a joke. Beer, wine and hard liquor flowed freely at parties large and small, and in all but the most extreme cases, Harvard was content to ignore it.
Come October 1, however, first-years and many other students under the age of 21 may find things a little different. As a result of a new federal law that takes effect on that date, universities across the nation will be forced to take an active role enforcing state alcohol laws.
Should the University fail to comply with the new regulations, it stands to lose more than $200 million in federal support, including scholarship money, research grants and other vital programs. Clearly Harvard is no longer free to regard Massachusetts alcohol regulations as nothing more than a legal technicality.
HARVARD officials are still working on the final details of a new College alcohol policy designed to comply with the law. A few changes have already been announced, among them a complete ban on alcohol at first-year parties. Other restrictions, such as a ban on kegs in all dorms, may be forthcoming.
Regardless of the specific measures adopted, one key change is in how those measures will be enforced. No longer will policing be left to the discretion of individual administrators, as it was in the past. University officers who see illegal drinking going on will now be required to act on behalf of the College.
In effect, proctors and tutors are being forced to add a new dimension to their role as advisors and educators: that of police officers required to enforce the state drinking age. The net result will be to erode students' trust in the College's advising and social network, further weakening an already moribund system.
To minimize these problems, Harvard should continue to give proctors and tutors as much latitude as possible in deciding how to enforce the alcohol policy.
Harvard should also be wary of infringing on the privacy of undergraduates. College students, as much as any other U.S. citizens, have a right to privacy in their homes--even if these homes are dorms owned by the University. Unless College officials have valid reasons to think that a violation of state drinking laws is taking place, they should be prohibited from entering individual dormitory rooms.
IRONICALLY, the main beneficiaries of the new policy may be the nine all-male final clubs and independent Harvard-affiliated organizations. Not technically part of Harvard, the clubs will likely continue to serve alcohol to any and all that have the social credentials to attend their parties. More restrictive alcohol rules on campus may thus lead to more excessive drinking off-campus.
Such alcohol abuse is already a serious problem on campus. Anyone who has stood in Harvard Yard on a Saturday night as sirens blared and overindulgent students headed to University Health Services knows that Harvard's alcohol policy is long overdue for revision. A more uniform and clear policy of enforcing drinking regulations--as mandated by the new law--will be a welcome change. But too strict an interpretation of the federal government's law will create problems for the University as severe as those the law is trying to solve.
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