Penn Tries To Solve Alcohol Problems

The party scene at the so-called "social Ivy" faces a future as murky as a Kahlua mudslide-now hard to find at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn).

Since March 25 the Penn administration has cracked down on alcohol, banning it at all registered undergraduate events for an indefinite period of time.

The university enforced the ban in response to a recent alcohol-related death on campus, hoping to avert similar tragedies in the future through stricter alcohol controls.

Penn administrators announced the ban four days after Michael Tobin fell to his death on an outside stairwell at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity after drinking heavily at a party there. Tobin, who graduated in 1994, was a member of that fraternity.

Students said that although they recognize alcohol abuse can lead to such tragedies, and Penn's previous alcohol policy could have used improvement, Penn said the current ban is a knee-jerk response to the Tobin's death.


"I fail to see the connection between a tragic death of an alumnus and underage undergraduate drinking," said Mark D. Metzl, president of the Inter Fraternity Council (IFC) and a member of the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity.

The policy change, announced by Penn President Judith Rodin and Provost Robert L. Barchi in an open letter published in The Daily Pennsylvanian (DP), the student daily newspaper, provoked widespread protest.

"Even as we mourn the loss of alumnus Michael Tobin, a 1994 graduate of the College, we must take action to prevent another such tragedy," Barchi and Rodin wrote in the March 25 letter.

But the student body-which is 30 percent Greek-is searching for an alternative solution to the all-out ban, a solution that will allow the Penn social scene to thrive.

Going Dry

Metzl, a junior, said the IFC met after Tobin's death and decided to observe a freeze on parties that had been scheduled for the following weekend,instead holding a vigil on Friday night.

Although news of the policy change came out thenight before the vigil, Metzl said students'dissatisfaction with the administration did notovershadow the memorial event.

"The intent was clear: to show support for the[Phi Gamma Delta] brothers' loss. The atmospherewas very solemn," Metzl said. "They held theirfrustration [with the ban] for another time."

Although most students acknowledge the need forstricter controls on drinking at Penn, somestudents expressed their anger at the policy'sseverity at a protest held on March 30.

Penn's policy prohibits students hostingregistered on- or off-campus undergraduateparties--which includes fraternity, sorority andsenior class events--from serving alcohol.

The administration has also vowed to take moreaction against students who break alcohol and drugregulations at dorm parties, which are notregistered events.

The letter also announced an increase in policeenforcement at annual Penn events, cancellation ofthe popular post-Spring Fling block party and arequest for cooperation in these measures fromarea bars and alcohol distributors.

Undergraduate Assembly (UA) Chair William E.Conway, who is also a member of Phi Kappa Psibrother, said both Greek and non-Greek studentsare dissatisfied with the policy, which he saidwould push students into risky situations.

"The Undergraduate Assembly is definitelyagainst it, and pretty much everyone I know isagainst it," Conway said. "This ban will pushdrinking off-campus into unmonitored situations."

According to Metzl, students will still find away to drink, probably in their own rooms withoutany supervision or risk management.

Students said events since the ban compoundtheir concern. During the past two weeks, twoundergraduates have been taken to the hospital forconditions associated with excessive drinking, outof only nine known cases this year, according tothe DP.

A rise in unofficial parties to compensate forthe loss of fraternity and sorority events wouldintroduce new concerns for the Penn community,according to Jeffrey I. Snyder, a senior andformer president of Phi Kappa Sigma.

"Having off-campus parties in our urbanneighborhood may not be safe," he said.

Conway added that off-campus parties might leadto an increased incidence of drunk driving.

Alcohol will almost certainly continue to be apowerful presence in Penn social life, accordingto a survey published in Monday's DP.

94 percent of 280 randomly selectedundergraduates said the policy changes would notforce them to drink less.

Other numbers, though, seemed to promise theadministration at least limited success. 21percent of respondents said they approved of theban on alcohol at official undergraduate partiesand 41 percent approved of the university's pledgeto more strictly enforce state and Penn liquorregulations.

The poll had a margin of error of plus or minussix percent.

Fight for Your Right

Claiming that Rodin and Barchi did not consultwith undergraduates before the ban, students heldthe March 30 rally to draw attention to theirconcerns with the new policy.

Conway said that he and other organizers triedto focus the event on students' lack of input inthe administration's decision, but many of theabout 1,000 students who flocked to the rallymerely expressed anger at the ban.

For this reason, the rally was ineffective,according to Pi Beta Phi Sorority President AlisaN. Plesco.

"It looked bad because students were rallyingbecause they couldn't drink," Plesco said, addingthat such an image would not help them win apolicy change.

Even though Plesco and other Greek students seethe change as a direct attack on the Greek system,the rally was not organized by fraternities orsororities. For students involved in Greek life,Plesco said, the ban means more than an end toeasy access to alcohol.

"[The administration is] really trying tosquelch the Greek system," Plesco said.

Plesco said fraternities and sororities dependon parties as recruitment tools and sources ofrevenue. Without alcohol, they can't havesuccessful parties.

According to Plesco, fraternities andsororities have tried to have dry parties in thepast with little success.

Has Harvard Done Enough?

Harvard administrators said the drinking scenehere differs from at Penn, and consequently thetwo schools face different types of alcohol abuse.

"I believe the change related to policies aboutparties at fraternities, which Penn recognizes andregulates, so the situation there is notcomparable to Harvard's," Dean of the CollegeHarry R. Lewis '68 wrote in an e-mail message.Harvard plays no role in the administration of theeight final clubs and one fraternity that ownbuildings in Harvard Square and haveundergraduates as members.

Lewis added that while the University continuesto be concerned about alcohol abuse, problems atHarvard stem from off-campus vendors andunofficial parties.

"I think the use of alcohol at recognizedfunctions is well-regulated here," Lewis wrote inan e-mail message.

Hector C. Bove '00, president of the Harvardchapter of Sigma Chi, said that his fraternitytakes specific steps to avoid the problems thatcaused the tragedy at Penn.

"We make a pretty good effort at riskmanagement," Bove said.

He said Sigma Chi hires a bartender to checkIDs and distribute the alcohol at its parties andhas invited campus peer counseling groups to talkto members about alcohol abuse.

Bove, who is a Crimson executive, added that hethinks Penn will be able to identify its problemsand create safer party environment before the banis lifted.

Lewis and Dean of Students Archie C. Epps IIIsaid recent events at Penn would not affectHarvard's policies. But Penn students pointed outthat their school's crackdown follows policyreviews nationwide last fall as colleges respondedto several alcohol-related undergraduate deaths.

On October 23, 1997, for example, Lewis andEpps established a revised alcohol policy askingstudents, administrators and local alcohol vendersto work towards a "no tolerance" policy on alcoholabuse.

"If anything, [Penn's] not really thetrend-setter here." Metzl said. "It would notsurprise me to see the steps Penn has takenreflected on other college campuses across thecountry."

Fast Track to a Solution

In the meantime, Barchi has created a workinggroup of 14 students and five administrators andprofessors to help develop a new policy on alcoholat Penn.

Meeting at least once a week, members said thegroup is dedicated to devising a solution that canwork.

Metzl, one of the group's student members, saidthe administration has created a window ofopportunity so it can focus on problems withPenn's drinking scene.

"From our discussions last week, theadministration seems to be very concerned withalcohol abuse," he said.

The first meeting, held the same day as therally, was productive, according to group members.

"We defined the problem and set up guidelinesfor our meetings," Metzl said. In contrast to pastattempts at cooperation between students andadministrators, "everyone was open and sincereabout their feelings," he said.

Last night, the working group's second meetingresulted in its first proposal, which concernsalcohol distribution by third-party vendors atoff-campus events.

According to Snyder, the task force unanimouslyapproved the proposal, which President Rodin beganreviewing last night. At press time, Rodin had notannounced whether or not she had given theproposal her approval.

"Everyone in the room, includingadministrators, wants to see the ban lifted assoon as possible," Snyder said. "We're lifting itpiece-by-piece right now. There's going to beprogress, but there's no way of speculating howlong the ban will last.