Please, Sir, Could You Drink Somewhat Less?


Thanks to alcohol, a friend of mine celebrated the wee hours of Halloween at Mt. Auburn Hospital just over a month ago. As his escort from a masquerade party to the emergency room, my spookiest moments were conversations with real nurses, decidedly less seductive than those we left behind, and real doctors who, stuck with the dregs of weekend duties, were in no mood to dance. The trick of that weekend was that party abundance, a rare treat, came with an abundance of excess. Twelve students were admitted to University Health Services (UHS) for alcohol abuse in two days, making it the busiest weekend so far this year, according to Director of UHS David S. Rosenthal ’57.

Halloween horrors like these are the reason that the Committee to Address Alcohol and Health was created, with the daunting responsibility to “reduce excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol abuse” by “review[ing] all institutional prevention, education, outreach and treatment services.” I say daunting, and certainly unenviable, because I doubt that any committee could have prevented my friend’s sojourn at UHS. He generally drank responsibly and thought that he knew his limits. On that night, however, as he struggled through the senior year rat-race to find a sweet gig for next fall, he set out to get blitzed. The $300+ ambulance ride was not part of the plan, of course, but he craved some temporary amnesia and the itch to dance his cares away. Alcohol delivered.

University Provost Steven E. Hyman wisely acknowledges that among dangerous cases involving alcohol, most drunkenness is deliberate and most bingers already know alcohol’s dangers. The committee, he told The Crimson, is “starting from the position that students carry understanding about alcohol but don’t always act on it.”

This recognition should not diminish the importance of education about responsible drinking, of course, given that some students have virgin livers and little knowledge of alcohol, particularly in the Yard. Inexperience surely played a role in the fact that first-years were three times as likely as upperclass students to be admitted to UHS for alcohol abuse this September. The College’s current abstinence-only approach is little more than negligence masquerading as naivete.

In an interview, Assistant Dean of Freshmen James N. Mancall agreed with my abstinence-only characterization of current College policy but warned that Massachusetts state law prohibits officers of the University from appearing to acquiesce in underage drinking—casting an ominous legal gray over their ability to teach responsible partying. But healthcare providers are legally sanctioned to provide medical advice on alcohol, according to Rosenthal, the director of UHS, because the law recognizes that student health and safety, not discipline, are UHS’s sole responsibilities.

The statutory straightjacket on officers of the University makes it critical that UHS serve students the ABC’s of alcohol abuse. The College and UHS should work this year to create a realistic and unflinching health program that can begin next fall. It should include a lively presentation during orientation week and engaging outreaches in first-year dorms and upperclass Houses. If the program’s organizers can recruit upperclass students 21 years-old and older to help lead the program, its messages may be more likely to stick.

Cultural Beer Goggles

Most students, however, have already heard many of the warnings UHS might impart—such as “beer before liquor, never been sicker;” if you are lighter in weight, you are more likely to be a lightweight with alcohol (fancy that); and even if a party punch does not taste saturated with alcohol, it probably is—as your liver will be after a few cups.

The allure of room-spinning and responsibility-dissolving drunkenness lurks deep in the national student ethos, and save for a cultural lobotomy—something beyond the reach of any committee—stories like my friend’s are here to stay. Movies from Animal House to Old School glorify drunken debauchery, traditions of fraternity and sorority life institutionalize it, and reliance on substance-abuse for liberation within the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s—whether from authority, inhibition or culpability—lends it legitimacy among social and intellectual elites.

All this, and a surfeit of dangerous drinking, Harvard’s social culture shares with universities nationwide. The unique bipolarity of our campus’s social scene, however, takes root in the very traits that Harvard’s selective admissions process encourages. Many students who survive Byerly Hall owe their success to their unrelenting superegos, flogging them onward towards ever more precocious achievement. Torn between an exceptionality they love and a normalcy few others will acknowledge, Harvard students find themselves attracted to a manic social scene that is stodgy by week and unmoored by weekend. Dr. Perfection and Mr. Lush co-exist tensely somewhere between Harvard’s academic grind and the wassailing grind-fest of Harvard State University’s parties.

Inside the sweaty walls of a Harvard weekend, drinking logic often defies the basic premise of social norms programs: that if students overestimate their peers’ drinking, they will drink more than they would otherwise. Instead, there’s a part of every partier that wants to be an exception to stereotypes of straight-edged Harvard. All the better, for some, that a full 68 percent of Harvard students did not drink five or more drinks during a typical two-week period in 2002, according to a National College Health Assessment survey. That only steels their minoritarian dash. After all, what better way to drown dorky Harvard stereotypes—and dorkier Harvard realities—than to ape our non-Ivy League peers and co-opt the carouser’s cachet?

Unless the committee can redefine state school cool—fat chance—then there’s little hope of using social norms to dissuade many students from drinking like Dionysus.

Whoa There, Partier

Even if most Harvard drunkenness cannot be massaged out of campus culture, damage control may be easier here than anywhere else. When heavy drinking cannot be prevented, responsible partiers might intervene before drunkenness becomes alcohol poisoning. Prefects and members of Crimson Key are renowned for their presence on the weekend prowl, and given their ambassadorial responsibilities for the University, the College could mandate that their leadership design a training program on safe partying and safe party hosting that they would then administer to their members.

If approached realistically, such a program could encourage prefects and members of Crimson Key to make gentle suggestions to party-goers and party hosts when fetes they attend grow out of control. Both groups have their notoriously irresponsible members, of course, but the responsible majority could certainly help restore order: they could implore hapless hosts to mind the alcohol, man the door to control crowds and deny drinks to revelers who no longer recognize what or how much they are drinking. These trend-setters could also urge the friends of far-gone guests to walk their wounded home—or, in the worst cases, to UHS.

More underutilized still, however, are the officers of the University who students live with and know best. Because proctors, House Masters and senior tutors have divided duties to students—at once disciplinarians, academic advisors and surrogates of safety—students are sometimes wary of turning to them with questions like the one I asked my senior tutor when considering taking my friend to UHS: should I seek help, or am I overreacting?