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An Impossible Culture Change

Even if students continue to drink, Harvard can take steps to improve their health and safety

When incoming Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 announced that curbing student alcohol abuse would be one of his top priorities this fall, it came as a relief that disciplinary measures will not play a major role in his campaign. Instead, Gross plans to encourage alternatives to drinking by providing more spaces and opportunities for students to socialize without drinking. But while irresponsible underage drinking is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, Gross’ expectations of a culture change are too idealistic. Better alcohol education and more social opportunities and spaces are good in their own right, but will not prevent students from using alcohol. Drinking is inextricably bound up with college culture. None of the proposed alternatives will change that.

Given that students will drink, Gross’ plan to provide dry social space will not drive students from college parties. Instead, the spaces should be designed as safe locations where students can continue to socialize—with or without alcohol—after parties end at 1 a.m. Currently, when room parties and bars shut down, many students who want to keep partying go to final clubs, the only social venues open late. But these private, gender-biased clubs have been eschewed by the University, and with good reason; some of these club have a history of sexual assault concerns. If the College wants to offer a safer, more inclusive alternative, student space needs to be open late, allow parties and be accessible to all students. The Quincy Grille, for example, has had significant success as a magnet for undergraduates looking for post-party food and fun. Simultaneously, the College should consider extending room party hours—as rooms are also a relatively safe alternative. Prospective student space must accommodate the happily drunk or it will likely go unused by the students Gross is trying to reach.

Ideally, all drinking would stay within the bounds of safety, but in almost any college setting, it is inevitable that some students will drink to the point of severe inebriation. Those who drink dangerous amounts of alcohol need to know that they have the medical support of University Health Services (UHS), and the staff there should strive to improve their relationship with students—many of whom mistrust the no-discipline policy associated with going to UHS for alcohol-related health concerns.

But to minimize the number of students who go too far in their alcohol consumption, Gross should emphasize education—especially directed towards first-years—to ensure that students can stay safe when drinking. According to Dean of Freshman Elizabeth Studley Nathans, while Massachusetts law prohibits the administration from directly educating underage students about alcohol, peer counseling groups and others who serve in informal advisory settings can educate their peers about responsible consumption.

Although alcohol abuse needs to be addressed, previous heavy-handed attempts to deal with problems on campus—including this year’s keg ban during the Harvard-Yale game—have encountered strong criticism because they have failed to take into account the needs, rights and inevitable tendencies of students. Although Gross will not be able to completely change Harvard’s alcohol culture, better education, an improved student-UHS relationship and social alternatives are small steps towards enhancing the safety, health and enjoyment of Harvard students—whether or not they have chosen to imbibe.

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