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Reverse the Keg Ban

The time has arrived to repeal Harvard’s misguided and counterproductive experiment

By The Crimson Staff

Four years ago, four students became seriously ill from alcohol poisoning at the Harvard-Yale Game. Two years later, then-Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 instituted a ban on kegs as a strategy to combat binge drinking at Harvard-Yale. At the time the wisdom of the ban was debatable, although the end goal of reducing health and safety risks to students was unquestionably admirable. The most persuasive arguments opposing the ban centered on the ineffectiveness and arbitrariness of eliminating kegs. And indeed, at the 2002 Harvard-Yale Game, about 30 fans were transported to hospitals by ambulance, and at least six students were treated for potentially fatal alcohol poisoning. One student, whose ambulance got stuck in the mud, almost died.

Although the increase in incidents may not be a direct result of the ban, it was clear at least that the risk of alcohol poisoning had certainly not been reduced. Many students had argued that the ban was in fact especially counterproductive in that—for economic reasons—it would prompt many tailgaters to purchase hard liquor instead. The resulting effect would be increased consumption of hard liquor among students—not, as Lewis had argued, a benign switch from keg beer to canned beer. The unfortunate outcome in 2002 proved that Lewis’ logic was flawed.

Fast forward to 2004. Today there is a new Dean of the College, and with Harvard’s encroachment into Allston ever more imminent, the Boston Police Department has suddenly become a force to be reckoned with in planning for the tailgates. For weeks now, the failed keg ban seemed the least of students’ worries as contentious issue after issue threatened to undermine The Game tailgates altogether. We applaud the tireless efforts of Undergraduate Council President Matthew W. Mahan ’05 and Vice-President Michael R. Blickstead ’05, who have worked overtime in conjunction with University Hall’s new Social Programming Assistant Zachary A. Corker ’04 to ensure that many of The Game’s best features remain intact. Despite so many setbacks last month, Harvard-Yale seems back on the right track.

But one major hurdle remains. Earlier this fall, it was revealed that some kegs would again be permitted, but inexplicably House Committees would be the only organizations authorized to have them. The kegs would be purchased collectively from a single alcohol distributor, and keg beer would be controlled and served by licensed, bonded, professional pourers. This plan, while a vast improvement over the nonsensical 2002 ban, is still fundamentally flawed. Banning kegs last time around seemed only to encourage students to drink more hard liquor before and at The Game; having a limited number of controlled kegs is unlikely to prevent that unintended—and dangerous—outcome. On the other hand, if the intention of the new plan is to ensure enough beer at The Game such that students do not turn to hard liquor, then what is the remaining rationale for clinging to the ban’s remnants? Why prohibit the rest of the student body—indeed anyone and everyone else who wants to tailgate at The Game—from bringing their own kegs?

The answer is unclear. Despite attempts this week to obtain a rationale from Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ‘71 for his decision to only partially repeal the ban, Gross’ office did not provide an explanation of its recent actions. They referred all requests on the subject to Lewis. Last week, we asked University President Lawrence H. Summers about the alcohol restrictions for Harvard-Yale, and he told us that Harvard was simply attempting to comply with the laws of the state of Massachusetts and abide by the rules set in place by the Boston Police Department. He said that Harvard’s intention, to the best of his knowledge, is to restrict alcohol-use no more stringently than that. However, Massachusetts law simply prohibits unlicensed individuals from transporting more than 20 gallons of beer (slightly more than one keg). Harvard’s keg ban goes above and beyond what the law requires. We wonder if Dean Gross’ reluctance to overturn the ban in full is simply due to a misplaced deference to his predecessor.

When the keg ban was initiated two years ago, Dean Lewis was driven by a quaint paternalistic impulse, which ultimately proved unsound. The University has lately taken steps toward a more pragmatic and results-oriented alcohol policy. We sincerely hope Harvard applies that kind of nuanced thinking to their policy on kegs. Student health and safety concerns are of primary importance, but foolishly banning all kegs serves nobody’s interests. It may in fact lead to more dangerous drinking instead of less. Dean Gross, you’ve taken small steps to rectify this mistake: why stop halfway?

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