When University officials warn students about drinking at Harvard, they usually do so on legal grounds. To cite just one example, in a recent email to freshmen in advance of Housing Day, Freshman Dean Thomas A. Dingman ’67 wrote: “Drinking under the age of 21 is a violation of the law.” Along the same lines, College administrators often cite Massachusetts state law as the rationale behind the College’s policy on alcohol consumption, a move that enables the College to present itself as lawful rather than oppressive and as responsible rather than moralizing.
After all, who would argue that one of the nation’s premier universities ought to flout the law?
This seemingly lawful and responsible attitude, however, fails to account for the College’s recent decision to ban hard alcohol at off-campus formals. The ban needlessly goes beyond enforcing the legal drinking age and, with regard to alcohol consumption, suggests that the College does not in fact trust its students to the degree that it should. Of course, it is true that the administration has defensible grounds for regulating alcohol at House formals. To be sure, it provides funds for these events, and, therefore, is entitled to a say in what is served and what is not. That does not mean, however, that the administration should use its power to enforce extralegal restrictions on alcohol consumption. After all, what—besides a larger safety cushion in terms of liability protection—will these restrictions actually accomplish?
Banning hard alcohol at off-campus formals is a somewhat futile venture in any case. At most, the ban will prevent some students from consuming for a handful of hours on one solitary evening. Besides, there is the inevitable enforcement question: Each house has its own masters, all of whom espouse unique attitudes toward their respective House events. How, then, will the College be sure that this policy will actually translate into reality for all Harvard students?
On a more conceptual level, however, the theoretical ramifications of this new policy are what is truly concerning. Indeed, students who are 21 or older will head off into the real world in a few months to a year, and—given the College’s taboo approach to underage drinking—there is little in place to teach these students about the dangers of drinking excessively. As such, what the College ought to do is treat alcohol consumption as an unavoidable part of collegiate life and work within the system to educate its students on responsible drinking habits that will serve them well in later life. Given that the administration appears more concerned with preventing visible alcohol consumption than actual dangerous drinking, the current paternalistic standard protects no one but the College.
Another concern with this ban is its potentially harmful effect on House spirit. Recently, the College has attempted to institute a more uniform, stricter enforcement of the drinking age at house social events, including Stein Clubs, which are some of the only all-inclusive social events on campus. Bringing in acronym-heavy enforcement squads such as BATs (Beverage Authorization Teams) and SESs (Student Event Services Teams) runs the risk of dampening House spirit by stifling the atmosphere of some of the Houses’ most successful community-building events. Should that be a goal of administrative policy?
The House community is one of Harvard’s strongest assets, and, since it is highly doubtful that events like Stein Clubs are where alcohol poisoning actually occurs, any drastic uptick in enforcements could negatively affect the Harvard community irreparably. In that sense, the College would do better to focus on increased alcohol education rather than on heightened enforcement.
At best, increased enforcement will prevent underage students from drinking on a handful of nights; at worst, it will drive consumption into rooms, where far more dangerous drinking can occur. Although we recognize that the balancing act between, on the one hand, ensuring that students obey the law and, on the other, not seeming entirely draconian is a difficult one, the administration must adopt policies that preclude actual dangerous alcohol use through education, not those that merely drive it behind closed doors.
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