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Higher Drinking Age Leads to Stricter Policies

By Jane Seo, Crimson Staff Writer

When James A. Messina ’86 recalls the social scene during his time at Harvard, he remembers falling asleep late on a weekend as The Isley Brothers’ “Shout” blasted from a room upstairs.

“Even in those days, it wasn’t like everyone headed off to the library,” says Messina, who served as the chair of the House Committee for North House—now known as Pforzheimer House. “There was always somewhere to have parties that were fun and good-natured.”

Likewise, Angela F. Schroeder ’86, the first female chair of the Kirkland House Committee, says one her fondest memories was hosting the “very popular” keg parties for the House on weekends.

“Rather than go out to bars in Harvard Square, students preferred to come to parties on campus because they knew they would run in to their friends,” Schroeder says.

But social gatherings on campus became more confined within Houses and individual dorm rooms when Massachusetts adopted a new law in June 1985 increasing the legal drinking age from 20 to 21. The hike was in response to federal legislation that required all states to enforce a drinking age of 21 or risk losing government highway funds.


According to Messina, Harvard parties in the 1980s involved mingling and dancing—as well as social drinking.

The drink of choice, according to Messina, was a cold can of beer, while the screwdriver came in at a close second because “it’s cheap and easy to make,” he says.

In response to the new state law, the College modified its liquor policy in October 1985. The revised policy not only reflected the new drinking age, but also added stricter enforcement procedures aimed at preventing all underage drinking.

Prior to this revision, according to Harvard First Marshal Joel A. Getz ’86, the alcohol rules on campus were reasonably lax.

“My sense is that there was not a lot of enforced restriction on alcohol consumption on campus [prior to the new policy],” he says. “I think the philosophy behind it was that people were better off drinking on campus, i.e. close to home, than going out into Boston to a bar and potentially having a problem further away.”

Under the new rules, only those with proper identification were able to obtain alcohol at House functions.

In addition, the new policy required advance College approval to serve alcohol in Harvard buildings when minors were present, and mandated that food and non-alcoholic beverages must be available when alcohol was served.

“It just became a big nuisance and introduced new complexities [to hosting parties],” Schroeder says, adding that the Kirkland House Masters at the time were “very strict about following all the rules.”

As a result, dorm rooms became a more popular location to socialize, because they were considered private parties, and therefore subject to less stringent rules.

To get their dose of alcohol, some students would even travel to nearby states, such as Vermont, where the new minimum age drinking law did not take effect until 1986, Messina says.

Messina adds that while he “wasn’t too thrilled” about the new restrictions, he was not militantly opposed.

“It was still somewhat reasonable to me at the time,” he says.


After the College implemented the new policy, many students voiced their worries about the potential decline in social life.

“When you host a party, you want to include everyone,” Schroeder says. “[The new policy] limited the number of people that came.”

In spring 1986, the Undergraduate Council’s residential life committee published a 10-page report that analyzed some of the detrimental effects of the new alcohol policy on House life. Houses would incur new financial burdens because “events not serving alcohol are expensive. Some elaborate theme must be conceived and paid for, and creative, relatively expensive refreshments must be served,” the report said.

“We definitely had non-alcoholic parties, which were themed to try to have events that people can get excited about,” Messina says.

To resolve students’ concerns, the Undergraduate Council passed a resolution calling on the College to establish a special fund to give Houses more money to throw creative parties—an initiative which was then approved by then-Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett ’57. The fund also covered the cost of hiring bouncers to check IDs at events which did serve alcohol.

“Dean Jewett very wisely said, ‘We will make it easier for you to pay the expense,’” says Dean of Freshman Thomas A. Dingman ’67, who served as the assistant dean of the College for the House system at the time.


Despite worries about the deterioration of the social scene, Dingman, Getz, Messina, and Schroeder all say the new policy was not especially disruptive.

“I didn’t see the law changing the social dynamics at Harvard, since it was still a relatively new issue,” Getz says.

In fact, the majority of students in the Class of 1986 were unaffected, as most had already turned 21 by the time the law was put into effect. In addition, a grandafther clause allowed those who had turned 20 before the passage of the law to retain their drinking rights.

Dingman says he believes there was a bigger culture change in 1979, when the Mass. drinking age increased from 18 to 20.

“When I was a senior tutor in Leverett House [in 1978], we were able to, in addition to serving sodas and lemonade, serve wine and beer,” Dingman says.

“We seldom found ourselves aware that people were abusing [alcohol],” he adds.

Once drinking became illegal for 18- and 19-year-olds, Dingman says fewer students reached out to proctors or tutors as a source of help.

“Drinking that is happening underground has its risks, because students regrettably refuse to seek help,” Dingman says.


Today, the College alcohol policy distinguishes between private events, House Committee and House events, and large House events, and specifies particular rules pertaining to each event type.

With the exception of private events in Houses, all parties that serve alcohol must procure HoCo members or a Beverage Authorization Team (BAT) that checks IDs at the entrance to ensure that only students who are of age may drink.

Consumption of alcohol is not allowed in “public spaces except during authorized parties when an approved carding mechanism is in place.”

Dingman says he has noticed that students who want to socialize with alcohol often seek entertainment off campus—that is, in places like final clubs.

“That being said, there still are a large number of our students who choose not to drink,” he says. “Our challenge is to provide opportunity for them to enjoy and relax themselves where alcohol is not the centerpiece.”

—Staff writer Jane Seo can be reached at

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House LifeAlcoholCommencement 2011Class of 1986