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Shot after Shot: Harvard's Drinking Problem

The College's troubled relationship with alcohol

By Stephanie B. Garlock and Hana N. Rouse, Crimson Staff Writers

Melissa thought she had a decent grasp of drinking at Harvard, but a night ending in the back of an ambulance proved her dangerously wrong.

Nearly two months into her Harvard career, Melissa did not consider herself a regular drinker. She only went out about once a week, she says—but she freely admits that when she went out, she went hard.

In a friend’s room in an upperclassman House, Melissa—whose name, like many of the students in this story, has been changed due to the sensitivity surrounding underage drinking—started her night with half a Solo cup of vodka and a beer, a running total of about six drinks. She then made her way around the final club circuit, playing beer pong and adding to her drink count.

Her next stop, she thought, would be a room party in the Quad—but she never made it. As soon as she arrived, she started vomiting, so much so that her friend, frightened, dialed 911.

Melissa’s memory of the rest of the night is fuzzy, but based on what her friends have told her, she has been able to reconstruct the evening: An ambulance took her from the Quad to the hospital, where her blood alcohol content clocked in at .23. From there, the Harvard University Police Department transported her to Harvard University Health Services, where she remained until the next morning.

Her friend was scared that night, and so, too, are administrators at Harvard College, who are increasingly seeing their students’ nights end like this. HUPD received 73 percent more calls this year for alcohol-related medical emergencies compared to three years ago, supporting the growing concern among College administrators.

While the College has enacted policies that more explicitly restrict alcohol consumption, it has also taken a more active stance this year in attempting to influence students’ drinking behaviors. But in these efforts, the administration has come up against the pervasiveness of alcohol’s presence on Harvard’s campus.

TRANSFORMING ALCOHOL POLICY

Over the past few years, there has been a clear shift in the College’s relationship with alcohol. In 2003, the Undergraduate Council began allocating money that directly funded alcohol for student events in a program fondly remembered as the “Party Grants.”

But in the intervening years, as administrators have seen underage drinking statutes grow stricter across the state, the University has tightened its control over alcohol.

By spring of 2008, newly appointed Dean of the College David R. Pilbeam had cut the Party Grants.

That same year, changes in the Boston Police Department’s rules about tailgates pushed administrators to end the Harvard-Yale tailgate at kickoff. The Police Department’s change in policy came after a 2004 incident when 25 students were hospitalized for alcohol-related incidents and 29 students were ejected for underage drinking.

ALCOHOL IN THE HOUSES

In the intervening years since Dean of the College Evelynn M. Hammonds became dean, the College has made a number of calculated moves meant to restrict underage drinking on campus.

In March, Hammonds sent a memo to House Masters asking that they enforce the College’s alcohol policy more consistently. Hammonds says that she has focused this spring on consistency rather than standardization.

For example, instead of mandating that each House have Student Event Services (SES) teams of trained graduate students at their events, Hammonds has asked House Masters to determine who they consider to be responsible adults—be they SES teams, tutors, or trained students—and stick to this policy. At Lowell House events this translates to House Committee members and tutors checking IDs; in Adams, that responsibility is delegated to a former resident tutor; and in Pforzheimer House, the responsibility was handed over to school-sponsored Beverage Authorization Teams, the predecessors to SES teams.

Hammonds’s initiatives had an immediate effect across the Houses, as Pfoho canceled its semiannual golf event—which involved drinks and food in students’ rooms throughout the House. Pfoho House Masters cited the inability to control who could drink and the game-like nature of the event in their House-wide email that explained the decision.

The move elicited an uproar over the House’s open-list, which often reflects the ebb and flow of student anger.

While the effects of Hammonds’ refined policy had varying ramifications for House steins, House formal alcohol policies were more universally affected.

Alex—a 21-year-old sophomore—recalled his experience at a House formal this spring. After dinner in the dining hall, Alex and his roommate met up with their dates in Alex’s room to “pre-game” the night.

By 8:30 p.m., strains of indie music floated through the common room. The four drank two bottles of wine and a mix of vodka and cranberry juice.

As the couples got ready to leave for the formal, his friends—all underage and worried they wouldn’t be able to drink more once they arrived—decided they “weren’t drunk enough.” They downed more of the vodka-cranberry mix in preparation for the potentially dry night ahead, leaving behind two empty wine bottles and a half-consumed bottle of vodka.

“We need to get a certain amount of drunk before we go because we’re not going to be able to drink anymore,” Alex says.

Once they arrived at formal, though, the drinking did not end. Alex flashed his ID at the bar and picked up a few drinks for his underage companions.

GOING FOUR LOKO

In addition to administrators’ attempts to monitor and control the drinking that the College officially sponsors, administrators have worked to stamp out what they see as particularly egregious and dangerous instances of student drinking.

For the past two years, College administrators have attempted to end a “supposed tradition” called “River Run,” after the Class of 2012 “took housing activities to an extreme,” according to a 743-word email sent to all freshmen by Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 this spring.

In River Run’s heyday, freshmen moved from House to House taking shots in courtyards and in suites. The exact traditions were unclear—some took shots for the Houses they wanted, others for Houses they didn’t. Then, some freshmen—brazenly violating the law and College policy—would set paper boats aflame in the Charles River to “Please the River Gods.”

While freshmen still continued to trek across campus this spring for River Run, their movements were more tepid and their drinking more guarded.

Dingman’s threats that rogue students could face the Administrative Board—Harvard’s primary disciplinary body—or potential arrest seemed to have their intended effect.

In addition to Dingman’s email, the day before River Run, Hammonds published an op-ed in The Crimson—only her third in her three years as dean and her first piece published alone—warning of the dangers of binge drinking and touting the College’s success in mitigating out of control drinking at this year’s Harvard-Yale tailgate.

In the op-ed, Hammonds made no mention of the following night’s potential for risky activities. Instead she defended the College’s policies regarding alcohol at the Harvard-Yale tailgate which, though unchanged from previous years, some students deemed restrictive.

“The lesson of The Game is that the development of a clear, consistently enforced policy can have a dramatic and positive effect on the problem of dangerous drinking and on student life at Harvard,” Hammonds wrote. “Since 2006, this approach—modified to allow House Committees to bring beer and wine into the tailgating area—has contributed to a change in College culture.”

As reflected in Hammonds’ op-ed, the College’s efforts to prevent unsafe drinking habits are often motivated by an intent to educate the student body.

The College’s response to the obsession for the alcoholic and caffeinated drink Four Loko that swept across American colleges and made its way to Harvard this past fall is representative of that effort.

Before states across the nation passed laws that placed restrictions on the sale of caffeinated alcoholic beverages, College officials informed undergraduates about the dangers of Four Loko in an email.

The message warned of blackouts, severe dehydration, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and alcohol poisoning that could result from alcoholic drinks with stimulants.

One senior says that the novelty of Four Loko, coupled with its forbidden nature, increased its appeal to Harvard students.

While Lowell tutor Christian M. Lane recognized the dangers of Four Loko, he says that the warnings had also drawn attention to the drink.

“Because it had been made an issue everybody then needed to experience it,” Lane said, adding that he didn’t think the drink had much else going for it.

A GROWING TREND

Despite the College’s efforts to create a safe and legal drinking culture at Harvard, UHS admittance numbers, increasing HUPD alcohol-related incident responses, and student accounts all show that dangerous drinking continues to be a problem on campus.

Over the past three years, admittances to UHS for alcohol-related sickness have been rising. In February 2010, Director of the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Services Ryan M. Travia predicted alcohol-related admittances to UHS would reach 200 for the 2009-2010 academic year.

Recently, Travia has repeatedly declined to release alcohol-related UHS numbers to The Crimson. But, in a meeting for residential tutors in January, Hammonds and University Provost Steven E. Hyman presented the figures for the 2010 fall semester.

Admittances to UHS for alcohol-related sickness had nearly reached the entire total for the 2009-2010 academic year by the end of the 2010-2011 fall semester, according to tutors in the meeting.

Despite their reluctance to publicly release numbers that would demonstrate an increase in UHS admittances, administrators have said that any increase can largely be attributed to the College’s 2007 amnesty policy—which promises no disciplinary action against intoxicated students seeking medical attention and those who help them.

But in the past decade, the numbers of alcohol related admittances had already skyrocketed before the introduction of the amnesty policy.

By 2005—two years before adopting the policy—the number of UHS admittances due to alcohol-related sickness had increased by nearly nine-fold over six years, according to an interview with Travia in February 2010.

Then, from 2005 until 2008 alcohol-related admittances remained relatively flat. Since then, alcohol hospitalizations have been on the rise.

UHS numbers are not the only signal that high-risk drinking at Harvard continues to be a problem.

HUPD tracks the number of alcohol-related medical calls they receive each academic year, and during the 2008-2009 school year HUPD saw 106 incidents involving undergraduates. In 2009-2010, HUPD responded to 123 calls. This year, 183 students called HUPD—a 49 percent increase from the previous year. HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano provided the numbers to The Crimson.

It is these types of statistics that are of particular concern to administrators.

“If we had one transport of a student every weekend, that would still be worrisome,” Hammonds says.

WORK HARD, PLAY HARD

These UHS and HUPD numbers reflect some of the more drastic cases of binge drinking on campus. And, while not all cases land students in beds at Stillman Infirmary, they are part of an unhealthy culture that tutors, students, and administrators say has infiltrated Harvard social life.

“Sometimes you’ll finish up something really big and it’ll be like ‘I just really want to forget about everything,’” one senior explains. “People think ‘I’ve worked hard, so I’ve earned this.’”

It is this mentality that college administrators say is most worrying, as it can lead to binge drinking—generally defined as four drinks for women and five drinks for men in under a two hour time period.

Lane says that he thinks Harvard undergraduates approach drinking with “the same efficiency” as they do their academics and drink with the goal of getting drunk.

He says that he sees his students beginning to drink later in the evening as a result of their studies, causing them to gravitate toward hard alcohol and leaving less time for them to process their drinks.

Among students interviewed for this article, nearly everyone said that hard alcohol is the drink of choice on campus.

“They go all out in so many areas of their lives, and to some degree that intense approach to academics or to athletics translates to social life as well,” Travia says.

THE NON-DRINKER

Even for students who choose not to drink, alcohol can be a defining factor in social situations at Harvard.

In painting the picture of alcohol consumption on campus, Harvard administrators often tout the below-average percentage of students who drink regularly.

“The trend nationally is for more incoming freshmen arriving on campus not having any experiences with alcohol, and at Harvard we are also seeing more students continuing alcohol abstinence once they’re on campus,” Travia says.

But even committed non-drinkers can find themselves regularly spending their weekends with their intoxicated peers.

Jenny, a sophomore, says she came to college having decided not to drink because of personal and religious preferences. She recalls some of the awkwardness of her decision when she first got to college, but notes that she has become increasingly comfortable over the last two years, even though most of her friends choose to drink.

“Freshman year it was a little easier said than done,” Jenny says.

But now, dealing with friends who drink has become a part of her life.

On an average weekend night, Jenny will gather with her friends in one of their common rooms. She says that most of her friends use this time to pre-game and strategize the night via text messages. Options range from birthday parties in dorm rooms to final clubs.

When her friends arrive at the party, Jenny goes with them to the bar, occasionally getting a drink of water to avoid questions.

While she says that she is typically the friend who finds lost phones or worries more about those who are with her, she says she does not feel thrust into the role of the sober friend.

“[Not drinking] maybe makes you more worried about your friends,” Jenny says. “It’s nice to know you can keep an eye out.”

COLORING THE CONVERSATION

Beyond shaping many undergraduates’ weekend nights, alcohol plays an often-unstated role in discussions of social life.

Since last spring, the UC has been working to bring back a modified form of the Party Grants, now requiring students to spend almost half the money they receive on SES teams and to hold events in House common spaces.

The effort, called “Student Initiated Programs,” allows students to throw medium-sized parties and is meant to encourage inclusive socializing on campus. And, for the first time since Pilbeam eliminated the Party Grants, the UC is paying for alcohol again.

In this issue as in many others, discussions of social life on campus often have an underlying question: Where can students drink?

When students debate the seemingly unending topic of social space on campus, alcohol colors those discussions as well.

“Last semester I was just getting so frustrated that we didn’t have any place to throw down,” says one freshman boy. “I actually considered throwing a hard core rager in the basement of Lamont or on the roof of the Science Center.”

But this freshman’s frustration is exacerbated by a larger problem. The reality that many Harvard undergraduates are underage, but continue to violate Massachusetts law and College policy to drink, makes it difficult for administrators to engage with these students openly.

“People at Harvard want to be spoken to on realistic terms,” Lane says. “Tha t’s a hard thing to do because obviously this is all illegal for the majority of our students.”

—Kerry M. Flynn, Monika. L. S. Robbins, and Xi Yu contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Stephanie B. Garlock can be reached at sgarlock@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at hrouse@college.harvard.edu.

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House LifeStudent LifeCollege AdministrationCollege LifeAlcohol