Shot after Shot: Harvard's Drinking Problem

The College's troubled relationship with alcohol

Kevin H. Lin

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.


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.


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.