Many students do not know that every Broad Street party (alcoholic or non-alcoholic) must be registered with Residential Life. The registration process has some perfectly good goals: to form a working relationship between the administration and students and to create a safer environment in which students can socialize. Yet, in the three years since Res Life started requiring registration, there has been a noticeable spike in alcohol-related hospitalizations and deterioration in the relationship between Broad Street and the administration. Somehow, with increased oversight and planning, Colgate has become less safe. How can this be? To answer this question, consider a few of the requirements for holding a registered, alcoholic event:
– If a party has more than 99 people (the six fraternities have an average of 75 members), it must either be catered or be entirely non-alcoholic.
– A registered party requires that each guest bring his or her own alcohol (BYOB event).
There are several unwritten requirements for BYOB events:
– When a guest brings beer or wine (no hard alcohol), the guest must be ID’d and obtain a wrist band at the door, at which point the guest’s alcohol is labeled and taken to a central dispensing area.
– A “bar book” must be kept at the dispensing area. If a guest asks for a beer, only that guest’s labeled beer can be dispensed and it must be recorded. If a guest asks for a non-alcoholic drink (such as orange juice) that also must be recorded in the bar book.
– The guest must stay with his or her beer or wine in the dispensing area so the party’s sponsor can ensure that the guest does not share his or her alcohol with another person, a responsibility that lies solely with that organization.
These requirements are unrealistic and both students and Residential Life know it. The policies force all the participants, students and administrators to engage in a thinly disguised and inherently dishonest game.
Even worse, the registration policies undermine conduct that keeps students safe, such as mandates that designated sober members patrol parties, that food and water be provided to their guests, that a risk management plan be implemented and that social hosts complete an alcohol safety course.
Presumably, the university understands that undergraduates will have parties with alcohol. If that was not the case, they would just ban drinking and strictly enforce it. But the policies now in place do nothing to promote responsible or moderate behavior.
The administration should look to the lessons of America’s disastrous experiment in the prohibition of alcohol.
The eighteenth amendment slightly reduced overall alcohol consumption but the reduction came largely among those who already drank responsibly. All other drinkers went underground, creating a black market for a banned substance. The result was a dramatic increase in organized crime, violence and alcohol-related hospitalizations.
The price premium that resulted drove consumers to more potent and dangerous liquor. Law enforcement officials and politicians quickly realized that consistent and comprehensive enforcement was impossible and looked the other way (many for a price), selectively prosecuting when it was politically necessary.
Worst of all, this led to a pervasive mistrust of authority and skepticism about the rule of law, a problem that persists to this day.
This has far-reaching implications for any society. The administration’s policies have already had similar black market effects at Colgate.
When students cannot register on-campus alcoholic events, regulated and realistic social options become limited.
This does not stop students from drinking. Instead, underclassmen choose to drink behind closed doors, “ripping shots” before being spotted. They “pregame” harder because they can’t get into a party later.
The administration has made it too risky for fraternities to hold non-exclusive events that the larger campus can attend, but those same fraternities are criticized for being socially exclusive.
When the administration decides to enforce its policies, the first punishment is usually taking away the ability to register events.
This simply drives organizations to drink off-campus with no risk management plan or sober community, bringing social activities into houses and apartments with out-of-date fire codes and limited access. No wonder off-campus housing is in such high demand.
Colgate’s solution is to respond with more pervasive prohibition policies. In the past year, the administration has banned outdoor/porch drinking, implemented late night walk-throughs, barred first-years from first semester Greek events and continued its haphazard enforcement of their unrealistic registration policies.
While each of these policies is implemented with good intentions, the administration seems unaware that prohibition policies have not curbed behavior but, rather, have displaced drinking to unregulated and unsafe environments.
The solution to unsafe and underground drinking is obvious: make alcoholic event registration clear, consistent and realistic.
Eliminate the fantasy of large-scale BYOB events and negotiate a way for organizations to safely dispense alcohol to a reasonable and manageable number of guests.
Nobody wants anyone getting hurt, not just because students care about the safety of their friends, but also because they know their organization is on the line if something goes wrong.
Universities like Dartmouth and Cornell do not prohibit alcoholic events but, instead, implement specific risk management plans based on the type and size of the event. There is a high degree of peer-to-peer regulation (i.e. Inter Fraternity Council [IFC] and RA walkthroughs) to help enforce realistic community and university standards. Dartmouth does not pretend drinking games do not exist, but instead occasionally sends campus safety to make sure students are safe, not to “write them up.”
This cooperation fosters a more honest and stronger relationship between students and the administration.
To be fair, Colgate’s administration has a real liability problem. Like all universities, they constantly have to worry about the threat that someone will come along and sue Colgate for not taking reasonable steps to avoid alcohol problems.
Prioritizing liability often prevents the administration from creating a nurturing community with trust and shared values.
In this case, liability avoidance is creating a less safe environment at the same time as it undermines the sense of community, an irony that is, perhaps, lost on the administration, but which will not necessarily shield them from liability. It is just like Prohibition.
This is the creature of a society that is driven by lawsuits that are determined to make someone responsible for whatever happens to anyone.
But, that said, Colgate should realize that the steps it is taking to limit its liability are also driving students to drink unsafely, both undermining the sense of community and creating skepticism of authority.
After his first visit to America in 1921, Albert Einstein wrote about the destructive alcohol laws he observed: “The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.” Underground, Colgate students are saying just the same thing.