Changes to our Drinking Policy: The Ground Reality

Dean of Students Charri Boykin-East and President “Biddy” Martin were very kind to come to one of our weekly AAS meetings a few weeks ago, making themselves available to the student body and answering any questions we might have. When it came my turn to ask, I chose a question that’s been on the minds of many Amherst students since the semester started: the salient changes to the College’s enforcement of its Alcohol Policy. Dean Boykin-East replied without hesitation: “There’s no change to the Alcohol Policy at all.”

This is a line we’ve heard over and over again during the past few months, but one which doesn’t match up with the facts that we all see. Students are more afraid than ever of getting caught drinking, and whether this is exaggerated or not, something has changed. Each weekend I hear new rumors of crackdowns and arrests, most of which are probably not true but are probably based in some grain of fact. I myself feel compelled to shut the window when I sit down for a light drink, on the off-chance a police cruiser drives by as I sip. Another student, Dan Pastan ’13, tried to explain to the Dean how our own anecdotal experiences don’t match what the College is telling us. Yet whenever we articulate this feeling to key members of the College administration, they tell us there’s no change at all.

Yes, this we know. The policy itself hasn’t changed; it’s as blunt as ever. “A person must be 21 years of age to purchase or be served alcohol.” What has changed is enforcement of the policy. Both Dan and I have talked to campus police officers, and they told us that their enforcement policy has indeed changed. When I first arrived at the College two years ago, I soon learned about an unspoken agreement between the Campus Police and the campus partiers: as long as there’s no complaint, there’s no problem. The police would break up a party if it was too noisy and it bothered anyone trying to get to sleep. An imperfect policy to be sure, but better than what we have now.

This year our alcohol policy has become: as long as you keep your window closed, there’s no problem. As long as you keep it out of the common rooms, there’s no problem. As long as you don’t play that insidious beer pong, there’s no problem. I wonder how the police operating under this year’s policy would have reacted to my sub-free residents last year, who enjoyed playing water pong in the common room on the weekends.

The consequences of this policy are obvious enough to the people they affect. When we can’t drink in the common room, we do it in our cramped dorm rooms. When we can’t play drinking games, we line up shots. And when we have to hide, no one knows when we take it too far. The administration may well see student hospitalization rates go down as a result of this policy, but it won’t be because students are drinking any less.

In fact, hospitalization rates at Harvard and Yale are skyrocketing after they implemented their progressive “amnesty” policies, which acknowledges alcohol consumption and, rather than punishing it, encourages healthy practices. A Harvard representative told The Daily Beast in 2010 that “as the amnesty policy has been more widely communicated to students, one might expect a subsequent rise in alcohol-related admissions not because students are drinking more dangerously, but rather because they are being better bystanders, seeking medical care for friends who may have had too much to drink.”

This seems like an altogether more sane and practical approach to me. College students will drink no matter what; it’s something embedded in American culture and in young adult culture more generally. Rather than shutting the parties down, we should open them up; rather than trying to force students not to drink at all, we should encourage them to drink with health and respect in mind..

My ideal party looks like this: we have a large, open space – perhaps the O’Connor Commons, perhaps the Marsh Ballroom, maybe even outdoors now that the threat of EEE has gone. Students are free to drink through the evening. They don’t need to down eight shots in their dorm rooms before showing up to ensure the buzz will last. Every now and then, campus police officers stroll through – not to shut the party down, but to make sure that the party is safe. They chat with students, as they often did before their presence marked certain doom. A few students will play pong off to one side, drinking maybe two beers over the course of their 20-minute game. And if anyone does get sick, or if anyone’s safety (physical or otherwise) is at risk, there are plenty of bystanders nearby to step in.

We can’t move in this direction until the administration examines the reality on the ground. You will not stop college students from drinking illegally. The best you can do is protect them.