The fact that underage students drink on campus isn’t exactly a secret. Gannett, for example, provides excellent resources and services that promote safe alcohol consumption and risk management. Despite this seeming openness, the University administration sends mixed messages regarding the role of alcohol in students’ social lives. Recent directives have eliminated relatively safe, controlled events with underage drinking and replaced them with ill-advised, expensive attempts at alternative programming. The resulting social environment at Cornell is inherently more unsafe and reflects disconnect between students and administrators.
The University certainly had to act to address existing problems with binge drinking. In a Sun column published last month, my friend Sebastian Deri effectively outlined the dangers of excessive drinking and described how social norms related to drinking are misguided. The number of admissions to Cayuga Medical Center and events such as the tragic death of George Desdunes ’13 illustrated that those very social norms were present at Cornell.
But notable instances of student binge drinking don’t tell the entire story. Prior to this year, underage students choosing to drink were generally doing so safely, at regulated, secure locations such as fraternities, dormitories and (to the surprise of some) bars.
According to the 2011 PULSE Survey, 72.4 percent of Cornellians report consuming at least some alcohol on occasion. A lot of this drinking is underage: 56.5 percent of freshman, 68.6 percent of sophomores and 79.6 percent of juniors reported consuming alcohol.
For underclassmen, a significant percentage of this drinking was relatively safe. Only 21.3 percent of freshman, 27 percent of sophomores and 29.9 percent of juniors reported consuming a significant amount of alcohol (five drinks for males and four for females) more than once every two weeks. So while binge drinking is an issue, it doesn’t represent the actions of most Cornellians or even most underage Cornell drinkers.
Gannett recognizes the realities of our student drinking culture. Through campus health initiatives, BASICS counseling and the Medical Amnesty Program, emphasis is placed on safe drinking and managing dangerous situations.
Such programs are in line with the Amethyst Initiative, an effort by 136 university chancellors and presidents to encourage a reconsideration of the U.S. drinking age. Proponents agree that “alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.” I think such a conclusion is reasonable, but President Skorton is not a signatory of the Initiative. His lack of agreement with their principles underscores a flaw in the University’s attempts to foster a safe drinking culture.
The new restrictions on fraternity and sorority events are similarly illustrative of the emerging disconnect between student culture and administrative policy. Formerly, what we popularly called “open parties” were safe events for underage students to drink and enjoy themselves. Professional security, sober monitors and strict regulations ensured that parties were contained and that only beer was served. Similarly, registered fraternity and sorority mixers were well-managed and low-risk.
That’s not to say this is purely a Greek issue; countless other campus organizations similarly hosted events where safe drinking takes place. In fact, despite voicing significant ambivalence about the Greek system, students seemed to be generally satisfied with Cornell’s social status quo: In 2011, 83 percent were either “generally satisfied” or “very satisfied” with social life on campus. Presumably, since most students surveyed were in fact drinking, they were comfortable with the existing culture.
Instead of reforming this culture to make it safer, the University drastically altered it without regard for potential consequences. As a result of policies restricting fraternities from serving alcohol to freshman, students turned to riskier drinking in Collegetown. Now, students are drinking more hard liquor in unregulated settings.
The untold truth is that new regulations haven’t decreased student drinking. Rather, it has become more private and less controlled. Freshmen and others are now drinking liquor unchecked in place of the beer commonly served at fraternity parties. Instead of being able to regulate underage drinking, the University is now less likely to know about it.
The $15,000 alcohol-free dance club recently launched at Robert Purcell Community Center is an expensive reminder that administrators fail to understand the student perspective. The club’s debut attracted a mere 200 students, and I don’t see it becoming more popular. Frankly, I can’t imagine many students thought it was a good idea in the first place. Cornellians attending an event of that nature are probably also looking to drink, and will be reluctant to participate if they cannot do so.
Of course, there is a need for alcohol-free programming of a different nature. 57 percent of students in 2011 did not feel there were enough late-night activities not involving alcohol. It is critical for the University to tailor this programming to students who want it and to bring them into the decision-making process. If the programming is initiated by popular student organizations, such as the Cornell Concert Commission, it is more likely to be successful.
It is clear that the University needs to both facilitate safe drinking events and provide alcohol-free alternatives. In doing so, it must reaffirm its faith in students’ abilities to generate ideas and solve problems. The Interfraternity and Panhellenic Councils have demonstrated remarkable maturity and an ability to self-regulate in the past year. Forthcoming proposals that train neutral student monitors of drinking environments, for example, merit serious consideration.
If student drinking wasn’t mainstream, the University’s administrative directives would be adequate. Social drinking, however, is ubiquitous at Cornell. In light of this fact, it is irresponsible for the University to ignore potentially unsafe conditions. Prohibition failed, and abstinence-only sex education has been shown to be ineffective. Policies like these ignore reality, and so does Cornell’s approach to student drinking. Student-driven initiatives are necessary to make drinking safer and to provide effective alternatives. A successful and safe social culture at Cornell must come from within, not above.
Jon Weinberg is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com . In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.