By MAGGIE HENRY
The last time I used this column to call drinking and partying at Cornell excessive, I got online comments such as “Maggie Henry doesn’t know how to rage,” and “Who IS this girl.” In that column, I was writing about someone quite literally (and quite publically) defecating on a bleacher and more than a dozen people in a single two-hour concert having to receive some type of significant medical attention. I don’t think “excessive” was a stretch.
This time around, I feel pretty much the same way but a little more thoughtful about my complicit participation in a social scene that, at times, is just too much.
Last week, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 expressed concerns over the state of Cornell’s off-campus socializing. Specifically, he took time to comment on how the University has addressed the Greek community’s role on campus in the past few years, acknowledging that some of the Collegetown craziness can be attributed to the movement of much of Greek life partying off-campus to annexes.
The Mayor’s statement implicitly focuses on “where” excessive drinking occurs, instead of “why” students at Cornell excessively drink in the first place. Indeed, some of the University’s new Greek Life policies designed to prevent freshmen from attending large, open parties have the same trademark categorization: Where the party happens is the number one concern.
But what about the “why?” When I started to think about that, I realized that the problem becomes a lot scarier if we don’t just think about Greek system-related drinking. Suddenly, without that sense of focus, high-risk drinking seems much more ubiquitous, much more erratic and perhaps, a bit more irrational. I don’t know if the University realizes how much its representation of the problem falsely limits it to a minority of students. The causal link the administration has drawn between Greek life and drinking has allowed it, and therefore us, to be careless about how widespread drinking is at this school. Indeed, according to a University study from the Fall 2012, a higher percentage of students (37.2 percent) reported drinking between three and five drinks when they go out than reported not drinking at all (31.5 percent.) Notice that these statistics do not delineate between students involved in Greek life and those who are not — they capture our student body as a whole.
I’ve long avoided writing this column because I am a member of a social sorority and felt concerned that my opinion would be seen as biased. But the more I’ve grown out of Greek life and the more centered on Collegetown — rather than my sorority affiliation — my social life has become, the more my eyes have been opened to a pretty simple truth. Crazy partying is something that happens not just within the Greek System. People from many different groups on this campus participate in unhealthy habits. Focusing on the “where” of drinking allows everyone in this community to confront a scapegoat sub-community instead of the elephant in the middle of the room: A lot of different types of people at this University excessively drink.
I’m sure a lot of rational people out there are capable of imagining the level of frustration the administration feels in regard to student partying. It can be pretty appalling; the number of hospitalizations, the quality of life in Collegetown, the countless stories I’ve heard and overheard about regular “blackouts” as a hallmark of a good time.
Yes, it’s insane. But the University could do better than it does. At this point in my student career, I have to conclude that by pushing parties off-campus, the University has accelerated an already-momentous trend in excessive student drinking.
On-campus events, and open parties generally, can be structured to imbue a sense of responsibility in hosts and older students. Don’t believe me? See the impact of Bowdoin College’s progressive and well-thought-out policies for on-campus socializing. That administration employs a system based on clear rules about host responsibilities and real sanctions, and has experienced an extremely low rate of unregistered parties. Creating an environment where on-campus parties can happen safely, with strong medical amnesty policies and real consequences for hosts to consider, would be a first step toward striking a balance between the University and students’ expectations about socializing on-campus.
So, thank you, Mayor Myrick. You’re right. Things aren’t working. I want to see the administration allow open parties with clear guidelines, instead of preventing on-campus student gatherings and assigning the responsibility for problem drinking to a limited social group. I want administrators to solicit direct student discussion through randomly selected groups, which would go a lot farther than mass e-mails inviting people to generalized forums that busy Cornell students aren’t realistically going to attend. Additionally, we shouldn’t just remind students that many people drink “moderately or not at all,” which is going to seem hollow and false to a student who has ever been to the corner of College Ave. and Dryden Ave. on a Saturday night. Instead, why don’t we develop freshmen orientation programs that tackle the issue head-on, and initiate real discussion about what will really make students comfortable with drinking or not drinking. I’ve heard great things about this year’s Orientation Week presentations on sexual consent and alcohol consumption. Make this an upward trend and continue to improve.
As students, we could do a lot to help ourselves and our community by taking advantage of these opportunities when they are presented to us. Unilateral policies have helped this situation get where it is today, and if both parties — students and the administration — aren’t willing to work together, then sentiments like those expressed by the Mayor will only become more accurate and more omnipresent.
Pushing alcohol consumption deeper into dark basements of rickety Collegetown houses (and pretending that the problem is less widespread than it is) is a dangerous game. Let’s all help our community get down to creating an environment that’s both realistic and safe.
Maggie Henry is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.