It was his freshman year, and Joel Friedman ’69 was strolling through Old Campus with a six-pack of beer when a Yale Police officer stopped him. The cop peeked into Friedman’s brown paper bag, but he did not arrest the underage drinker, nor did he report him to the administration. Instead, the officer nabbed a beer for himself and sent Friedman on his way, five beers in tow.
Friedman’s tale distills a long history of leniency when it comes to underage drinking at Yale. While the legal drinking age in Connecticut has fluctuated through the years, Yale has consistently maintained lax enforcement of its alcohol policies for undergraduates.
Until the 1980s, the published undergraduate regulations had little to no mention of a University alcohol policy. But except when alcohol was banned outright during Prohibition, administrators consistently have turned a blind eye to student drinking, regardless of Connecticut law and University policy.
The reign of the liquor czar
Yale’s alcohol policy was at its most draconian from 1919 to 1933, when nationwide Prohibition laws forbade the transportation and purchase of liquor. Then-Yale President James Angell warned students in his 1923 Freshman Assembly address that they would be dismissed from Yale if they were found in possession of alcohol in any University building.
“No man can come to any great success at Yale who is known as a dissipated man,” Angell told the freshmen.
Angell gained a reputation as a moralist during his tenure, giving numerous addresses on the moral crises facing young people. He often wrote to leaders in the Connecticut General Assembly and urged them not to loosen restrictions on alcohol.
In a letter to Hartford lawmakers dated Feb. 16, 1931, Angell warned against easing up on the state’s enforcement of national Prohibition laws.
“[Proposed liberalization would be] fraught with the consequences of the most dangerous and unwholesome kind,” Angell wrote.
High prices for bootleg liquor during Prohibition precluded many students from drinking at flagrant levels, as they did before Prohibition, Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 said. But affluent faculty members had little difficulty finding alcohol in Connecticut, a “wet” state that became known for its underground liquor operations and lax law-enforcement officials, Smith said.
Angell, who had threatened to dismiss students for drinking during Prohibition, grew frustrated with faculty members who bought bootleg liquor and held grandiose cocktail parties, Smith said.
“If they applied that ultimatum to the faculty, they would have been decimated,” Smith said.
Within days of the 1933 repeal of national Prohibition laws, students quickly took advantage of the liquor flowing into the city. New Haven’s package stores sprinkled the Yale Daily News with enticing ballyhoos. “It’s smart to be legal,” screamed the slogan on a New Haven Beverage Co. advertisement. The blurb for Captain Doherty’s Package Store on Broadway read, “All Yale men will find this the right place to patronize.”
Although Connecticut set the legal drinking age at 21, Yale officials began what would become a steady tradition of loose enforcement of underage drinking laws. Angell, who remained Yale president until 1937, was mostly unsuccessful in his efforts to curb excessive drinking at parties and at games in the Yale Bowl, Smith said.
Since Prohibition ended, he said, liquor has always been easily attainable for underage drinkers from local stores, and neither Yale officials nor New Haven police officers have done much to curb rampant drinking.
“Old Campus smelled of vomit,” said Smith, recalling his days as a freshman. “I’m surprised people didn’t die; they got so drunk.”
After years without an explicit alcohol policy, Yale administrators in 1969 amended the undergraduate regulations and briefly listed alcohol misconduct as an “issue of concern” to the University. But during the early 1970s, Yale Police seemed to be more concerned with enforcing drug laws than alcohol policies, Thomas Costanzo ’73 said.
Even after Connecticut lawmakers lowered the legal drinking age to 18 in 1972, Yale officials only occasionally broke up rowdy parties and seldom checked students’ ages at social functions, Costanzo said.
“[Alcohol] was pretty much available at the colleges when they would hold mixers, and they weren’t good about checking IDs or anything like that,” Costanzo said.
Lax enforcement, but ongoing concern
In the 1980s, as the state drinking age gradually rose year-by-year to 21, where it has remained since, University officials struggled to strike a balance between law enforcement and student health and safety. Howard Lamar, who was dean of Yale College from 1979 to 1985, said he remembers having many long discussions with residential college masters on how best to comply with the new law because it would apply to the majority of undergraduates.
“I do remember what seemed to be days, hours and months of discussion with masters,” Lamar said.
Administrators tried to enforce state law without alienating students, said Deputy Provost Charles Long, who served in Lamar’s office at the time.
“We had a fairly important responsibility because there are certain liabilities for people who knowingly allow people under 21 to drink,” Long said. “There was a tension between being strict and compliant with the law and good sense with the possibility of driving student drinking underground or off-campus.”
An alcohol-induced student death in 1986 prompted Yale administrators to re-examine its alcohol policy. Silliman sophomore Ted McGuire ’89 began a night of heavy drinking at a University-sanctioned party in Saybrook College before continuing drinking at a private party. The next morning, McGuire’s roommates found him dead in his Silliman dormitory.
Following McGuire’s death, Yale officials stepped up efforts to educate students on the effects alcohol consumption can have on their health and provided freshmen counselors with training for dealing with intoxicated underage students. Although administrators took no steps to regulate drinking in students’ private rooms, they enacted several restrictions on college-sponsored parties in the undergraduate regulations released in the fall of 1986.
But the cautious party atmosphere on campus following McGuire’s death did not last for long, Michelle Johnson-Littleton ’86 said.
“I remember for about six months of the year there was a definite difference in the parties on campus and a lot of PR from the University as far as responsibility and alcohol,” Johnson-Littleton said. “But then the summer came; we all came back, and it was like nothing ever happened.”
Since he arrived at Yale decades ago, Long said students have, for the most part, responded well to the University’s alcohol policies.
“Overall, Yale students have been relatively sensible about alcohol,” Long said. “We’ve had a couple of serious cases, but very few compared to other schools.”
Spurred by rising concerns about binge drinking, Yale President Richard Levin launched a reexamination the University’s undergraduate alcohol policies this semester. Though the policy will be reconsidered, Levin is unlikely to follow his predecessor Angell in railing about the “dissipated man.” Whatever changes are implemented, Long said, safety, rather than punishment, will remain the University’s top priority.