When the Yale–Harvard Game comes to New Haven next month, many students will drink. Many of them will get drunk. And not all of them will be 21.
Given that reality, the question facing Yale that weekend — and the rest of the year as well — is how a university concerned about the health and safety of its student body should handle drinking on campus. So as Yale undergoes a year-long review of its alcohol policy, it’s worth noting how much better Yale has addressed that question than some of its peer universities — including the one that’s been beating us on the football field the past four years.
This time last year, Harvard announced its plan to crack down on drinking at The Game by banning kegs from campus for the weekend. The result? More students drinking hard alcohol, more students drinking more than they realized, and more students ending up in the hospital. When The Game was held at Harvard in 2002, 10 students were hospitalized. Last year, the number was at least 25. That shouldn’t have been hard to predict. Without beer as an option, many students turn to hard alcohol and have a harder time figuring out how much they’ve had to drink and when to stop. But like universities around the country, Harvard went for a keg ban anyway.
Banning kegs isn’t the only policy that makes universities look tough while getting more students sick. A high school friend of mine was written up her first week of freshman year for being in the same room as underage kids who were drinking. Her school’s policy punishes underage students for hanging out with peers who are drinking as severely as underage drinking itself. Message to students? Make sure students who aren’t drinking stay away from friends who are — and who might need some help from someone more sober.
Those students aren’t likely to go to their RAs for help either. That’s who showed up and turned in my friend and the kids she was with. And in an uncertain situation, they’ll be hesitant to take a sick friend in for medical attention and risk the disciplinary action that goes with it.
So the likely impact of the most popular “tough on drinking” policies, then, is to encourage drinking hard alcohol rather than beer, in private rather than in public, without anyone sober around, without going to RAs for help, and without getting medical attention when someone gets sick. And judging from the conversations I had with other American college students in an immersion program this summer, too often that’s exactly what happens. That such policies are implemented in the name of protecting students is that much more absurd.
To their credit, Yale’s leaders have chosen policies that prioritize keeping students safe over posturing for parents. As we each learn in the opening days of freshman year, Yale’s de facto policy is to punish kids not for getting drunk but for doing things while drunk that would be against the rules while sober (property damage, violence and such). Taking sick friends to DUH means they wake up with the attention of a nurse, not their parents or ExComm. And the job of freshman counselors is to look out for students’ health, not police their compliance. These policies deserve significant credit for the relative scarcity of the kind of alcohol-related deaths that occur with regularity on too many American campuses. And current and past Yale administrations deserve credit for implementing and maintaining them.
That’s why I’m hopeful that as Yale administrators formulate a policy for this year’s Yale–Harvard Game, they’ll steer clear of the kind of gimmicks — ineffective at best and harmful at worst — pursued by their peers. Dean Salovey’s statement to the News that Yale is unlikely to go in a direction of “security and police patrol” is an encouraging sign. So is his prediction that the recommendations of the committee charged with a broad overview of Yale’s alcohol policy will offer not “a major overhaul in policy” but suggestions for ensuring that students are informed and comfortable in making their own decisions.
There is, of course, room for improvement. Salovey and others are right to consider how better to provide or foster more social activities that don’t depend on drinking — explicitly or implicitly — and how to do so in a way that doesn’t unnecessarily divide students based on their choices about alcohol. That includes events in which both intoxicated and sober kids can take part without feeling out of place.
Yale’s leaders should also work with Chief Perrotti, students and community members to ensure that the Yale Police hold Yale students and other New Haven residents around campus to the same standard in determining what counts as disorderly conduct worthy of arrest, and that those standards are clear and consistently enforced.
And the Yale administration must work with coaches and athletes to ensure that recruitment of high school athletes does not turn on competing with other schools to get 17-year-olds drunk, and that students hosting recruits are not made to feel that taking high schoolers drinking is their responsibility as hosts. That may include moving recruiting visits from the weekend to during the week, or shifting the responsibility for hosting away from freshmen and onto upperclassmen. This was the most common concern I heard from freshman counselors in conversations about how Yale handles alcohol. Otherwise, those conversations spoke to how much easier Yale’s approach makes it to keep students safe.
Making the health of students the guiding principle of its alcohol policy is a choice that reflects well on Yale. So — most of the time — does its execution, particularly as compared to the competition. There’s one victory we can plan to lord over Harvard next month.
Josh Eidelson is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.