Li: Condoning the drinking culture

I hosted a Yalie-to-be two years ago during Bulldog Days. I wasn’t a very good host — I neither showed him around nor took him out to lunch — but my little guest didn’t seem to mind. He came back to my room at five each morning and slept through the rest of the day. I thought that he’d for sure enroll here.

But my guest called a few days later and said that he decided to go somewhere else since he “didn’t feel too comfortable with the availability of alcohol on campus.”

Maybe he said that just to make me — the real reason he rejected Yale — feel better. But maybe he was being honest.

In any event, he made an excellent observation about the less-advertised side of Yale. I haven’t read Yale’s statistics, but between the number of off-the-record stories I’ve heard about the trinity of University Health Services, freshmen and alcohol from my friends who are freshman counselors, and the hoards of minors showing up at all sorts of drinking parties and then passing out on the ground I’ve witnessed, I hardly need a 30-page report to convince me that underage drinking problem here is serious. And I don’t even go out that much.

The alcohol policies stated in Yale’s Undergraduate Regulation are clear: underage drinking is prohibited by law and students will face administrative punishment if they are caught intoxicated before turning 21 or serving alcohol to someone underage. But although the rule looks great on paper, it is rarely enforced.

The names of students who are taken to YUHS, for example, are not reported to their deans if they leave the facility by 8 a.m. In addition, it takes almost no effort for freshmen to find somewhere to drink. The University is famed, among peers in the Ivy League, for its forgivingness about underage drinking.

Granted, Yale is trying to strike a delicate balance. Administrators want students to respect the law, but at the same time they do not want to discourage those who fall the victim to intoxication from getting help. And they have succeeded for the most part in the latter — students often call on freshman counselors and even ambulances when they need help.

The administration is probably well aware, however, that they are not succeeding at preventing dangerous drinking habits in the first place — come on, do you really think someone who spent 15 years at Yale doesn’t know what’s going on in Bingham every weekend?

I am afraid, nevertheless, that they don’t realize that the University’s overly benevolent policies and lack of enforcement are part of the problem.

All too often, warnings and reminder e-mails from YUHS, the deans and masters are conveniently interpreted as “well, try not to get in trouble, but if you do, we’ve got your back” because they lack a credible enforcement mechanism. All too often, students abuse Yale’s kindhearted policy designed to prevent students from shunning medical care. All too often, the University’s reluctance to actively intervene in drinking scenes and punish those who violated the law seems to condone underage drinking and claim kids are kids — they will learn and grow up, eventually.

I used to worship this mentality; three years ago, I was a freshmen who enjoyed the lienience of the alcohol policy, and it seems that I turned out fine. But as I reflect upon that experience, I’m not so sure my decision was the right one: one certainly doesn’t need to break the law or risk harming his or her own health to “grow up,” and drinking is not essential to a productive and memorable college life.

But that mentality is endemic on campus. The lack of a clearly defined and strongly enforced regulation of alcohol consumption does nothing to combat it. In fact, the absence of forceful dissuasion has become active encouragement.

The University has neither the obligation nor the capacity to baby-sit its students, but that doesn’t mean the administration can stick its head in the sand and pray that Yalies will show restraint. The battle against underage drinking will be an uphill one: the problem has much to do with the culture of the society both at Yale and at college campuses nationwide. But it is a worthwhile one.

A few years ago President Levin said, in a news article about drinking on campus, “I think we should always be asking ourselves, are we doing everything we can to protect our students’ health and safety?” I think he and his administration need to continue to question themselves about their approach to underage drinking.

Robert Li is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.


  • Thumbs down

    Disagree. Yale’s lax alcohol policy is one of the reasons that most people here like Yale and one of the attractive characteristics of Yale. As compared to Harvard, Yale students tend to be a lot more easy going and errr fun. Cracking down on alcohol consumption and social activities would destroy that environment.

    If you don’t want to drink then don’t (or go to Harvard).

  • Concerned

    This opinion would be stronger if it addressed counterarguments.

    It is important to consider the effect prohibition and intimidation have on students. When moderate alcohol consumption is not tolerated, alcohol becomes coveted. Drinking becomes increasingly difficult to regulate, and alcohol consumption goes “underground” — look at countries like Morocco, which disallow consumption altogether. Prohibition in the United States was no better.

    Please consider the reasons why alcohol abuse is rampant in the U.S. If drinking is illegal for sub-21 young adults, alcohol is only experienced “underground,” in an undercover environment.

    Change the drinking age to 18.

  • David


    If you aren’t going to enforce the rule, repeal the rule, O Gutless Ones.

    “But what about the law?”

    Call it Civil Disobedience and feel good about yourself.

    Actually, this is one of the less hypocrisies at Yale, so don’t get too upset about it.

  • huh??


  • Café Wha?

    Get this guy a brew, stat.

  • Way to go

    Okay first off I don’t go to Yale, I ran across the article by accident, but at my college we just ran an opinion piece sorta similar to this one – and I have to say I totally agree with it. Way to take a stand on this! I don’t think enough people are willing to stand up for the conservative side.

    And as far as the comment on lowering the drinking age to 18, are you telling us that people don’t drink in high school? Do you think the law should be adjusted for them too? I mean, if you’re gonna just change the law to accommodate the people that break it, then what the heck is the point of having laws? Honestly.

    At the same time, whose responsibility is it to stop underage kids from drinking? By the time they get to college, they already know for themselves whether or not they’re gonna drink. The drinking culture itself has gotta change, and it’s hard to say whether or not harsher punishments is gonna do that…

  • Missing the point

    While nobody’s going to deny that binge drinking is a problem, but would it really make a difference if the university cracks down harder on underage drinking? I mean, binge drinking can land you in DUH, Yale-New Haven, or a even worse place no matter how old you are — 20 or 21 or 30. Unless the university imposes a total ban on drinking (which won’t work because drinking will just get shifted to “underground”, and probably unconstitutional too), I wonder how are stricter regulations going to help change things.

  • Old Blue ’73

    Mr. Li, you let Yale down by letting the recruit only see the drinking side of Yale. If you’re a moderate or non drinker, it would have been more responsible of you to show the kid another way to live on campus. You failed Yale and that kid.

    On the issue you raise, I prefer the approach of

  • huh?

    this argument is clearly not thought out very well. i’ve never met a student unhappy about yale’s drinking policies. kids die of alcohol poisoning when their friends are fearful of taking them to the hospital, yale does what they do for a reason. please, stop writing op-eds.

  • HDT


    Changing the drinking culture is actually the rationale for lowering the drinking age. On a college campus, a lot of the binge drinking arises from the fact that people tend to do heavy drinking in private and then go out (eg, pregaming). If it weren’t illegal for most people in college to be drinking, the hope is that they would feel less pressure to do it in private–for example, social events could have an open bar–which hopefully mean that people would drink less, but even if they drink the same amount, their drinking would be spread out over an evening rather than concentrated within a short time-frame.

  • Recent Alum

    #2: This is a nice-sounding argument in theory, but it is not supported by the empirical evidence. Take Singapore, where the punishment for drug use, including marijuana, is the death penalty. Guess what? People rarely use illegal drugs in Singapore.

  • ’10

    The biggest problem with this article is that the opinion it expresses is based on absolutely no evidence. Yale’s “problem” is hardly unique. The question this article failed to ask is whether stricter policies actually result in a healthier environment. Yale administrators, however, have asked, and answered, this question. The policies that Li hopes will curtail this problem simply won’t.

  • wandering aengus


  • Egalitarian

    To #11: Sure, imposing the death penalty will reduce the frequency of just about anything, but do you really think that this country will kill people for underage drinking? In the unlikely event that you could get the votes for it, the Supreme Court would likely rule that capital punishment for such a minor offense is cruel and unusual, and they would be absolutely right in doing so.

    Israel has a drinking age of 18 and lax enforcement. DWI is almost unheard of there. Maybe we should consider adopting their methods.

  • Lester

    Yale technically has a drinking age of 21 and ridiculously lax enforcement. And yet students still binge drink. What exactly are we supposed to fear? The nonexistent police officers who arrest us for underage drinking or invisible the university administrators who discipline us for violating the law?

  • Alum 09

    It’s one thing to talk about Yale’s alcohol policies, but it’s another to talk about the drinking culture on campus. Before we start debating whether Yale should crack down on underage drinking, we first need to consider whether the drinking culture on campus is a problem. My two cents: drinking on campus reflects the incredible pressure that students are under at Yale, and reducing that pressure will lead to healthier forms of release.

  • Old Blue ’73

    #16, I doubt that’s true. If it was, lower pressure colleges like big ten schools, wouldn’t have binge drinking problems, and clearly they do, too.

  • FailBoat

    I humbly submit that binge drinking and getting blackout-wasted is a uniquely American phenomenon and has nothing whatsoever to do with the drinking age.

    All these discussions about “oh, Spain doesn’t have a drinking age” are completely misleading because Spaniards, unlike Americans, generally quit drinking before they end up in Yale-New Haven.

  • Alum

    AMEN, Mr. Robert Li. You tell ’em.