Earlier this week, my roommate excitedly remarked to me, “Know who I saw today? Sober Buddy.”
The myth of Sober Buddy began as part of new alcohol initiatives introduced last fall, when Yale College freshmen were required to complete a brief alcohol-safety training program online before arriving on campus. The interactive video program included Yale students who discussed the drinking culture on campus — a mostly forgettable conversation, with the exception of the oft-mistaken narrator Sober Buddy, whose pro-sobriety antics were corrected by more realistic Yale students. For many freshmen, though, Sober Buddy has become the caricature of Yale’s alcohol policies.
Yale likes to drink, and alcohol is part of campus culture in a different way than at many of our peer institutions. Senior societies aside, Yalies aren’t limited by the exclusive eating clubs of Princeton or the Manhattan brownstones housing Columbia’s fraternities. Yale students share alcohol at community events, organization bonding and open parties — often with positive results when it comes to making the community closer. To deny the presence of drinking at these gatherings would be immature and irresponsible, both for students and administrators. To that end, the administration has made largely positive steps in recognizing and examining the drinking culture at Yale among both legal and underage students.
But the administration has been dealt a difficult task in recognizing and discussing the inevitability of underage drinking and also acknowledging the authority of Connecticut state law.
The freshman alcohol training video was comical not because of the caped narrator, but because it makes clear the University’s insecure teetering between polar messages. On one hand, the video’s narrators explicitly say that underage students drink; they advocate safety — not necessarily sobriety — a realistic goal given college culture nationwide. On the other hand, the administration continues to push messages of compliance with the law, which is obviously required of the institution. Policy dictates, “Under no circumstances may alcoholic beverages be served, directly or indirectly, to anyone under the legal drinking age.”
It’s hard not to laugh at the competing messages of reality and legality, and they speak to larger issues with the drinking age and University life. But it’s a problem that these juxtaposed policies make applying Yale’s alcohol training less likely, because the abuse and dangerous consumption of alcohol is still a problem among undergraduates. I’ve known far too many late night visitors to Yale Health to believe that new policies or educational videos have made a real impact on freshmen. The administrative decision to develop new alcohol policies seems like recognition of that failure.
Last night, I took part in a dialogue between members of Yale College’s Student Affairs and Student Life departments, Berkeley students and Master Marvin Chun on the proposed changes to Yale’s policy on alcohol. The focus of the new initiative — which will include student additions to an existing implementation committee and the formation of a new student advisory committee — is unification, clarification and communication of University policy, improvement of alcohol education for students, and engagement of the Yale community. These are lofty ideals and don’t hold much weight on their own, but promise of concrete policy and education changes is clear in the new administrative attitude.
Perhaps the most important topic discussed was the goal of shaping drinking culture among underclassmen by modeling positive behavior in those of legal drinking age. That’s a particularly pragmatic vision, considering our peers are likely more influential in changing campus attitudes towards alcohol then are the policies themselves. Dangerous drinking arises most frequently from quick consumption with the intent to get drunk, a major component of college drinking culture. For students whose first exposure to serious drinking is college life — a solid portion of Yale — this model is particularly dangerous.
That’s really to say, college students are drinking dangerously because they’re drinking wrong. Master Chun makes clear his positive-modeling attitude through events that encourage tasteful, smart drinking among seniors — events that offer wine, beer and even scotch tastings. This isn’t a cure-all for a seriously corrupted drinking culture, but this scheme helps reconcile the reality of a campus drinking culture with an institutional respect for the authority of law.
The reformed focus of alcohol policy leaves me cautiously optimistic about administrative plans. But it is utterly necessary that students continue to voice our opinions on that matter — we’re subject to both the influence of Yale drinking culture and Yale administrative policy, and we ought to be primary actors in advising these decisions.
Caroline Posner is a freshman in Berkeley College. Her columns run on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .