Compared to many other universities, Yale mostly gets it right in its official policies towards alcohol. It has not tried to do the impossible by cracking down on each and every instance of drinking, opting instead to encourage safety. And it has wisely realized that student health must be its first priority.
In response to the planned review of the University’s alcohol policies, it seems natural to ask why Yale should fix a system that doesn’t appear broken. Yet some Yalies do binge drink, and as tragedy after tragedy at campuses across the country has shown, binge drinking can kill. Are we confident that the recent absence of alcohol-related deaths here means we are doing everything we can to prevent them — or have we simply been lucky? We’re not so sure.
So Yale is right to reconsider what it can do to make students safer. But in doing so, the University must shy away from changes that reduce the effectiveness of what it already does right. The administration should realize that any move toward a more punitive approach will be counterproductive. And it must appreciate that widespread student support for new proposals is absolutely necessary if Yale wants to encourage healthy behavior and not just push unhealthy drinking out of sight.
What is needed on Yale’s campus is not new rules, but a new attitude toward alcohol abuse. In part, the problem is cultural — in an age where students know that the stated definitions of binging are woefully out of touch with what actually happens at college, the line between social drinking and problem drinking has been dangerously blurred. At the same time, students are often unaware of how to tell if a friend has had too much to drink — and if so, what to do about it. So even on a campus where it is common knowledge that students can get medical attention for alcohol-related problems without fear of punishment, we worry that too few actually do so.
On the whole, the committee the University forms would be wise to preserve the core of Yale’s current approach by encouraging proactive efforts rather than restrictive ones. But it should also examine ways to create a social environment that relies a bit less on drinking to get drunk — even if that just means encouraging students to make more food and non-alcoholic beverages available at parties. Likewise, Yale should consider whether freshmen are learning all they need to know about alcohol during orientation, from how to protect against date-rape to how to recognize when someone needs medical attention. And the University should follow the lead of schools like Trinity College and Washington University in St. Louis, where student volunteers trained as emergency medical technicians are on call 24 hours a day to respond to emergencies. Creating a similar system here would offer an intermediate step concerned students could turn to before going to Undergraduate Health Services, offering a way to get help and advice less formally.
As Yale reconsiders its alcohol policies, it should keep a simple principle in mind: Do no harm. Yale should not make changes that break what doesn’t need fixing, and it should steer clear of enforcing discipline at the cost of safety. But when it comes to avoiding an alcohol-related tragedy, hoping that we will stay lucky simply is not enough.