Yalies value the administration’s safety-first approach to student drinking, and rightly so. In contrast to many of its peers, the University’s policy strikes an admirable balance, addressing the legal issues and health concerns surrounding alcohol consumption while recognizing the practical reality that drinking — even underage drinking — is unlikely to disappear from college campuses anytime soon.
Against the backdrop of a system that seems to be working well, the University’s decision to review Sigma Phi Epsilon’s alcohol distribution at parties this week raised concern among some students that Yale may be in the process of changing its stance on alcohol. While the University can and should be concerned about underage drinking, the administration must be cautious to preserve those elements of its policy that make the culture of alcohol safer and more responsible at Yale than at many other schools.
Generally speaking, the administration’s actions in this case are understandable. Given that fraternities are affiliated with the University, Yale has a right to intervene in their activities when laws are being broken. The University has a clearly defined policy against underage drinking, and the administration acts within its bounds when it punishes an affiliated organization for breaking these rules.
That said, this particular action seems less than fair. The decision to single out Sig Ep — by reputation, at least, not among Yale’s rowdiest fraternities — seems to be an arbitrary disciplinary measure. The suddenness and the timing of the review — following Parents’ Weekend — suggest that the move may be a symbolic gesture on the part of the University, and Sig Ep should not bear the brunt of that concern.
Beyond Sig Ep, this incident raises a broader issue. As the administration continues to review its alcohol policy, officials must carefully consider whether a crackdown on underage drinking at fraternities can be reconciled with Yale’s more general plans for dealing with campus drinking in the future. Imposing severe restrictions on fraternities can create more problems than it solves.
Underage drinking will continue at Yale, regardless of the administration’s actions. With that in mind, an effective alcohol policy should serve to minimize the risk of serious health consequences for students.
Fraternity parties are hardly the worst place for students to drink. At fraternities, students are among a large group of people who are likely to intervene in the case of an emergency, and they are more likely to drink beer than hard liquor or grain alcohol, decreasing the risk of such emergencies in the first place. Restricting fraternity parties to those over 21 risks encouraging underclassmen to drink higher-proof beverages in the privacy of their rooms, a worse answer on both fronts.
Last year’s Harvard-Yale Game — where many students turned to hard liquor in the absence of kegs, and more than usual wound up in the hospital — clearly demonstrated the health risks of tight restrictions on drinking. For all Harvard’s concerns about discipline and appearances, hard-line policies failed to provide a safer environment for students. Yale’s historical emphasis on safety reflects an understanding of this reality, and it is imperative for student health that University officials continue to keep these priorities in mind.