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.