This column is part of a point-counterpoint on Dartmouth’s ban on hard alcohol. Read the other column here.
Last week, Dartmouth College unveiled a plan — Moving Dartmouth Forward — meant to curb “harmful behavior” on campus. It includes an ambitious step: a blanket campus ban on hard liquor. The move comes in light of a slew of bad press the school has received, as it has come under investigation for alleged Title IX violations. Amy Olson, a senior media relations officer at Dartmouth, told USA Today that she expects the policy will correlate with “a substantial reduction in consumption [of alcohol] and many fewer negative consequences, like sexual assaults.”
Hopes among administrators, like Olson, are running high. The policy is certainly an effective answer to Dartmouth’s perpetual PR problems (I still remember applying to college just as reports of the school’s severe hazing practices, including the infamous vomlets, came to light). But student responses to the new policy have been far more mixed. To me, it’s highly unclear: Is the alcohol ban a response to bad behavior, or just bad press?
The Moving Dartmouth Forward Plan could actually make it more difficult for the community to address instances of sexual assault. For one thing, the hard alcohol ban helps to shield administrators from liability when students report cases of sexual misconduct that involve drinking. In theory, the policy might seem like a strong effort to reduce the school’s culture of binge drinking. But it’s unlikely that will pan out in practice. Other schools like Notre Dame have actually tried banning alcohol, and often the effect is simply to move binge drinking to off-campus locations.
In working to design policies that prioritize student wellbeing, Dartmouth administrators should aim to hear and amplify student concerns. So it’s concerning that Dartmouth students have been so quick to question the merits of the new alcohol ban. Some have told the press that the policy is likely to drive drinking underground, which could pose even more significant risks to student wellbeing. Catherine Donahoe, the social chair of a Dartmouth sorority, told The New York Times: “If I were to design the policy, it’d be pushing alcohol into the open so that it’s as visible as possible.”
Dartmouth’s new policy may also make students less likely to report sexual violence if their cases involve hard alcohol. The full effect on reporting rates will have to be monitored over time. However, if the number of reported sexual assault cases does decrease, administrators should be hesitant to attribute that to lower rates of assault.
Which is all to say, we should be cautious in praising Dartmouth for its new ambitious plan. And perhaps we should be cautious of similar tendencies on the part of universities to search for panaceas to the deeply rooted problems of sexual misconduct and binge drinking on campuses. Sweeping moves like Dartmouth’s decision to ban hard alcohol can distract from efforts to take measured, well-reasoned steps to address campus sexual violence. School authorities must avoid drowning out the voices of activists and survivors who have spent years considering the sorts of policies that might address the real needs of students.
On Yale’s campus, activists have continuously put forth strong proposals that might improve the school’s sexual climate. Some of these suggestions may seem minor, too small to have any real effect. But modest advances can be more powerful than broad, ineffective plans. For example, some survivors have called for Yale to boost its use of trigger warnings, including them on emails from Chief Ronnell Higgins that reference sexual assault. This may not be the sort of policy that draws waves of positive press, but it can go a long way in meeting the mental health needs of survivors on campus.
No quick fix is going to end campus sexual assault — particularly not a full-on alcohol prohibition. The full effects of Dartmouth’s new plan remain to be seen, but the fact that so many students are skeptical of it should make campus authorities take pause. Campus sexual violence isn’t a PR problem and shouldn’t be treated as such.
Emma Goldberg is a junior in Saybrook College and a former opinion editor for the News. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.