You must be 21 years of age to drink in the state of Connecticut.
In the Yale vernacular, it’s generally tongue-in-cheek, yet this familiar warning is more than just an embellishment to Facebook event descriptions. It’s an important reminder that alcohol — which, for better or for worse, occupies a significant role in campus social life — is legally inaccessible to the majority of Yale underclassmen. The Solo cups littering Old Campus by 10 p.m. on Friday nights hardly indicate any shortage of access to alcohol, yet for about half of their college experience, most Yalies cannot legally order a beer with dinner, buy a bottle of wine to share with friends or venture into the New Haven bar scene.
On a college campus, where social life is often confined to Yale’s grounds and alcohol is often procured from peers, the problems caused by the higher drinking age are more far-reaching and profound than questions of how to get one’s hands on drinks and fake IDs: power to control campus social life, previously held by the University, has been passed to fraternities. Lack of alternatives for students and financial incentives for the University have led to lags in fraternity reform and the institutionalization of the social capital, which fraternities represent. While sororities represent an important facet of this culture, the prohibition imposed by the National Panhellenic Conference, which prevents sororities from serving alcohol, distances them from the conversation.
In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, a law that pressured states to raise the legal age for the purchase and public possession of alcohol from 18 to 21. Prior to the passage of this legislation, Greek life didn’t have the hosting influence that it has today. Indeed, Yale Daily News articles written between the ’50s and early ’80s paint the picture of a Greek life scene struggling to stay afloat in the face of financial problems and declining student interest: In May 1983, an article titled “Yale Fraternities: a dwindling breed” stated that “Today, DKE and Zeta Psi continue to operate, … but they have none of the widespread influence of their bygone days.” According to a Yale alumnus from the class of 1980, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, University-hosted events were “generally well-regarded, proper ‘fixtures’ on campus.” Such events, ranging from in-college happy hours and cocktail parties hosted by the college masters to University-wide prom, attracted a diverse crowd. Asked to describe the campus community during his time at Yale, the alumnus replied that “life was not diluted by Greek life or large-scale off-campus living,” which made for an inclusive culture. A September 1985 article in the News shares that “on any given Saturday night there might be 600 people dancing to amplified New Wave sounds in a beer-soaked college dining hall.” Indeed, history professor Jay Gitlin ’71 remembers that “on a Saturday night when you walked down Elm Street, you heard a live band playing in every dining hall in every college.” Yet, by 1986, Keith Ferrazzi ’88, founder of the Yale chapter of Sigma Chi, was quoted lamenting that “the idea that you will see all your friends at [Student Affairs Committee] parties is lost.” It’s worth noting that Connecticut’s drinking age policy has been far from uniform and that Gitlin graduated a year before the minimum drinking age was lowered to 18. Yet, with the passing of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, Yale was forced into a less tolerant stance on alcohol and on-campus social events. So dramatic was the change that in February 1987, a letter from the Joint Committee of Social Chairpersons argued that “the new policy, if implemented, would likely sound the death knell of [the Student Affairs Committee] as we know it.”
As the Student Affairs Committee lost its significance, fraternities gained traction. In a February 1986 letter to the News, student Geoff Kabaservice ’88 argued that in the wake of Yale’s curtailing of University-funded, alcohol-fueled nightlife, “Fraternities and sororities have been rushing in to fill the vacuum.” In April of the same year, a News article reported that, “After 10 years without a strong Greek presence, fraternities are enjoying a revival on campus.” Indeed, the change was so pronounced that in 1985, The New York Times noted that “Formation of fraternities is on the increase at Yale,” linking it to the increased drinking age and the University’s stricter regulations.
And it makes sense: For many students, going out entails drinking, and as the University’s willingness to accommodate social demands floundered, a “vacuum” opened, giving fraternities an opportunity to assume the responsibility and, in turn, to grow. These events require large organizations with the financial ability to provide real estate and to shoulder the liability that comes with large, rowdy groups of inebriated youth. Unable to fulfill this responsibility, the University, whether willingly or not, hands jurisdiction over Yale social life to Greek organizations across the country.
Of course, there are other causes behind the proliferation of frats: By November 1984 — before the University had passed administrational changes — an After Hours article in the News had already acknowledged that “The Greeks are making a comeback of sorts at Yale” and cited mindset changes as a potential cause: The story quoted Laura Hunter, then the president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, who said, “Today there is a conservative movement in student thinking which leads students back to sororities and fraternities … as a way to make acquaintances that might provide an advantage in the professional world.” Other reasons put forward by the founder of Kappa Sigma included “brotherhood” — the “common male bond that puts us all at ease and makes it easier to relate to one another” — and “positive community service projects.”
Yet it nonetheless appears that Yale’s new drinking policy expedited the growth of fraternities by eliminating the opposition posed by Student Affairs Committee events and previously popular “entryway parties” and by making the New Haven social scene inaccessible to most students, just as it was beginning to grow.
Today, the effects of the 1980s rise of Greek life appear to be twofold: stagnancy in fraternity policy and the entrenchment of fraternities as centers of social power. The stagnancy is the result of adverse incentives for both students and the administration. In terms of places equipped with the space and audio systems required for dancing, frats are essentially the only option. Consider the disdain that Yale students express toward Soads and the willingness with which the very same students rock up to Woads every Wednesday. It’s not just a space that Yalies want, it’s a space plus other Yale kids to party with. Frat parties are often well-attended, despite endless accusations of sexual assault and ethical reservations about supporting a gendered and socioeconomically exclusive institution, precisely because there are no comparable alternatives. As a result, fraternities do not face external pressure to shoulder the responsibility of creating safe and accessible social spaces.
Why doesn’t the University take action? According to Jojo Attal ’21 — a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College and a board member of Engender — Yale is uninterested in cooperating with Engender to promote fraternity reform and the establishment of non-Greek social spaces because “the legacy and the money that fraternities bring in” constitutes a “steady income that will contribute to Yale’s endowment.”
More importantly, it’s not the national fraternity representatives in conference rooms who operate as kingpins of Yale social life; it’s the Yale fraternity brothers themselves. With this power, which fraternities traditionally represent — maleness, socioeconomic privilege (membership fees make Greek organizations inaccessible to many), access to connections and a history of institutionalized privilege — becomes their social currency. It’s perhaps worth noting that not all the brothers want this degree of social power, and neither would they profess to endorse the institutionalization of privilege as social capital. Yet as the lines of partygoers on High Street doorsteps on the weekends and the role of brothers as bouncers and bartenders clearly attest, “partying” is a scarce good on Yale’s campus, and the fraternity brothers are the chief distributors.
The legislation is not within our control, but the potential for change remains. The fact that Greek life gained momentum actually represented an opportunity for those wishing to limit the dominance of Greek organizations over Yale social life. Many students attributed the rise of fraternities to the failure of the University to provide a satisfactory social environment to students. In an April 1986 column in the News, Kenneth Pollack ’88 wrote that “these people are joining fraternities because they have a social need which Yale’s current system does not meet,” while in a letter to the News in the same year, Kabaservice wrote that Yale was in no way “actually fulfilling its social responsibility towards the undergraduate.” Over 50 years later, we’re inclined to agree. Yale professes to be an institution for the holistic nurturing and development of its students, a place where the residential colleges once threatened to render fraternities moot in Yale’s social climate. Having expressed this commitment, the University is shirking its responsibility to respond to the needs of its students and work actively to dispel toxic social currents. With Yale’s undergraduate body now larger than ever, the shortage and thus exclusivity of social spaces will only grow more severe. If the administration continues to endorse through passivity the social monopoly that Greek organizations hold, it might come to be regarded as conservative, mercenary and ethically barren.
Yale’s most tangible attempt to intervene in campus social life came with Bulldog Bash, a University-wide party complete with live music, dancing and food. Though the attendance rates were likely influenced by the free pizza and beer garden for upper-level students, but well-attended dry (and often pizzaless) campus events like college screws hosted on campus and Pierson Inferno indicate that students will and do populate University-hosted social spaces. The popularity of Bulldog Bash marks a path forward: With the drinking age unlikely to change, University-funded social spaces are our best bet for reinvigorating campus spirit and establishing an inclusive social environment.