Impractical and Dangerous

College students drink. Sometimes, they drink too hard.

An all-too-common scene at a Harvard party: a freshman who has no idea of his or her tolerance downs one too many shots or plays a few too many games of Beirut. Minutes later, the plastered partygoer is on the floor passed out and panic sets in among his friends (who, in many cases, are drunk, themselves). In the moments that follow, someone must muster the responsibility to decide whether or not to take their friend to University Health Services (UHS) or wait it out in hopes that he’ll awaken from his blackout intact.

Under its current alcohol policy, Harvard College makes this choice relatively easy on its students. If your friend passes out at a party—one thrown by you, or your student group, or your final club—you can drag him over to UHS with no fear of repercussions. Harvard’s amnesty policy ensures that neither you nor your drunken friend will be punished for seeking medical attention. This policy is designed with one thing and one thing only in mind: student safety.

Unfortunately, if the Committee on Social Clubs, a recently formed working group comprised of faculty, a University lawyer, and administrators, has its way, this may be about to change. The Committee’s report, released this week, outlines a plan ostensibly designed to curb excessive drinking on campus. Broadly, the Committee aims to prevent future incidents of dangerous drinking and related activities and to reform the ways in which the College responds to such incidents.

We applaud the College’s attempt to improve student safety and even support some aspects of this report—for instance, its recommendation for a stricter and better publicized anti-hazing policy. But we cannot endorse this report fully because its recommendation to hold student party hosts more accountable for alcohol-related incidents that happen at their events will backfire.

First and foremost, we object to the means by which the Committee wishes to hold student group leaders accountable. The report suggests that leaders of student groups, official or not, should be held responsible for the health and safety of its partygoers. In other words, if a student drinks too much at your party, you could be blamed and punished by the Administrative Board. Aside from the impracticality of such a measure—in any given night, a Harvard partygoer is likely to have made appearances at several soirees, and therefore, identifying exactly which party did him in would be exceedingly difficult—we believe the plan will actually jeopardize student safety.

The calculus involved in taking a friend who has overindulged to UHS will become more complicated. Student group officers might be less inclined to take sick students to the hospital, fearing retribution from the College the next day. Instead of aiding a sick student, some hosts might push him out the door, telling him to go home and sleep it off instead. Even for the student, himself, there will be some disincentive for seeking treatment, for fear his friend or student group officers, as hosts, will get in trouble. Making matters worse, many of these decisions are made by students under the influence themselves; the judgment to take their friends to get medical attention should be as much of a no-brainer as possible.

Secondly, the Committee has misinterpreted the problem and as a result has prescribed an overly-broad solution. The Committee was convened in response to two “near-death incidents” last term. One was an initiation by an unrecognized student group, and in the other, according to the Committee’s report, “an undergraduate officer of the organization was assigned the task of monitoring drinking, but instead participated in drinking, matching each shot taken by a partygoer.” In both of these cases, reckless drinking was either forced or encouraged, and in such cases the College should not hesitate to punish the negligent parties.

The policy recommended by the Committee, however, has overreacted to these extreme and rare cases by proposing to pin the blame for any party thrown on behalf of a student group or on student group property on officers. In many cases, student organizations throw parties or hold casual gatherings at which officers are not present or in charge. To punish officers in these cases makes no sense—it seems like the College is turning to group officers simply because it needs someone to punish. Instead of picking convenient targets, the College should beef up hazing rules, as these more egregious and uncommon violations are the true problem.

The College must also realize that when it comes to college drinking, the decision to imbibe is a personal choice, and therefore responsibility must fall primarily on the drinker. Instead of writing up any more shortsighted committee reports, the focus should be on developing better alcohol education, particularly for freshmen who enter Harvard without much experience with alcohol. Instead of humdrum handouts and dreary lectures, alcohol education should come in the form of interactive hands-on learning.

And while UHS may see some of dangerously ill students, overall, Harvard students are fairly practical when it comes to drinking. Most college students who want to drink will find a way to do so; Harvard’s alcohol policy should accept this premise and be crafted to mitigate the dangers of overindulgence. A strict and punitive policy will simply push drinking underground, and could well have a chilling effect on campus social life as a whole.

Harvard’s priority should be student health, not assigning blame. We endorse the continuation of Harvard’s full amnesty policy for those who go to and bring friends to UHS. The Committee on Social Clubs would do well to think more about the social and health impact of their policies and less about teaching a lesson in discipline to—by and large—pragmatic young adults.