What Should Be Done About Alcohol in Freshman Dorms?

Linda Cicero

As a resident assistant in an all-frosh dorm, Jeff Cooper was always on the lookout for telltale signs of alcohol abuse. “If you knew a kid was a bad drinker who tended to lose his stuff after he’d had a few, then you’d keep a real close eye on him,” he says. “Or if a kid was in his room a lot, not hanging out with others, and you saw him take four or five shots, that was cause for concern.”

Those kinds of problematic and inexperienced drinkers used to worry Cooper the most. Today he is equally concerned about a revision to the University’s alcohol policy that he believes will drive some freshmen to drink irresponsibly in the privacy of their rooms, where RAs and campus police officers cannot monitor what happens. The one-sentence change, which is scheduled to take effect in the fall, reads: “No alcoholic beverages may be served at all-freshman house events in common area spaces (e.g., lounges, hallways, patios/outdoor areas).”

It’s a time-honored student tradition to complain about the alcohol policy; in fact, it was the subject of the first Stanford student protest, in 1908. This time, the protesters took to the Internet. In April, Cooper, ’01, MS ’02, along with former RAs Megan Tompkins, ’00, Nate Gillespie, ’00, MA ’02, and Tim Meyer, ’03, MA ’03, collected more than 2,300 signatures from students and alums on an online petition that asks administrators to reconsider their decision.

In addition to expressing concern about students’ safety, Cooper and others think the new policy will undermine the trust that develops between students and the RAs on their halls. (Many also are frustrated that no students were included on the ad hoc committee that issued the new rules.) They worry that RAs will be expected to take on the policing responsibilities that characterize the job on many campuses, breaking up informal gatherings where alcohol is being served. Jane Camarillo, director of Residential Education, insists that the RAs’ enforcement responsibility will not change significantly, however. “Their primary role will still be to be the role models, the educators, the first response for students in crisis,” she told students at a May town hall meeting about the policy revisions. “But, if a person is staggering around the hall, yeah, they may stop [that person].”

In recent years, University officers have taken a number of steps to control alcohol abuse—declaring Admit Weekend and New Student Orientation officially “dry” events; prohibiting the use of residence funds to buy alcohol for parties. After all, as assistant vice provost and dean of freshmen and transfer students Julie Lythcott-Haims pointed out at the town meeting, “people under 21 are not allowed to drink. That’s the law, and University policy requires us to follow the law.”

Administrators say that no single incident prompted the latest revision. Rather, they say, the time had come for firmer measures to halt reckless drinking and to protect the estimated 20 to 25 percent of students who constitute what they describe as a “silent minority” of nondrinkers. In the most recent campus health survey, some 72 percent of Stanford undergraduates said they had consumed alcohol in the past month, and 9 percent qualified as frequent binge drinkers.

“There was enough to make us feel that things were trending in the wrong direction,” says Lythcott-Haims, ’89. “We’ve taken the steps we have because we’re trying to tighten up what seems to be a system that is a bit out of control.” Said vice provost for student affairs Gene Awakuni at the town hall meeting: “People are saying [the revision] will drive drinking behind closed doors, but the fact is, there are already students drinking behind closed doors.”

The last alcohol-related death on campus happened in 1987, when David Dunshee walked out of a Zeta Psi party, intoxicated, and drowned in nearby Lake Lagunita. There was a serious accident in 1998 when Michael Howard, ’99, fell off a balcony at the Phi Delta Theta house and was hospitalized, comatose, for several months. And RAs acknowledge there have been other close calls in recent years. Administrators, Camarillo explained at the town hall meeting, are concerned both about student safety and about University liability.

Liability, Stephen Stedman recalls, was emphasized in his training when he became a resident fellow six years ago. Stedman, ’79, MA ’85, PhD ’88, acting co-director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the departing RF for all-frosh Larkin, and his wife, Corinne Thomas, developed a system of house rules that relied on understanding and agreement between students who drink and those who don’t. He says the revision to the alcohol regulations has set off “big alarm bells” for him. “Our policy has been, all along, that it is better for students to be drinking in the open and be seen—if they’re in distress, they can be helped,” he says. “When we’ve had problems with somebody drinking to real excess, it’s never been at a party. When people drink themselves to harm, they do it in their rooms with a small group of friends and much harder alcohol—like a big handle of vodka.”

The RFs and former RAs interviewed for this article say controlling alcohol abuse was challenging enough under the previous policy. They say more and more freshmen are arriving with drinking problems, and some parents even supply their underage freshmen with cases of hard liquor. Cooper also asks why the University doesn’t work with county and city officials to make liquor licenses harder to get, or push for compliance from local retail outlets that are known to sell alcohol to students with fake IDs. “Those are the kinds of things that will drive consumption down,” he says. “Specifying where [alcohol] can be drunk is not going to drive down consumption, in and of itself.”