No One Knows How to Stop Campus Alcohol Abuse

It's hard to put much faith in Dartmouth's ban on hard liquor.

Ken Lund/Flickr

On the one hand, you can't blame Dartmouth College President Philip Hanlon for trying. Alcohol has long been a problem at campuses around the country, and particularly at the secluded New Hampshire Ivy. An increasing focus on sexual assault nationwide has made colleges especially eager to do anything they can to avoid problems.

On the other hand, it's hard to put much faith in Hanlon's new initiative: Dartmouth will ban hard liquor on campus, one of several steps to try to end a culture of binge-drinking. Any drink with greater than 15 percent alcohol will be prohibited, and Hanlon threatened to end the fraternity system altogether. The college will also create residential groups for students, intended to foster healthier communities.

The reasons for pessimism are plain enough to anyone who's ever lived on or visited an allegedly dry campus or dormitory. While an administration can drive drinking underground, banning it altogether is more of a symbolic move than a truly effective one. (What are they going to do, search everyone's bags when they reach campus?) Just as abstinence-only sex education has proved a bust, trying to ban hard liquor altogether seems unlikely to succeed; it will just make the culture of hard-liquor consumption less informed, or push it to locations away from campus, where the college has even less chance to safeguard students.

In an editorial anticipating Hanlon's announcement, student newspaper The Dartmouth addressed just this point:

If students want to get dangerously drunk, they will find a way to do so. Rhetoric about eliminating the epidemic of binge drinking is neither realistic nor helpful. Binge drinking is a symptom of an unhealthy culture and at times indicative of underlying mental health issues, and Hanlon’s policy should reflect that.

But what else is he to do? Just look at the recent history of moves at Dartmouth. Just a year and a half ago, The Boston Globe was pointing to Dartmouth as a story of success in fighting alcohol culture, using a wide range of tactics, none of them this sweeping or aggressive. Those techniques were pioneered under Hanlon's predecessor, Jim Yong Kim, who then departed to run the World Bank, but Hanlon says they weren't doing enough, fast enough.

Kim's predecessor, James Wright, took yet another approach, signing onto the "Amethyst Initiative," a group of university presidents who argue against the 21-year drinking age, a de facto federal mandate. Their statement says, in part:

A culture of dangerous, clandestine “binge-drinking”—often conducted off-campus—has developed.

Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.

Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer.

By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.

Naturally, the Amethyst push requires national buy-in—even scores of prestigious university presidents can't simply change the law through force of will, and until and unless the law changes they're obliged to uphold the law as it is today.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports, sororities at the University of Virginia were told by their national organizations to skip parties during rush week, "a mandate that many of the women said was irrational, sexist and contrary to the school’s culture." The goal is apparently to avoid putting women in risky alcohol-fueled situations, part of blowback to the Rolling Stone story, now mostly debunked, about a rape in Charlottesville. But forcing women to stay home risks both punishing them for others' misdeeds and allowing the campus and the greek system to avoid uncomfortable discussions about rape. It is, in short, no solution at all. Other schools are experimenting with shifting parties from fraternities to sororities; my colleague Olga Khazan considered the pros and cons of that approach last week.

The Dartmouth solution seems equally invalid, though for different reasons altogether. If none of these approaches seem to offer much hope of justice or efficacy, no one else seems to have a better idea.