Opinion Extra

Smerconish: Modern college drinking policies not working

I pulled from a scrapbook a “Weekender” column I wrote for the Lehigh University Brown and White in 1982: “Friday Happy Hours are at Lambda Chi Alpha, Pi Lambda Phi, and Zeta Psi. Later, there’s Delta Chi, FIJI, and Alo-TLC, all at 10. Saturday offers Alpha Sig, and Psi U at 9:30, Lambda Chi Valentine Grain Dance at 9:59, Delta Phi, Crow at 10, ATO at 11.”

Pressure from the feds that made 21 the drinking age nationwide and liability concerns have limited that kind of lineup, and schools are still struggling to strike a proper balance. Dartmouth College just announced a prohibition of hard alcohol on campus, following the lead of Stanford, Colgate and Swarthmore. But maybe the solution lies in the past.

Like Dartmouth, Lehigh has a rich Greek tradition. When I attended in the early ‘80s, Lehigh had as many fraternities (36) for an undergraduate population of 4,000 as Penn State had for a community of 20,000. For Lehigh freshman men, the question used to be which house you’d be pledging, not whether. There were fraternities to suit every interest and personality: a football house (Delta Upsilon), a basketball house (Theta Delt), a Lax house (Theta Xi), a WASP house (Kappa Sigma), a Jewish house (Sigma Alpha Mu), a white-privilege house (Chi Psi), and even a nerd house (Psi Upsilon), although it did own its own fire truck. My fraternity, Zeta Psi, was more of a blend.

We were on tap 24/7. Thursday was pub night. On Fridays, the Interfraternity Council would sponsor cocktails for students and faculty at one or more houses. About once a month, we’d have a Saturday party, often themed. Except for the rare event that featured grain alcohol, I remember very little hard liquor. And given the constancy of the social life, there was no such thing as pregaming. Guys didn’t drink in their rooms; we drank among one another, in our own bar while playing beer pong, or in the lounge watching TV. Nobody drove. Everything was contained on campus.

Students with whom I have spoken tell me that the social life is still strong at Lehigh, but no longer revolves around on-campus fraternities, the number of which has decreased by one-third since I was there. One freshman told me that social life is now “90 percent off campus.” And when the fraternities do have parties, they need to be registered with the university so that wristbands can be distributed to the attendees who are 21 to ensure that only they drink the beer. A recent graduate, John Archibald, questioned the efficacy of the registration system, and confirmed the migration off campus.

“With the registered fraternity parties, kids start to consume more alcohol quicker, trying to get drunk before the party starts at 10:30, so they consume a lot in shorter time, and it’s more dangerous than it needs to be,” he said.

Archibald graduated in ‘13 and then received a master’s degree in ‘14. (His father was a fraternity brother of mine.) He told me that in his senior year, 25 of the 27 members of his fraternity pledge class lived in five different off-campus houses within a block of one another. He said the social restrictions drove them off campus, denying the young men the camaraderie that used to come from living in a fraternity in senior year. Such is the demand for off-campus housing that Archibald and his roommates placed a security deposit for their senior year at the end of the first semester in their sophomore year.

“It would be safer if they allowed more drinking on campus because it’s going to happen anyway, and now they go to off-campus houses, in an area for which students constantly get emails from campus police raising security concerns,” he told me.

I don’t envy Sharon Basso’s job. As Lehigh’s dean of students, it falls to her to fashion an environment that is both socially fulfilling and safe. Where only 20 percent of the undergraduates are 21, she said, the resulting gap sets up a cat-and-mouse game on campuses for which no one has yet found a highly effective solution.

“We take a harm-reduction approach that focuses on teaching students about healthy norms, dialogue about responsible consumption of alcohol,” she said, “and teach bystander intervention skills to step in and intervene when they see peers consuming alcohol dangerously, as opposed to a ‘crackdown, zero-tolerance approach.’ “

By email, I could not persuade her with my Old School solution.

“I think the issue is much more complicated than this,” she wrote, citing research concluding that more than half of students who experience hazing are forced to participate in drinking games; almost half of students had a high-risk drinking event in the last two weeks; and 43 percent of the sexual-victimization incidents involved alcohol consumption by victims and 69 percent involved alcohol consumption by the perpetrator. She also said the way in which students were partying had changed.

“On many campuses in 2015, students describe their parties as gatherings that last only two hours,” she said, “and the entire focus is on getting intoxicated as efficiently as possible. That is why hard alcohol comes into the picture.”

At Dartmouth, Nick Desatnick has concerns about whether the crackdown on hard liquor is the solution. Desatnick is a senior majoring in history and Asian studies. I caught up with him recently just after he finished his midterm in the Making of the Modern World Economy. He’s also a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon and the editor of the Dartmouth Review, the conservative newspaper on campus.

“I know from experience that Dartmouth in the last two years has tried out a prohibition on Greek life for all freshman students during their first six weeks on campus,” he said, “and what we’ve seen during the period is a great deal in the way of furtive drinking behavior with hard alcohol in dorms, which is in my opinion far more dangerous than anything you would see in a Greek basement. … (There) you at least have some control over liability as a brother who’s looking after the well-being of guests, to avoid issues with the administration. But, also, just having a bunch of inexperienced drinkers around a bottle of vodka in a dorm room strikes me as a terrible idea.”

On that, at least, we all agree.

Contact Mr. Smerconish at www.smerconish.com