Vinum and Veritas: The Campus Alcohol Conundrum

Peyton R. Helm
President, Muhlenberg College

An abridged version of this essay was published in the Muhlenberg Weekly on February 5, 2004.

Whenever the topic of alcohol comes up I can't help but think about the complex truths embedded in Euripides' tragedy The Bacchae. Pentheus, the straitlaced young king of Thebes is appalled by the arrival in his country of the cult of Dionysus, which celebrates the blessings of the grape with wine-soaked orgiastic rituals. Rigidly self-righteousness, Pentheus bans the worship of Dionysus and even locks the god up in prison. The results are predictably tragic. Dionysus unleashes his power in a massive earthquake, shattering his prison, and driving Pentheus insane. The unhinged young king dresses himself in woman's clothes, tries to spy on the celebrations of the Bacchic worshipers, is discovered, and is literally torn to pieces by his mother and the other women of Thebes. So much for prohibition.

The problem with alcohol policy on an undergraduate campus is that I know where I would like us to be, but I don't know how to get us there. I have this vision of a campus where non-drinkers enjoy a rich social life, and where faculty, staff, and undergraduates who wish to drink can occasionally enjoy alcoholic beverages in moderation as a civilized accompaniment to conversation and fellowship. I wish there were some way that we members of the faculty and staff could teach moderation without breaking the law. I wish the United States were more like Europe in its acceptance of appropriate alcohol use as a blessing rather than a curse. I wish the drinking age were 18, or, alternatively, that 16-year-olds could have the option of getting a driver's license or a drinker's license - but not both.

I can wish all I want, but it doesn't change reality:

  • almost 80% of high school students have tried beer, wine, or hard liquor before they come to college, and this is before most of them have left their parents' homes for the independence of life on campus. What are the odds these students are going to greet their newfound freedom by becoming teetotalers? Slim.
  • The law is quite clear: not only is it illegal for the College to provide minors with alcohol, it is also illegal for the institution to permit underage drinking. In other words, we are responsible for exercising due diligence in enforcing prohibition on our underage students. If we turn a blind eye to illegal consumption, we are legally liable for any disastrous outcomes that may befall underage drinkers; this liability is so huge, so potentially catastrophic, that it is impossible to ignore. We are forced into an enforcement relationship with our students rather than the mentoring relationship we would prefer.
  • Alcohol abuse at Muhlenberg is becoming more of a problem , not less. The number of total alcohol violations last semester was up 55% over the previous fall semester. The total number of alcohol problems requiring students to be transported to the hospital almost quadrupled!
  • Although college students insist that they are young adults and should be treated as such ("if we're old enough to vote and serve in the military ...") their alcohol-related behavior all too frequently contradicts these claims to maturity. Binge drinking is increasing, and alcohol abuse is responsible for almost all acts of vandalism and almost all sexual assault on campus. Students know all these things, yet typically respond: if you don't let us drink on campus, we will be forced to drink off-campus and drive drunk. Such behavior and such statements do not encourage stodgy administrators like me to have much hope that a policy of benign neglect would produce anything less than a disaster.

What is to be done? If Muhlenberg had a foolproof solution to the problem of student alcohol abuse we could patent it, sell it, and soon have an endowment bigger than Harvard's. This, I regret to say, is unlikely. The law requires college administrators to follow the example of Pentheus, ignoring the ineffectiveness, danger, and futility of this strategy. And so, for now, there is little we can do but continue to refine policies that seek to curb underage drinking, while working together, thinking together, and communicating with each other about programs that will ameliorate, although not solve, the scourge of alcohol abuse:

•   The BYOB policy that we have tried in recent months, and that was praised last semester by the Weekly , allows responsible drinking by students who have reached legal age. Can it be fine-tuned?

•   Students know that they should intervene when they see friends drink too much - they should take their car keys, escort them home, or seek medical help when it is indicated. But all too often they avoid these difficult obligations of friendship. Can we persuade students to do better by their friends?

•   We are already investing in substance-free social events, though they are not always as well attended as one would hope - perhaps because they lack the social cachet of alcohol. Can we be more creative and more energetic in devising substance-free social activities?

•   We are already striving to educate students about the health, safety, and legal liability risks of alcohol abuse and its consequences - can we try even harder? Can we do so more effectively?

•   We already have thoughtful policies that require TIPS training, security at parties where alcohol is served, and other precautions. Do we need additional policies?

•   We are committed to a student judiciary system that flags and responds strongly to alcohol-related misbehavior - can it be more effective?

Perhaps it's time we organized a community conversation about alcohol. Perhaps we should stage a production of Euripides' Bacchae - and invite our legislators to a front row seat.