Blame it on the Alcohol: Amid Poisonings and Poor Press, Dry Campus Rumors Rage

By Michelle Lynn Kahn

BeerDuring one of the first parties of the year, a Claremont McKenna student was suffering from severe alcohol poisoning on the Dark Side of Wohlford Hall. The dorm’s Resident Assistant, Abbie Lin, CMC ‘10, was unable to assist the two sophomore Wohlford residents who were helping the student; she was off-duty and off-campus that night. Gradually joined by ten or twelve other CMCers, they struggled to contact one of the on-duty RAs, whose names and phone numbers were not posted on Lin’s door at the time. Neither were they included in the weekend’s “Party Inform” email, sent by Dorm Activities Chair Andrew Cosentino. Though the students called both Campus Security and Emergency Services and eventually located an active RA, the confusion and waiting period involved were not only unsafe but also unwarranted.

Rachel Brody ’12 was among the students witnessing the incident. “I definitely think the response was delayed,” she says, “But the students who handled the situation did an excellent job.” As highlighted in Brody’s assessment, responsibility for alcohol-related incidents is split three ways: individual students must drink within their known limits, friends and onlookers must help to the best of their abilities in times of crises, and RAs must do everything possible to ensure student safety. And if these components fail to mesh flawlessly, campus safety falls apart.

The Death of the Wet Campus

While CMC has dealt with some severe incidents of alcohol poisoning, the school’s community is fortunate never to have experienced an alcohol-related death, as have some other top colleges. The 1997 death of freshman Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Scott Krueger – who was found unconscious with a Blood Alcohol Level of 0.41 at his fraternity – provides a useful case study, marking a paradigm shift in the university’s alcohol policy. According to MIT’s campus publication, The Tech, all activities of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity were suspended, and all freshmen housing became limited to campus dormitories. More applicable to CMC, MIT’s Dormitory Council immediately suspended all social functions involving alcohol, pending extensive review of drinking on the campus, which had previously had an open alcohol policy. In 2004, similar binge drinking deaths plagued both the University of Colorado and the University of Oklahoma. Oklahoma implemented a dry campus decree immediately, which still remains in effect.

A Foreboding Email

A similar decree could have been the case at CMC, if the students had failed to find medical treatment for their friend. Instead, prompted both by this and other incidents of alcohol poisoning in early September, the Dean of Students Office advised the RAs to initiate a de facto crackdown on violations of CMC’s alcohol policy. Dean of Housing and Residential Life David “Fid” Castro explains, “If our students behave, then our job is easy; if students don’t behave, we have to react.” In emails sent shortly thereafter, RAs warned their dorms of potential changes to the campus’s drinking culture. “If these things continue, CMC could result in an indefinitely dry campus over night,” most wrote.

Though the RAs had cited Dean of Students in their email, Castro contends that a transition to a dry campus “is not on the table” at this point. Such denials seem to be the general consensus among the CMC administration. Vice President and Dean of Students Jefferson Huang affirmed his colleague’s assessment: “I have never suggested a dry campus, nor have I suggested a specific outcome through the review process.” Any claims to the contrary, he notes, are just rumors.

Severity Over Scare Tactic

This inconsistency between the Dean of Students denials and the RAs’ dry campus warning calls into question the motives behind the email. Though all 18 RAs declined to comment for this piece, students were abuzz with speculations. The common interpretation of the email as a scare tactic is fundamentally flawed; it assumes that the primary role of CMC’s RAs is to serve as Dean of Students pawns who police parties, enforce policy, and report infractions to the higher administrative echelons. While that is the case at most other colleges and universities, CMC has different goals in mind. “We’re looking out for people’s safety,” Castro says. “We’re not looking for policy violations.”

Moreover, dismissing the dry campus warning as a scare tactic downplays the severity of the factors – both immediate and ongoing – that necessitated it. At that first TNC, the possibility of a dry campus would have become reality had someone died; alcohol-related deaths at other colleges, including that of Scott Kreuger at MIT, were discussed during the RAs’ meeting with Dean of Students later that week. Neither CMC’s fortunate avoidance of a tragedy nor the administration’s staunch denial of any plans for a dry campus should preclude students from reflecting upon the culture surrounding alcohol at this school.

The “Lots of Beer” Crackdown

Over the summer, CMC’s public image became a national embarrassment when The Princeton Review’s 2010 guide to The Best 371 Colleges ranked CMC fifth in the “Lots of Beer” category, an increase of eight increments since last year. Granted, CMC improved in other, more socially desirable categories as well; however, flaunting our number one ranking for “Easiest Campus to Get Around” might not compensate for the perception among high school seniors and their parents that we party like the cast of Animal House. “The overall population of CMC is very smart and makes good decisions,” Castro says. “We don’t want the small portion of the college that doesn’t have that common sense to be our public image.”

In the past, the Admissions Office has sought to clarify misconceptions about alcohol use at CMC – namely that the school buys kegs for students and condones underage drinking. Admissions Counselor Adam Miller assuages concerned parents by noting that the Dean of Students gives CMCers “a lot of freedom and expects them to act responsibly with that freedom.” He tells the Port Side, “My impression of CMC’s approach to alcohol is that we try not to use fear of punishment as a way of coercing students into obeying alcohol policies.”

The Internal: Changing Our Culture

Though the administration has not explicitly castigated CMCers for perpetuating the party school reputation, it has taken some visible steps to crack down on the alcohol culture. Students returning to campus this fall were alarmed to discover that the much-anticipated end to Dry Week, when CMCers traditionally kick off their partying, had been switched from 6:01 p.m. to 6:01 a.m. According to Castro, in an attempt to better compel students to “adhere to the philosophy of Dry Week,” the deans of the five colleges have been “messing with the time” of the 6:01 party throughout the past few years. The goal, he says, is to allow freshmen the opportunity to “make friends without the impediment of alcohol.” Some upperclassmen, however, vowed to inebriate themselves at exactly 6:01 a.m., in a blatant assertion of their right to party.

This sense of entitlement may be one of the targets of future changes to CMC’s alcohol culture. In addition to emphasizing enforcement of existing alcohol policies, the college is looking to reevaluate alcohol consumption on campus in general. Huang, who this fall will head a newly conceived Alcohol Task Force consisting of students, faculty, and staff, hopes that a comprehensive evaluation of CMC and Consortium-wide alcohol consumption will lead to innovative solutions in future policy. Topics discussed, he says, will include “the role of alcohol within the Consortium, the gradual disappearance of Friday classes, best practices from other Colleges and Universities, legal and insurance concerns, ‘dry’ events, and so forth.”

The External: Improving Our Image

Fundamentally changing the alcohol culture at CMC is not just an internal concern. While campus politics and policy seek a balance between freedom and safety, huge pressure remains to maintain and promote a favorable public image for the school – especially at a time when CMC is competing with Ivy League schools to attract highly qualified applicants. Miller notes, “We don’t want drinking at CMC to be covered up, but we also don’t want it to be overemphasized.” He says that the increased attention toward alcohol at CMC might deter some students from attending. “Our survey data seems to indicate that when alcohol use is portrayed as a defining aspect of life at CMC, there is an increased risk of having excellent applicants decide that CMC isn’t a good fit for them.”

Upon telling her friends that CMC is her first choice college, high school senior Kim Ngai receives two common responses. “Half the people have never heard of it,” she says, “and the other half ask, ‘Isn’t that a party school?’” Though this perception of CMC could have been a deal-breaker, her recent overnight stay assuaged her concerns.

Had Ngai visited the previous weekend instead of that quiet yet eventful Wednesday, CMC may have lost a qualified applicant. In the aftermath of that Saturday night’s Rage in the Cage dodgeball tournament, hundreds of red cups and Natty Ice cans littered the lawn between Green and Boswell Halls. The situation repeats itself almost every Friday and Sunday mornings – North Quad is a perpetual mess. To prospective students, parents on campus tours, or random people walking by, that drunken snapshot may be their only impression of CMC. Both the administration and the student body agree that this perception is detrimental to the college in general. “No college wants to be known as the college where everyone comes to drink,” Castro says.

Money as a Motivator

Reputation aside, heightened public awareness to our drinking culture bodes bleak financial implications for the school – and if we can learn anything from the prominence of CMC’s economics department, it’s that money is the best incentive. According to Associate Vice President of Admission and Financial Aid, Georgette DeVeres, CMC’s financial aid office receives between $2 million and $3 million in federal funding each year. Since the fall 2008 implementation of the college’s “no loan” financial aid package policy, these funds have been especially critical. For the 2009-2010 academic year, DeVeres and her colleagues will allocate $947,100 in federal grants, $200,000 in federal work study dollars, and $1.2 million in student and parent loans. These figures do not even consider other federal funding, like faculty research grants, that the college earns.

The external emphasis on this undergraduate institution’s heavy alcohol consumption, therefore, puts millions of federal dollars at stake. The continued receipt of these valued grants and loans is to some extent contingent on the college’s compliance with both federal and state law, particularly pertaining to underage drinking. CMC’s Alcoholic Beverage Policy in the Guide to Student Life cites misdemeanors under California State Law for persons under the age of 21 purchasing or possessing alcohol. “Furthermore,” the policy acknowledges, “California court decisions have held institutions liable for damages ensuing from consumption of alcohol at sponsored events.” These legal and financial concerns might not weigh heavily on students’ minds, but they are certainly important for the college as a whole.

Reflecting on Our Own Behavior

Overall, in examining the cause of the perceived crackdown, we need blame not the administration but ourselves. The Princeton Review writes on its website, “[Student surveys] are the sole factors that determine which schools make it onto our 62 ranking lists.” At least once every three years, the college ranking organization contacts the CMC administration, sends out online surveys to a random sampling group of students, and tallies the results. Our answers to these surveys become a resource of Biblical importance for prospective students. We are solely responsible for our “Lots of Beer” rating, so we are partially responsible for the increase in both external and internal attention to alcohol consumption at CMC. We sealed our own fate – not just by breaking glass, trashing lounges, and making 3 a.m. trips to the hospital – but by self-reporting that all those things were happening en masse.

So when we students criticize administrative reactions, we need to take many things into consideration. No, CMC is not transitioning to a dry campus – at least not in the foreseeable future; neither students nor the administration want that to happen. But we do need to change fundamentally the way we approach drinking at this campus. We are not entitled to custodians sponging dried, sticky beer off our lounge’s floors. We are not entitled to RAs holding our hair as we vomit five shots and two mixed drinks worth of Smirnoff into recycling bins. And by no means are we entitled to a wet campus. This does not mean that we should hide our booze under our beds or – gasp! – stop playing Beirut altogether. It means that we should engage in some serious self-reflection on how taking full, drunken advantage of our alcohol policy reflects poorly on our school, our administration, our peers, and ourselves.

Published with support from Generation Progress. genprogress.org

Copyright © 2014 Claremont Port Side.