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SEMPer Novus (2/2)

SEMP 2.0 has me skeptical because its policies are sprawling, instead of focused. A better goal of College alcohol policy could simply be Harm Reduction. It’s part of the SPAHRC acronym and a useful lens for examining Dartmouth policy. Policies can either be targeted at prevention or punishment; ex ante or ex post.

The Good Sam policy is the best of Dartmouth alcohol policy, by far. It makes it easy to do the right thing and get help for a friend, with obvious benefits to student well-being. If it were not for Hanover Police’s intransigence and zealous arrests, we could be very proud of the way we approach ex post alcohol harm reduction. I will also note that harm reduction can be separated from behavioral change; in my experience, the presence of a Good Sam policy does not change drinking behaviors, only the response to help those in need. This does not diminish its success — if one’s goal is sincerely to reduce the risk of harm.

Prevention is a much murkier subject, and I know of no success stories where a college or university has reduced dangerous drinking through internal policies. Drinking is a central part of student life. Dartmouth Professor of Anthropology Hoyt Alverson makes this point in his 2005 ethnography of Dartmouth student drinking, a piece of serious scholarship that should be required reading for anyone with an interest in the role of alcohol at universities. Here is a salient excerpt:

The NIAAA [National Institute On Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism] and others are misled in their belief that campus drinking comprises a “culture”. There is no culture of drinking, any more than there is a culture of hanging out, competing, blowing off steam, or getting laid. The word “culture” in that NIAAA phrase is simply an epithet, which signifies the authors’ opinion that the identified behavior is a big problem. It is a problem, but however big, it’s not in itself a culture. Indeed it is because of our own “culture” - that in the United States - that we focus on, and construe students’ ritual heavy drinking and its modest risks to be so portentous. The risks (probabilities of harm) of bingeing are dwarfed after all by the risks of driving, of environmental pollution, of poverty, insane wars, to name a few of the thousands of really big risks.

Professor Alverson’s thesis is a strong one, and it dovetails with my own experience as a Dartmouth student. Alcohol is a part of many of the College’s small social worlds. Athletics teams, residence hall floors, or Greek organizations, cultural groups, and so on all bond by drinking together as their members try to overcome youthful insecurities and seek an outlet from the stress of college life. Efforts to broadly discourage or regulate drinking will either be ignored, or be successful only at the cost of harming some spheres of student life. One must be aware of the various externalities of whatever policy is chosen, whether it be a diminution in social life or an increase in trash on a Webster Avenue lawn because of keg bans.

Here is my shortlist for real harm reduction policy changes:

  1. Free the kegs! Students pre-game heavily, often drinking a night’s worth of alcohol in a short amount of time and coasting off of the inebriation, because they know that getting a decent drink at any fraternity party is all but impossible. If students have consistent access to good beer (not cans of Keystone!), they tend to moderate their drinking throughout the night.
  2. Professors should demand more academically. This is a policy change that has externalities, because by demanding more time inside and outside of the classroom, you will pull students not only from drinking but also from their extra-curricular activities, clubs, and friends. Students will respond to whatever expectations are placed upon them, and compromise both social and extracurricular activities to meet them. I think there are very engaging and worthwhile ways to advance the mission of the College in this realm; it doesn’t necessarily mean more homework.
  3. Make use of carrots more than sticks. Incentivize experiences and opportunities that replace drinking in students’ personal development. DOC Trips is a wildly successful and entirely substance-free program. Tap into Dartmouth students’ sense of adventure, purpose, and desire for new experiences. Remove a few ineffective administrators (ask any student for names) and use the savings to bolster student clubs and encourage leadership. Offer cash prizes to Greek houses that offer educational and cultural development for their members. Give Club Sports leaders enough budget to deliver high quality travel, training and competition for their members. Offer more research stipends, travel funds, and other grants that motivate student achievement and reward student’s pursuits outside of fraternity basements. You won’t get these results by paying for pizza parties in the social graveyards that are Dartmouth’s dormitories.

It is important to recognize two things. First, turning back the tide of Dartmouth’s supposed alcohol over-consumption will not occur by administrative fiat, even though I respect President Kim’s desire to combat behaviors that could lead to a student death. Individual student initiative must be the foundation of such change; the most that President Kim’s administration can offer is a nudge in the right direction. Secondly, the impetus towards alcohol harm reduction will not come from within the inner workings of Social Event Management Procedures. No one reads them, and no one cares about them, except to do the minimum required by the College. Policy in areas like dining, student life, athletics, and extracurricular support have the most positive externalities in every realm of student behavior, including drinking.

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