Alcohol Policy at Stanford and Middlebury: Which Approach is Right?

Students file into the stands above Youngman Field, decked out in white and blue. The visiting team scores a quick touchdown, dampening the crowd’s spirits. But soon thereafter, quarterback Matt Milano launches an eighty-yard drive that ends in a dramatic touchdown. The students and alumni in the stadium go wild.

Meanwhile, a junior, removed from the action of the game, stumbles across Route 30 into the woods and unloads his lunch. He can barely walk. The junior had drunk heavily at the pre-football game tailgate. A Public Safety officer spots the student and determines he needs to be transported to the hospital. The student is sent to the hospital and safely recovers from his alcohol poisoning. Subsequently, he will receive both punishment and counseling.

The scene should be familiar to anyone who has attended a college football game: some students go too crazy at the tailgates, endangering themselves and others. Often, they will never even make it to the game. This scenario — with a different stadium, different quarterback, and different students — could play out almost anywhere in the US. But in this case the specific game took place at Middlebury College, a small liberal arts school in Vermont.

Understandably, the Middlebury administration — like many college administrations across the country — wants to reduce incidents of binge drinking at tailgates. And so, on September 16th of this year, Erin Quinn, Director of Athletics, announced a new policy. Alcohol was completely prohibited at tailgates, even for those 21 and over. (“Loud” music was also banned, causing students to question whether the policy was meant to protect them or to prevent them from having fun.)

While ensuring students remain safe is a laudable goal, this misguided policy is unlikely to accomplish that. In fact, this policy may even encourage binge drinking. Furthermore, it impinges on student freedom. Contrast all this with Stanford University, which has a far more relaxed alcohol policy. Residential staff champion an “open-door” policy. Students are encouraged to drink with their doors open; in turn, Residence Assistants (RAs) promise only to intervene if students’ safety is at risk. Is Stanford’s model more effective at keeping students safe? Which is right — the zero-tolerance approach, or Stanford’s more tolerant one?

Stanford’s policy, from both a philosophical and practical perspective, is superior to Middlebury’s. Students deserve to be treated like adults, to have a say in the rules of their school, and to have the freedom to make their own choices. Middlebury’s policy strips students of their rights. Middlebury students have already tackled the new policy from a philosophical perspective. I will focus instead on evaluating the policy from a data-driven perspective. The available evidence indicates that a zero-tolerance policy — regardless of its moral rightness — will not increase the safety of Middlebury students.

An obvious (if simplistic) analogy to the Middlebury policy is the 18th Amendment of the United States, which implemented Prohibition. Persuaded by women’s temperance groups and Christian moralists, the US Congress decided to outlaw the manufacture and distribution of alcohol. Prohibition was not just ineffective at keeping Americans from drinking alcohol, but actually had additional detrimental effects on American society. More people faced criminal charges, organized crime ran rampant, American productivity and attendance at work remained subpar, and, most importantly, alcohol consumption did not decrease but actually increased during Prohibition.

The War on Drugs, like Prohibition, aims to limit access to dangerous substances. It, too, has been a spectacular failure. Though taxpayers are bleeding money, jails are overcrowded with non-violent offenders, and blackmarket cartels behead innocents, drugs are just as easy to obtain as ever.

The failures of Prohibition and The War on Drugs must force us to seriously reconsider whether outright bans such as Middlebury’s truly prevent people from engaging in harmful behaviors. The evidence indicates that outlawing the use of popular, dangerous substances does not lead to reduced use, and in fact often encourages increased use.

One reason for this is the psychological principle known as reactance motivation. Reactance motivation holds that when people are told not to do something, they are more likely to do it. This is both because most cherish their freedom and want to prove that they are in control. Professors Ruth C. Engs and David J. Hanson have shown that the theory of reactance applies in the case of alcohol consumption:

The more important or salient an eliminated freedom, the greater will be the reactance. Drinking is traditionally seen as important to college life; many activities are focused around drinking. Also, more reactance is aroused when people expect to enjoy a freedom which is subsequently eliminated.

Engs and Hanson analyzed the effects of raising the drinking age to 21. Although this is slightly different from Middlebury’s policy, the principles at play are the same. Middlebury students consider drinking important to their sports culture. And before the tailgating policy was enacted, they expected to be allowed to drink at tailgates. This freedom has now been eliminated. Based on the precedent set by Prohibition and The War on Drugs and the principle of reactance motivation, we can expect Middlebury’s ban on alcohol at tailgates to fail. At best, the new rule will have no impact at all on drinking before football games. At worst, it will actually increase drinking among Middlebury students.

And it is important to note that that drinking will be happening in secret, behind closed doors. Tom Szigethy, who manages Duke University’s alcohol policy, said that “much of the… social life moved off campus as a result of harsher policies on campus.” This is dangerous. If students are getting drunk where they are hidden from public safety officers, and among only other drunk students, they are less likely to moderate their behavior. They are also less likely to have a responsible sober person available to intervene if they are in danger. Take, for example, that Middlebury junior who was transported to the hospital. If he had been drinking with a group of other students behind closed doors, it is likely his drunk friends, fearing repercussions, would not have sent him to the hospital. He could have been in serious danger. If students are going to binge drink, it is better that they do it under the eye of responsible adults than in secret. George Mason University, for one, found that “allowing [students]… to learn their limits in a safe space may also help ward off risky experiments in more dangerous settings later.” This further lends credence to the idea that if students are drinking, it should be out in the open.

It is impossible to determine for sure whether Middlebury’s policy will lead to more or fewer students being transported to the hospital due to alcohol poisoning. But the current statistics allow us to predict the likely results of this kind of policy: more students, drinking more alcohol, in more dangerous scenarios. At the very least, The Middlebury administration needs to be transparent about what studies it used to make this decision. As of the writing of this article, it has not. Alcohol rules must be rooted in fact and logic, not emotion.

Stanford’s alcohol policy is far from perfect. Even one student per year being transported to the hospital is one student too many. But it is naive to think we can completely prevent underage drinking. An intelligent policy needs to focus on realistic, statistically-proven means to reduce underage drinking and alcohol abuse. Stanford’s model does that. Middlebury’s does not. Middlebury’s policy on alcohol at tailgates should be reversed.

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