In the wake of an investigation by the Department of Education of a civil rights complaint stating that its administration failed to adequately respond to instances of sexual assault, the president of Dartmouth College announced a ban on all hard liquor that fits into a growing trend of elite universities in recent years. When enforcement begins in late March, Dartmouth will officially join the ranks of Bates, Bowdoin, Colby and Providence colleges in a hard liquor ban, as well as a trend towards stricter alcohol policies found at Brown University and the University of Virginia. While these institutions all claim that bans targeted on hard alcohol or on increasingly harsh enforcement for any alcohol consumption as a method for reducing instances of sexual violence and general student misconduct, Vassar College continues to endorse a ban on all kegs and a Good Samaritan policy. Since its 2011 Alcohol Task Force regulations assessment, the College has not announced any upcoming plans to join the movement by its peer institutions.
On Jan. 29, Dartmouth announced its plan to become a hard liquor-free institution in a document titled “Moving Dartmouth Forward,” a text written based upon recommendations made by a special committee of faculty, staff, alumnae/i and students. The new regulations state that the consumption or possession of any alcohol 30 proof or higher is unequivocally banned and that those discovered with hard alcohol will face increased penalties.
Meanwhile, just one week earlier, Brown unveiled a new alcohol policy that bars all registered events with alcohol from residential areas, including program and Greek houses, that alcohol may be served by student organizations on university grounds only in designated “party spaces” and if the organization has committed no prior infractions. If a student organization fails to comply with these rules, it will now face harsh sanctions on their presence on campus. The university also announced further shifts in alcohol and social events policies in the spring following the conclusion of a one-year external review of its current regulations.
Medical professionals argue that these enforcement plans may be the only way for colleges to effectively reduce high-risk alcohol use. Studies show that, due to the high proof of hard liquor, many students find regulating their intake difficult. According to expert on high-risk drinking from the University of Denver Sarah Belstock, “The research shows if you don’t have strong policies and enforcement that matches those policies you’re not going to get anywhere” (The Boston Globe, “Dartmouth bans hard alcohol, forbids Greek life pledging,” 01.29.15).
Unlike institutions with alcohol bans like Brigham Young University, this current trend largely originates out of complaints about institutions’ inability to properly regulate student misconduct and criminal activity. Dartmouth convened the committee whose recommendations inspired the hard alcohol ban to discuss methods of reducing sexual violence on campus following accusations of insufficient handling of complaints of sexual assault; reports by The Boston Globe and USA Today state that the university has faced heave media backlash and a reduction in applications following last year’s investigation into the administration’s treatment of sexual assault complaints and the release of a “rape guide” affiliated with the institution. Alongside this policy are plans to ban fraternity and sorority pledging and to institute mandatory four-year sexual violence prevention programs for all students. A senior media relations officer at Dartmouth Amy Olson said, “Policy and enforcement are highly correlated with a substantial reduction in consumption and many fewer negative consequences, like sexual assault, missed classes, regretted actions and hangovers” (ISA Today, “Dartmouth bans hard liquor in effort to end high-risk and harmful behavior,” 01.31.2015).
The report also states, “High-risk drinking, sexual assault and lack of inclusivity are inter-related problems” (Dartmouth College, “Moving Dartmouth Forward: Final Report from the Committee,” 01.29.15).
Meanwhile, Brown announced its shift in alcohol policy following two accusations of sexual assault in fraternities last semester that occurred at parties where alcohol was present. According to reports, the university heavily sanctioned both fraternities, members of which allegedly slipped GHB into women’s drinks, and views this new alcohol policy as a method for preventing such incidents in the future.
Although crafted as a method of addressing systemic issues of sexual assault and violence on college campuses, these new policies have been opposed by many students who have questioned the link between alcohol and sexual violence. Brown student Emma Phillips ’17 explained, “We need to be really careful that we’re not conflating alcohol with sexual assault and understand that those are separate issues” (The Brown Daily Herald, “Undergrads question new alcohol policy,” 01.22.2015).
Dartmouth student Will Alston ’16 also argued that Dartmouth’s new ban would increase class-based divisions in a school already accused of exclusivity. “You can buy a cheap handle of vodka for ten bucks, but that won’t buy you very much beer” (USA Today).
Brown and Dartmouth are not alone in facing accusations of insufficient treatment of sexual violence complaints. Currently, the federal government is investigating more than 100 institutions of higher education for such issues.
However, Vassar has maintained an almost oppositional attitude to that of the recent trend. The College places no limit on legally-owned alcohol, with the exception of kegs. The College implemented its keg ban in 2011, in the hopes of reducing incidents of misconduct.
Vassar subsequently studied its alcohol policies using a joint student and administration group, called the Alcohol Task Force, in 2011. After obtaining a substantial grant funding and utilizing a multi-step analysis of Vassar’s drinking culture, the task force reported that students engaged in riskier drinking behavior over the course of their time at Vassar, more than half consistently participated in pregame drinking and that Vassar’s environment encourages a “blackout culture” (The Vassar Student Associate, “ATF Memo,” 04.17.2012).
Moreover, the report stated, “Nearly 1 in 5 respondents reported a sexual experience they later regretted while intoxicated last year, and roughly 8% reported feeling sexually violated while intoxicated last year.”
In response to these findings, the Task Force recommended that the College increase funding toward promoting alcohol-free events and including more frequent discussion amongst students about safe drinking practices.
While, currently, no plans have been made to alter the College’s current policies, the same circumstances that prompted peer institutions to shift policies are present as well at Vassar, and have been noted even this year. Within the one-year studied published in 2011, eight percent of students reported feeling sexually violated following an intoxicated sexual encounter, echoing the motives held by Dartmouth and Brown. Last semester, the College reported higher numbers of EMS calls, particularly from the freshman class, as compared to previous years, with more students being sent to the hospital for treatment.