Yale Daily News Magazine
During one of the final days of reading week last spring, fraternity presidents sat around a table with Deans Marichal Gentry and John Meeske to discuss a touchy subject — the ban on fall rush practices that had been announced two months prior.
The conversation, however, soon shifted into unexpected territory: new methods for combating unsafe drinking and Yale’s drinking culture in general. “We were all confused by the change in topic,” recalls Daniel Tay ’14, president of AEPi. Though new policy ideas were presented to the body, the conversation was largely left unresolved. Fraternity leaders left that day with only the administrators’ promise to gather their input over the summer. But Tay says that never happened. (Dean Gentry did not respond to requests for comment.)
Ben Singleton ’13, a former president of SAE, says that, after the meeting, “we all knew something else was coming.”
And he was right.
Before most of us had returned to Yale this fall, Deans Miller and Gentry sent out a campus-wide email explaining the newest regulation governing Yale’s social climate: off-campus party registrations. Under this system, students hosting an off-campus party for more than 50 people are required to register the party with the Dean’s Office, and the host now assumes legal responsibility for all guests. In a News article outlining the new policy, Dean Meeske announced that the regulations were “a way for us to have more knowledge about what’s going on … and with more knowledge we can watch what’s going on more closely.”
With the fall semester well underway, fraternities have been hit the hardest. At a time when most of us had not even finalized our shopping schedule, SigEp was facing one of the earliest impacts of the new regulation. An email that SigEp President Will Kirkland ’14 sent to the SigEp panlist related that on Aug. 23, a party hosted by an “outside organization” in the fraternity’s house resulted in two students being transported to the hospital for severe intoxication.
The consequences were as promised by Meeske: “We are now facing sanctions from the Yale Executive Committee,” reads the email. (Kirkland did not respond to requests for comment.)
Those sanctions included a ban on parties hosted by SigEp until the conclusion of fall break on Oct. 29. But, as a junior in SigEp put it in an interview, “Our president really got screwed. He wasn’t even there, it wasn’t even our fraternity’s party, but he took the hit. How is that even possible?”
It’s the type of confusion that has plagued not only the Greek community, but also student groups closer to campus, including the International Students Organization (ISO) and International Relations Association (YIRA). According to Carl Sandberg ’14, president of ISO, the two groups approached Dean Meeske in early September to explain “concerns” that members had about the new policy.
“We wanted the administration to be aware of how the policy is perceived among students and work to make a clear channel between our members and the administration,” he said.
For Sandberg, their meeting seemed to achieve just that. “They promised to send out more information on the specifics of the regulations, and they did,” he said. “We all got an email the day after. That’s the kind of path I hope we can continue on.”
But YIRA soon revealed that, regardless of this new channel of communication, the policy’s consequences were more palpable than ever.
Niko Efstathiou ’14, a member of YIRA, noted that for years, 168 York Street Café was the organization’s go-to venue for their off-campus events. He praised the management for their flexibility in accommodating student organizations. “Nobody was turned away from a party for being underage, and all carding happened at the bar,” he said. Over the years, he continued, YIRA had formed a close relationship with the bar owner, Joe Goodwin.
But during the third week of classes, Sophia Clementi ’14, executive director of YIRA, was informed halfway through a party the organization was hosting at the café that this one would be their last.
“Joe and I were standing at the door, and he suddenly says to me, ‘You know this will be the last time we can allow underage kids in here,’” Clementi said. Given that the majority of YIRA’s members are underage, it seemed clear to her that they would have to sever ties with 168 York.
Goodwin himself remembers the incident just as vividly. He explains his altered stance on student parties as stemming from a September article in the New Haven Register, one that publicized Yale’s new “crackdown” on student drinking.
“It was a clear wake-up call,” he tells me. It’s about 11:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in the silent and dimly lit dining room of 168 York. “That article told me that I’d have to be stricter about booking parties. It’s sad, because we’ve become good friends with these kids over the years, but we have to follow the law,” he continues. “But at the same time, those rules seem to take away the possibility of parties anywhere at all. I mean, where are you guys going to go now? The Shake Shack?”
Bartender Joe Evangelista soon joins us at our table. While the policies seemed well-intentioned, he admitted, he wondered how they would actually contribute to a decrease in binge drinking. “The thing is,” he says, “kids aren’t coming here to get drunk. They’re running in dancing for an hour, and then going on to whatever’s happening next.”
Regardless, Goodwin does not envision a return to the student parties of the past anytime soon.
“At this point, there’s really nothing I can do,” he says.
Ben Singleton seems to just be waiting on his own fraternity’s turn to experience a fate similar to that of SigEp. We’re sitting in the living room of SAE, a place that many Yalies have stumbled through at some point on a Thursday night. The room is spotless, and for the first time I don’t have to struggle to walk across a hardwood floor blanketed by a sticky coat of dried beer.
Singleton laughs at my observation, but the conversation quickly hits a more serious note. For Singleton, the state of SAE during a party is not something he’s experienced often since his term as president. He then points to the stairs. “I’m so scared during parties now, scared that something is going to happen out of our control, that I usually just stay in my room.”
In Singleton’s view, the most recent regulations treat the symptoms and not the causes of binge drinking, creating a system in which the administration tries to portray itself and Greek organizations on opposite ends of the battlefield.
“We’re supposed to be allies, not the cops and bad guys,” he said. “We’re all on the same side here. Everyone wants drinking to be done safely.” But for fraternities, he continued, an open dialogue on drinking and alcohol policy has been swept under the rug.
“They try to make us feel part of the discussion, but then go ahead and establish the rules without consulting the groups they hurt the most. It’s a war you can’t win.”
According to Singleton, it’s a conversation we have to have, and fast. He noted that since the passage of the off-campus party regulations, SAE and other fraternities have informally come together to discuss a cutback on parties open to the entire campus.
Invite-only parties, he said, would offer the fraternities a limited group of familiar faces who wouldn’t hold SAE “accountable” for a phone call to the hospital. He added that, given the recent episodes at SigEp and other fraternities related to the new policy, open parties at SAE in particular have already begun decreasing.
“I don’t want us to turn into the final clubs of Harvard and the eating clubs of Princeton,” he says quietly. But for now, he says, the administration has not afforded them much of a choice. “Every person that I don’t know walking through that door now feels like a liability.”
Communication and Consent Educator Matt Breuer ’14 chose to spend his undergraduate years at Yale for what he defines as our culture of social inclusivity. But as the new regulations trickled in over the past few months, Breuer began to fear the end of such a culture. For him, the off-campus registration policy sparked a commitment to understanding the many strands of the administration’s new stance on alcohol. But despite delving into Yale’s official policies on social functions and alcohol use, Breuer remains in the dark on many of the specifics.
“The problem is, I couldn’t give you a one-sentence summation of our alcohol policy today, and that’s coming from someone who has actively tried to understand it,” he laments. “Our communication with the administration when it comes to drinking has completely broken down, and it’s leading to mass confusion for everyone.”
For Breuer, the time has come for students to recognize their own role in bringing down alcohol-related hospitalizations. He cites a program begun at Haverford College called “Quaker Bouncers,” in which students are paid by the hour to oversee parties in teams of two. The students are required to go through a four-hour training session to understand how to help a fellow student should medical help be necessary. According to an Inside Higher Ed article, over 200 trained students have enlisted their help.
“When students take a proactive stance like this, it moves the focus to students looking out for one another, instead of just worrying about themselves. As innovative as we are, it amazes me that we don’t even have a standing committee for discussion on these issues,” he says.
H. Wesley Perkins GRD ’79, a sociology professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and director of the Alcohol Education Project, believes that binge drinking can’t be tackled until students have accurate perceptions of how often it actually happens. This has proven difficult at a place like Yale, he says, when data from alcohol surveys and the numbers of hospital transports are hidden from students. Additionally, he says, regulations alone on college campuses usually have very little effect in driving down alcohol abuse.
“I’m not at all opposed to policy, but the past couple of decades have revealed that we can’t legislate ourselves out of the problem of binge drinking,” he said. “But when regulations are in place, the most important issue is finding out to what extent students actually understand them. The most effective policies are the ones that are built off of student support, and then promoted publicly.”
Perkins contends that the chief problem behind severe regulations is that they simply shift the context of drinking. Speaking to Yale’s off-campus regulations specifically, he predicts that drinking will just become more heavily concentrated within suites and other places not yet touched by a regulatory hand.
“What you see happen is that actual consumption rates haven’t changed much. The problems just get pushed somewhere else,” he said.
It’s this concern that causes West Cuthbert ’14, SAE house manager, to question the cancelation of Safety Dance. Silliman’s popular ’80s party was discontinued after a 13-year run when, according to an email sent by Silliman Master Judith Krauss, a record number of eight people were sent to the hospital for intoxication.
“It shouldn’t be that residential colleges get to dodge the question of drinking safely, while other organizations have to battle it alone,” Cuthbert said. He echoes Perkins’ contention that restricting alcohol in one area would simply drive drinking “further underground.” But there’s potential for progress, he continued, if residential colleges offered more “realistic” options for social events, a way that hazardous drinking could be more easily monitored.
“But right now, I think we’re pretty far from that. Colleges aren’t offering us many social outlets that don’t involve moon bounces or petting zoos,” he said.
Hannah Fornero, an organizer of this year’s Safety Dance, seemed to agree in part. “Maybe there should be a more uniform policy,” she said. “In a way, it makes sense. Why should residential colleges be held to a different standard?”
Not too long ago, though, Yale’s social scene was just the opposite, with most drinking rooted within such residential college functions. Steve Olson ’78, who in 2005 wrote an article for the Yale Alumni Magazine on student drinking, recalls his first week of freshman year. FroCos had organized a “sherry hour” in Dwight Hall, and all freshmen were invited to attend.
“That gathering was much more than something social — it was educational. It was a way for FroCos to send a subtle message about how drinking should be done. As incoming freshmen, we didn’t realize what they were doing at the time, but it taught us a lot,” he said.
For Olson, a drinking culture more centralized within residential colleges offered the possibility of better engagement with masters and deans on safety. Of course, Olson attended Yale when the legal drinking age was 18 instead of 21. But in his view, today’s regulations seemed to have abandoned the educational aspect entirely. Instead, he said, the primary focus now seems to be disciplinary. “This seems like a far less healthy atmosphere than when I went to Yale.”
The rivalry in Cambridge is as fierce as ever, with Harvard taking an entirely different approach from Yale to combat binge drinking. In early October, Harvard’s Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors (DAPA) held an open forum for discussion on its own alcohol regulations.
Nevin Raj, president of DAPA, explained that Harvard’s alcohol policies have been shaped around student input, including focus groups, an online comment box, and several feedback sessions. For Raj, the campus-wide forum was evidence that the administration is “always in open dialogue with the students, and always seeks feedback.” The open forum included a Q-and-A with Harvard’s student life associate dean, chief of police, and alcohol and other drug services director.
It’s easy to imagine that the problem of binge drinking is simply inevitable. And in some ways, it is: regardless of the legal age, college students will always drink. But this semester has shown an administrative approach that seems to believe the problem can be regulated away. The models of schools like Haverford and Harvard have proven that though drinking may be inevitable, Yale’s response to it does not have to be.
Branford Master Elizabeth Bradley seems to be planting the seed for a similar approach at Yale, albeit on a much smaller scale. Branford students took part in an event on November 14 at Bradley’s house with Vice President of Student Affairs Kim Goff-Crews. She describes the event as a time for an open discussion on “student culture at Yale, including the use of alcohol.”
“If the policies are to be effective, it is important to listen and seek to understand students’ experiences concerning alcohol use,” she said in an email. “If students fully understand the problem including the data around it, they may feel more ownership of the problem and enlist to help address it.”
Will Jordan ’13, who is living in Branford’s God Quad this year, praised Master Bradley’s efforts as a “great way of trying to get better communication” about Yale’s drinking culture. For Jordan, an open dialogue with his college’s master while living in God Quad has been invaluable. “We don’t have to hide parties, and if there are problems — which fortunately there have not been yet — we would feel comfortable getting her help,” he said.
But in Jordan’s view, the rest of the administration has fallen behind. “It’s difficult because Yale drinking is definitely a culture,” he said. “And to change it, we have to talk about it.”
It’s about 7 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Matt Breuer has a lot on his mind. Even though others are well within hearing distance, he is unafraid to speak clearly, counting off the problems Yale is facing in moving forward on the question of alcohol. Frustration rings in his voice as we talk, and it seems that his concern stems from mere helplessness.
“You wouldn’t believe how many of us care about this, but at this point, it doesn’t matter. There’s too dark of a divide between us and the administration, and it’s driving me crazy, because I just don’t know what to do,” he says.
Like every student interviewed for this article, Breuer agrees that Yale, like all colleges, faces the perennial problem of alcohol abuse. Yes, he agrees, some changes need to be made, but he remains convinced that the issue can be approached without scrapping the social culture so fundamental to our school.
He details the vision behind Yale’s Grand Strategy program, a yearlong program designed to equip students to tackle the biggest issues facing our global landscape. For Breuer, if our administration can entrust us to these incredible tasks, then there’s no reason we should be left in the dark in a discussion about the way we drink.
“When it comes to a real problem on campus that students can actually grasp, and one that we see every single weekend, it’s time for us to be trusted as a part of the solution.”
(Photo: Flickr/Florian Dre)