Ryan: Universities need to rethink their policies toward underage drinking


Dan Ryan, Columnist

Three days ago, The Daily posted an article about Edward Tivador’s candidacy for alderman of Evanston’s 1st Ward. He presented some interesting ideas for the future of town-gown relations in the city, but one in particular got me thinking.

In the article, Tivador proposed a “safe haven” concept, where Evanston residents would place Wildcat decals on their windows to alert students that their household can assist them after a rough night of partying.

“I want to be the neighborhood person that says … ‘Are you okay? What is your cell phone number? Can I call a friend?’,” he said.

I believe this is an idea with some potential and also an excellent example of the type of thinking that needs to be more prevalent on college campuses across the country. I’m talking specifically about confronting the culture of “cracking down” on student drinking with preventive measures and phrases such as “dry campus.”

It’s a tricky subject. On the one hand, many parents would never accept the fact their son or daughter drinks at college, and they would also likely want the college their child attends to come down hard on any kind of drinking culture. Administrators know this, but they also understand that a large number of students on their campus do drink, sometimes dangerous amounts in one night.

When I first arrived at Elder Hall, the all-freshmen dorm, the CAs were more explicit and intimidating about the punishment for drinking in the rooms than they were about what we should do if one of our friends needed help. Obviously, this was part of the training the University had given and wanted to implement. We all needed to know why we shouldn’t bring alcohol into the dorm.

But this style of thinking is a little misguided, and I imagine my experience is shared every year by freshman at most colleges in the United States. The problem is that students are going to drink. That’s not going to change, no matter how many anti-alcohol campaigns are drawn up or threats are made. Given this fact, something else should change — namely, the culture surrounding the subject.

The goal of any initiative aimed at alleviating the problem of drinking on college campuses should be focused less on prevention and more on ensuring the health and safety of students. Too many students at Northwestern have been afraid to contact a CA or campus police for help because they believe doing so will result in themselves or their friend getting in trouble, which is not exactly the case.

Many will counter by saying that such measures reduce underage drinking, and indeed they very likely do. If that’s the only goal, we should all be patting ourselves on the back, but it’s not. The primary focus should be on preventing hospitalizations, serious injury and death as a result of alcohol poisoning.

I’m not suggesting that universities open bars on their campus and sell shots to 18-year-olds. Rather, I think colleges should be more clear that students who help those needing assistance after a night of heavy drinking will not be punished. NU’s current alcohol policy provides limited protection for students who call help for others who have been drinking, but that general mindset — that caring for one another is more important than doling out punishments — can be taken even further.

A good place to start might be simply confiscating alcohol found in dorm rooms without any penalties. Perhaps after one infraction, the student must agree to random searches of their room and increased surveillance by CAs. Subsequent violations could be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Under a situation like this, students would still understand that drinking is not promoted or accepted on their campus, but they would also feel comfortable asking for help if they or one of their friends needs it.

It’s not perfect — neither situation is — but it helps promote a culture of being safe and smart about alcohol. Even if it leads to an increase in the number of students who drink on campus, it will be worth it if it saves so much as one life. And that’s the mindset we should be taking.

Dan Ryan is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].