In Focus: Liquor liability
Students, administrators discuss contract policy amid perceived ‘crackdown’ on events with alcohol
March 1, 2016
For the first time in at least nine years, the sorority quads were absent of the serenading male voices that had filled each chapter house for one night during Winter Quarter. The surrounding roads were empty of the buses that opened their doors to current and new Greek members, all clad in formalwear. And Facebook did not explode in a morning-after barrage of photo uploads and profile pictures of a night downtown.
This year, Gone Greek Night — a post-recruitment tradition that involves an off-campus night out for Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association chapters — was canceled.
The decision was the result of about three months of negotiations between University administrators and the IFC and PHA community following this year’s plan for a revamped Gone Greek Night, said Weinberg senior Mark Nelson, who ended his term as IFC president in January.
However, Nelson said the event’s cancellation actually boils down to alcohol policy — more specifically, Northwestern Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin’s interpretation of it. Her hesitation to sign off on Gone Greek Night stems from a larger conversation the University is having on the future of events that serve alcohol, Nelson said.
“My understanding is that Dr. Telles-Irvin is questioning the stance on alcohol policy,” he said. “(Gone Greek Night) got blocked because one person felt it was far too risky.”
In an interview with The Daily last month, Telles-Irvin said the University is taking a pause to review practices around undergraduate student organization events that have alcohol. This year’s Gone Greek Night, she said, had not met her standards for approval.
“We’re still trying to understand the implications, the liability, the health of our students, the messages we’re sending,” she said. “(My decision is) not to take away fun. It’s essentially to make sure you have a safe, healthy and fulfilling experience here at Northwestern. If we can get there, I’d be happy.”
Though Telles-Irvin said there was no official policy change, other students said they have noticed a shift in University approval of events with alcohol. On a larger scale, students and administrators are also engaged in discussions about potential changes to NU’s alcohol policy.
Gone Greek Night, gone
A year ago, IFC and PHA executive board members decided the next Gone Greek Night would consolidate all chapters into one venue to boost inclusivity and safety, instead of chapters pairing up individually at separate venues as they had in previous years.
“Our changes for Gone Greek Night were largely because our community wanted change,” said Medill senior KK Doyle, who served as PHA president until January. “This is an event that’s celebrating having gone Greek all as one community, so why were we pairing off?”
In the past, the Fraternity and Sorority life team under the Campus Life office oversaw Gone Greek Night registration, executive director of Campus Life Brent Turner said, with individual fraternities and sororities signing contracts and their national chapters assuming the insurance. But as there was no feasible way to split the contract for this year’s consolidated event among all the chapters, he said, Gone Greek Night needed to be registered under one name — the University’s.
With the cost of this year’s proposed event exceeding $25,000, PHA and IFC also needed Telles-Irvin to sign off on the event, Turner said.
The two boards decided on Dave & Buster’s in Chicago as a venue in October, Nelson said. He said the event, scheduled for February, would hold up to 2,500 people.
Dave & Buster’s would card all guests at the door, giving wristbands to those 21 or older, Nelson said. He said staff from Student Affairs, along with IFC and PHA executive board members, would have been present to respond to any potentially hazardous situations.
For Telles-Irvin, these safeguards were not enough.
“I do know there was a desire to have alcohol served — that was the issue,” she said. “If you think about it, the majority (of students) are underage and they’re not allowed to have a drink. The University has to think about that.”
Nelson and Doyle said they received an email Dec. 7 from FSL director Cynthia Rose signaling “important updates” to Gone Greek Night. Telles-Irvin had refrained from signing the contract, Rose informed them in a subsequent meeting, leading Nelson, Doyle and other IFC and PHA executive board members to stay until Friday of finals week, Dec. 11, to meet with administrators, they said.
When they left that meeting, Nelson said they all understood the event was over.
“Safety, in a moment, was just gone out the window,” Doyle said of her reaction to Telles-Irvin’s decision not to sign the contract. “What do you think happens when (Gone Greek Night) is not done in an official capacity? Have you not seen Gone Greek Nights of the past? Do you not foresee what’s going to happen if there’s not a formal option?”
But monitored drinking at Gone Greek Night, Telles-Irvin said, still may lead to unsafe or underage drinking and would not align with University-sponsored events.
“I probably couldn’t list all the things that people do,” Telles-Irvin said. “But there are issues and there are concerns more important about people getting very intoxicated to the point where we have to transport them to the hospital. Those are very serious cases.”
From there, IFC and PHA made attempts to salvage the event. They proposed to Dave & Buster’s a “beer garden” that restricted alcohol to a certain area, which the venue denied out of revenue concerns, Nelson said. With no signature by late December, Dave & Buster’s officially pulled out of the contract.
IFC and PHA announced the cancellation of Gone Greek Night during the last week of Winter Break.
“It was pure frustration, absolute frustration,” Nelson said. “(I have had) meetings with administrators to try to better alcohol policy and transparency and inclusivity. When you’re done with three years of hard work, you want to know that it was worth something, and that was one of the big moments where I questioned if it even was.”
Dave & Buster’s did not respond to multiple requests for comment as of Monday.
“I don’t know whose fault it is,” he said. “Having alcohol central to that event is tricky because the amount of attendees who are eligible to drink is significantly lower. … We couldn’t execute a contract in time.”
Upon arriving back in Evanston this quarter, Nelson said he returned to his apartment late at night and faced a house full of his friends who he said had looked forward to the event. The last time they had seen each other, the event was still a possibility.
“Hey guys, sorry,” he said he told his roommates. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”
Looking at liquor contracts
Over the summer, when A&O Productions proposed moving this year’s fall Blowout concert off-campus, the group found out that both Blowout and its annual Spring Ball, annually held at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago, must be dry, A&O co-chair Cory Goldman said.
“(Telles-Irvin) crossed out the clause inside (Blowout’s contract) and said, ‘No alcohol allowed at this event,’” the Weinberg senior said. “It was kind of confusing for us because we’ve always had alcohol at our off-campus (concerts). … I guess it’s something that she’s implementing across all student groups.”
Telles-Irvin said A&O Blowout was not intended to promote drinking, especially since University President Morton Schapiro designated funds for the event.
“There was a desire to have alcohol, but given that the event was for underage students, it did not make sense,” she said. “The president’s goal of having the Blowout on campus was to generate more campus life.”
As for a perceived policy shift, Telles-Irvin said there is no official change — the University has never signed off on events that place alcohol near underage students, she said.
Due to this perception, however, administrators are drafting a clarification of procedure for student groups regarding events with alcohol, Turner said. The update clarifies that all University-sponsored contracts are reviewed on a case-by-case basis and that the University does not sign off on contracts involving alcohol when undergraduates are present.
“There seems to be a growing number of requests to have events off-campus where alcohol is served, and these events are primarily for undergraduates who are underage,” Telles-Irvin said.
Turner said the pipeline for approving events begins with student organizations discussing the proposal with their adviser’s department: Student Organizations and Activities, Leadership and Community Engagement or FSL. From there, the student organization brings a contract for the event to Campus Life, which is Turner’s office.
After receiving the request, Turner works with the Office of Risk Management and the Office of General Counsel to dissect the language of the third-party vendor contract for student organization events, he said. In total, the process takes at least two weeks.
If a University-sponsored event exceeds $25,000 or will have alcohol present, Telles-Irvin must also give her signature, Turner said.
Turner’s office requires events to prioritize safety in order for approval, he said. He said that includes the presence of an adequate bar staff, identification checks, guest lists, security staff and a system to prevent the passing of drinks between of-age and underage guests, such as designated 21-or-older wristbands. In addition, Student Affairs staff oversees bus loading and bag checks the day of the event, he said.
His office’s concern is two-fold, he said: ensuring students’ safety and protecting NU as an institution.
Goldman said A&O Blowout’s dry venue this year was a significant financial burden for his organization, which had to renegotiate its contract with the venue, Aragon Ballroom in Chicago.
“We just don’t want these changes and policy to be affecting the use of student money,” he said.
Connor Smith, outgoing co-president of Wildside, a student group that promotes NU athletics, said he observed a crackdown in University-registered events with alcohol this year.
“They’re being a lot stricter about what they’re going to allow student groups to put on,” the Weinberg senior said. “The University must know that sometimes, when you put in a contract, there’s certain ambiguities about what can and can’t be done, and they’re trying to exert far more control.”
Smith said the perceived “crackdown” of event contracts with alcohol happened long after his own group’s on-campus student tailgate, Fitzerland, met restrictions starting in 2013 that led to its cancellation last quarter. But similar to other student group events, Smith said Fitzerland promoted safety because it gave the University discretion in monitoring students.
“A lot of it has to do with you don’t know who’s at your party, whereas at Fitzerland, you have a WildCARD,” he said. “The idea of being University-managed makes people a little more responsible than they would be in an off-campus space.”
Goldman said third-party venues also employ stringent risk management.
“The venues that we work with are very professional and they deal with this all the time,” he said. “If we take those spaces for drinking away, I think we create a lot more unsafe environments for students.”
However, some campus traditions are unchanged. Telles-Irvin praised Mayfest’s beer garden for Dillo Day, its flagship day-long music festival in the spring.
“The beer garden is not for underage drinkers,” Telles-Irvin said. “There’s a control, there’s several controls, that make sure people are safe and enjoy themselves and not overly intoxicate themselves.”
Mayfest co-chair Eliza Abramson, a Communication senior, said the beer garden tent on the Lakefill is reserved for students 21 and over, who must provide two forms of identification to enter. The space is reviewed for its safety every year, she said.
But Smith said he has observed an overall restriction in signing contracts with alcohol, with this year’s Gone Greek Night as an example.
“There’s a lot of student groups that that’s going to really affect in the future and hurt the programming that they put on,” he said. “I really don’t see why cracking down on contracts that student groups have is a feasible alcohol policy.”
Back to the drawing board
IFC and PHA’s stake in providing safe drinking spaces doesn’t end at Gone Greek Night. Doyle and Nelson have previously served on the Community Alcohol Coalition, while current IFC president Will Altabef, a Communication junior, currently serves on it, alongside Turner. The coalition, which first gathered November 2013, is chaired by Dean of Students Todd Adams and was convened by Telles-Irvin.
The group comprises more than 20 students, faculty and Evanston community members who meet bi-weekly to study NU’s culture around alcohol and to discuss ways to improve University alcohol policy. Adams said the coalition released a report detailing its findings last September and is slated to meet with Telles-Irvin to discuss next steps in the spring.
He added that the coalition analyzed research and found the change in the rate of drinking among first-year students the most notable. According to the Class of 2016 AlcoholEdu survey, during freshmen year the number of “high-risk drinkers,” which describe those having five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women at least once the past two weeks, soared from 19 to 32 percent approximately one month into Fall Quarter.
“Our students were more likely than what we see across the national average to move into higher, higher risk drinking,” he said. “What happens after students arrive here that changes behavior dramatically?”
One proposal in discussion is to register all events, on or off-campus, that serve alcohol. Among its other undertakings, the coalition is reviewing appropriate venues where alcohol could be present, Adams said, such as the new University Commons building set to replace Norris University Center.
Nelson, one of the idea’s biggest proponents in the coalition, said student organizations would be able to register all parties and monitor guests as well as drinks served in order to curb intoxication and underage drinking. He said an example would be banning mixed drinks and having beer or wine-only parties.
“If we found some way in which we liberalize (drinking) and found some way we made it less taboo — we allowed it on campus and monitored, regulated, registered events, which plenty of universities do — I think it would be far safer,” Nelson said.
The coalition’s report also said the current standards lack uniformity.
According to the student handbook, students under 21 cannot possess or consume alcohol. Those of legal drinking age are allowed to consume alcohol in residence halls with other people 21 or older, but cannot drink in the presence of underage students inside University housing.
Per University policy, all fraternity and sorority houses are mandated “dry houses,” meaning no alcohol is allowed inside. Drinking games are also prohibited on campus regardless of the student’s age.
The registered event proposal could allow alcohol in fraternity houses for those of legal age, Nelson said. For IFC walkthroughs inside the fraternity quads, which entail IFC executive board members looking for noise and alcohol use from outside, the members would instead enter fraternity houses and ensure IFC’s standards for a safe event are being met.
However, Nelson and Doyle said they are disillusioned that change is possible. Doyle said the University rejecting Gone Greek Night, which was an off-campus event with alcohol, signaled that proposals for on-campus events with alcohol would be even more futile.
“I am at a point where I feel, to what end?” Doyle said. “Why am I going to continue to exhaust my energy in this conversation if I’m at a point where I don’t feel like it’s a two-sided conversation?”
Off the grid
Some students, subsequently, forge their own structures for drinking events.
Behind fraternity house doors, there exists another set of unwritten rules, said a Weinberg senior in a fraternity. He requested anonymity to talk openly about NU’s underage drinking culture.
The senior said each on-campus fraternity party operates under three sets of rules: one from the University, one from IFC and one from its chapter’s executive members. For his chapter, alcohol is not allowed on the first floor, he said, due to security cameras and windows. All partying must be able to be shut down in an instant — public areas spotless, all guests hidden inside rooms — during an IFC walkthrough.
“In the fraternity parties on campus, the situation is very much controlled,” he said. “It’s almost seamless in a way.”
He said risk management was a necessary chore each member of his fraternity took on. Members chosen for this task on a particular night had to remain relatively sober and cut off drinks for those that were in danger of intoxication, he said.
“We walk around constantly — the mother hen of the night — and take care of everyone,” he said. “There’s a cut-off for people: ‘You’re clearly way too f—ed up, you’re done, get water now.’”
Nonetheless, it can be a brutal job for chapter and council presidents to explain unpopular rules to fraternity members, Altabef and Nelson said, especially when they don’t agree with all policies themselves.
“I’ve become to call myself Frances Willard’s disciple; this is the amount of alcohol policy I’ve tried to enforce,” Nelson said, alluding to the first female NU dean who was a leader in the Prohibition movement.
Pulling back the curtain
Though there are no official revisions on the table as of now, Adams, as well as Altabef, Doyle and Nelson, maintain the current status quo needs work.
“I could go on forever — it’s incredibly unsafe,” Nelson said. “It’s been a taboo subject for the University to address. … Students are behind closed doors where nobody can monitor them.”
On June 10, 2008, then-SESP freshman Matthew Sunshine died of alcohol poisoning in his on-campus room. Following his death, the University adopted Red Watch Band training, a national program formed in memory of Sunshine that educates college students on how to respond to alcohol-related emergencies.
One change his father, Jeffrey Sunshine, called for was a review of what was formerly called the Responsible Action Protocol, which grants amnesty to students who call for help when someone is intoxicated. His father said the policy was not enough to push students to seek help, and hoped the University would punish those who failed to do so.
In August, RAP was replaced by the Amnesty through Responsible Action protocol. During alcohol or drug emergencies, both the bystanders who call for help and the student in question now receive amnesty from punishment, Adams said.
Adams said the coalition was the group that heavily advocated for the amnesty clause. Last quarter when it was implemented, the University granted at least 20 cases of amnesty, Adams said, which was an increase from the previous Fall Quarter.
“We don’t want barriers for those seeking help for students or themselves,” Adams said. “The change in fall has been a positive one.”
In the last five years, hospital transports from alcohol were lowest in the 2012-2013 year at 70 and highest in the 2010-2011 year at 104. Last year, there were 78 transports.
Moving forward, Altabef said alcohol policy needs standardization, which students and administrators can achieve by working toward the common goal of safety.
“Our community is very ready to talk about what we can do to help make our students safer,” he said. “No one wants to see a student go to the hospital. No one wants there to be substance abuse problems on this campus.”
Lisa Currie, director of Health Promotion and Wellness and a member of the alcohol coalition, said she’s optimistic the group will continue to advocate for safer alcohol policy.
“We’ve had students die on this campus for alcohol-related causes,” she said. “This one? This one’s preventable.”
Doyle said in a way, Gone Greek Night’s undoing proved a point about student responsibility — to her knowledge, no chapters went around the IFC and PHA councils to “throw an unsafe, underground event” to replace Gone Greek Night this year.
“They robbed us of something and my community did not rebel in any unsafe way,” she said. “To me, that in and of itself is kind of a win. … That was the community saying, ‘We told you we stand for a healthy attitude toward alcohol.’”
Though student leaders said they are not always on the same page as Telles-Irvin when discussing alcohol contracts and policies, the recurring priority for all remains safety.
“Whenever I do anything, I’m here to make sure you all graduate, that you have a safe and healthy experience,” Telles-Irvin said. “That’s the underlying principle with which we made those decisions.”
Although Turner said he was disappointed the event didn’t happen, he observed “fantastic conversations” to make Gone Greek Night safer. He, along with Telles-Irvin and student leaders, said ultimately, trust is needed for progress on alcohol policy.
“Alcohol has plagued our community at large for a while,” Turner said. “Trust is important when it comes to our bottom line — trust that we have our students’ best interests at heart. I don’t want policy to get in the way of safety. So how do we get to that place?”
Graphic by Jerry Lee/Daily Senior Staffer.