Have alcohol rules changes worked?

Author: Colleen Ganey '03 and Ed Cohen

Halfway through the first semester in which hard alcohol was banned from residence halls and hall dances had to move to other locations, the effects were obvious — to the people taking out the trash.

“The housekeepers have come to [the rectors] and said, ‘The trash has changed,’” said Father Mark Poorman, CSC, ’80M.Div. The vice president for student affairs was the architect of a set of rule changes announced in spring 2002 aimed at curbing abusive drinking on campus.

Poorman said he suspected students would try to evade the ban on hard alcohol by simply drinking more discreetly, but reports from the housekeeping staff suggest otherwise. The housekeepers have told hall rectors they are seeing not only fewer bottles of hard alcohol in the trash but fewer beer and wine containers and less trash overall. Poorman and the rectors take this as a sign that overall drinking and partying in the dorms has waned.

The vice president also was encouraged by an apparent decrease in student drinking at tailgating parties on football Saturdays and by a sharp decline in the number of students requiring medical attention for excessive consumption of alcohol.

“It’s way too early to declare victory,” he said, “but so far the implementation has gone very well.”

When asked, upperclassmen generally agreed that binge-drinking on campus was down and that there were fewer out-of-control room parties fall semester. But many say drinking by students has not necessarily decreased, it has only relocated to off-campus locations, especially apartments of upperclassmen (which would explain the dorm trash reductions).

Many also say the revised hall dances have lost much of their former appeal and that hall camaraderie has suffered because so many juniors and seniors are leaving the dorm on weekends, presumably to attend rules-free parties off campus.

The trash evidence came to light after the first wave of hall-sponsored dances last fall. In the past, many students — especially freshmen — would bounce back and forth between a dance in the dorm’s basement or other social space and alcohol-soaked private parties in individual rooms. The new rules require all hall-organized dances, often called SYRs, to be held at a location outside the hall. And students aren’t allowed to leave the dance and re-enter.

Of the rules changes announced by Poorman last spring, evicting SYRs from the dorms drew the loudest protests from students. And plenty of unhappiness remains, especially among upperclassmen. Some complain that the dances have too many rules and that a dance with no other activity isn’t enough to attract the level of participation that existed in the past. Not everyone is comfortable dancing, they say, especially for two or three hours in the same room.

One of the dances deemed most successful last fall was organized by Fisher Hall and took place at the Beacon Bowl bowling lanes near the airport. Supporters of the new policy said the dance showed how imaginative thinking can lead to a successful social event. Critics said it only proved their point; without the additional entertainment of bowling, the dance would have flopped.

“Part of [the fun of hosting an SYR in the past] was inviting people into your room and playing music,” said Meghan Gowan, a sophomore in Breen-Phillips Hall.

Abbey Coons, a resident assistant in Pasquerilla East, said “things were more controlled” at her hall’s first dance of the year, hosted with the neighboring men’s hall Knott in a tent next to Knott. She said that before the dance, freshman were “disappointed” and “disgruntled” because they felt robbed of enjoying true Notre Dame social life, and upperclassmen did not expect to have fun. The rectors of the two halls worried that students might drink excessively out of spite or sulk during the event, Coons said.

But the R.A. said most people “had fun just the same,” and she predicted things would improve next time because people will know what to expect.

Poorman was heartened by a column in The Observer written by a freshman after one of the new-styled dances.

“Although there were a few small drawbacks to the new SYRs,” wrote Mike Harkins of Dillon Hall, “it could not take away from what was an awesome evening. The fact that we could go out and dance for hours without needing a fake ID was all I could really ask for.”

“People who were accustomed to hall dances being enormous hallwide parties are probably disappointed [with the new format],” the student affairs vice president said. “People who actually want a dance are pleased. That’s exactly what we had in mind when we made the changes.”

The other target of the rules changes was excessive drinking during football-morning tailgating. New rules permit students 21 and older to host tailgaters and to serve alcohol, provided they register in advance, host the event in a designated area (a field south of Edison Road) and don’t serve to minors.

The volume of registered tailgaters was small for the first few games — about 30 each week, Poorman said — and the consensus among students was that the drinking had just moved to different locations. Instead of campus parking lots, students said, they were going to nearby apartment complexes and indulging in the same drinking games and tipsy breakfast traditions like “kegs and eggs” and “waffles and whiskey” as before. Others were reportedly renting front yards on the streets east of campus to use as their new base for drinking, away from the eyes of campus officials and law enforcement personnel patrolling the parking lots.

Poorman countered that he’d heard only anecdotal evidence of this, and he noted that law enforcement personnel were charged with enforcing the drinking age everywhere, not just in the designated lots. The priest said students seemed unwilling to consider that abusive drinking may have actually dropped since the rule changes, at least among certain populations.

“In terms of freshmen I think we’re seeing some change in behavior of what’s happening on football Saturday mornings.”