Sobering Debate

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New alcohol policies aim to curb abusive drinking, especially in the residence halls. But many students say the changes will only dampen hall spirit and drive people, and the problem, off campus.

By Ed Cohen

There’s never been an e-mail come through the Notre Dame server with the impact of the one Father Mark Poorman, CSC, ’80M.Div. sent to the entire student body the evening of Monday, March 18.

The message’s contents topped the front page of the next day’s Observer. A day later protest signs, hurriedly printed and distributed by student government, were being taped up in hundreds of residence hall windows. On Day 3, a large crowd of students gathered outside the LaFortune Student Center for a defiant rally with slogan-chanting and speech-making. Some lit copies of Du Lac on fire and waved the student rule book in the air for news photographers.

More copies would be ignited a week later at a rowdy midnight gathering at the steps of the Main Building. About 100 students showed up, and some began hurling bottles at the building. Participants scattered when police arrived. No one was hurt or arrested and damage was minimal.

In between the ruly and unruly demonstrations, the Student Senate met in emergency session and unanimously passed a resolution of protest. And about a hundred letters poured into The Observer, one of which called for students to pledge not to donate money to the University in future years.

What had Father Poorman, Notre Dame’s vice president for student affairs since 1999, written to make students so angry? That he intended to change the rules on alcohol.

For much of the University’s history a student could be expelled if caught drinking or possessing alcohol on campus. Drinking rules were relaxed in the early 1970s, only to be re-tightened starting in 1978 with the banning of beer kegs. For the past decade or so the policy has been one of containment.

Officially, students were expected to comply with Indiana law — no drinking under age 21. But staff respected the privacy of individual dorm rooms. Residents were OK as long as they didn’t become intoxicated or let the partying get out of hand and spill out into the hallway. The thinking, at least in part, was that students were going to drink no matter what. Better for them to stay in their residence hall, where at least the strictures on drunken behavior encouraged more moderate drinking, than to have students out drinking freely and possibly driving.

That philosophy of not kicking in doors seeking underage drinkers figures to continue, along with efforts at education and counseling. But growing concern about dangerous binge- drinking has prompted a rethinking of policies at Notre Dame and elsewhere. Poorman’s e-mail outlined three proposed changes, all of which are expected to be approved by University officers this summer and implemented next fall.

They are:

1. Hard alcohol will be banned from the undergraduate residence halls.

2. In-hall dances will be discontinued. Dances will be held outside of the halls, either at on- or off-campus venues.

3. Undergraduates of drinking age will be allowed to host football Saturday tailgaters (where alcoholic is commonly served) in a designated parking lot, provided the host registers ahead of time.

The last change, by far the least controversial, clears up confusion from last season, when a crackdown on underage drinking and disorderly conduct led to some embarrassing situations. The most widely publicized involved a 38-year-old graduate student being cited for illegal student tailgating.
As for the other changes, students complain that their opinions weren’t adequately considered in the decision-making. They’re particularly upset about the ban on in-hall dances, sometimes called SYRs, short for “screw your roommate.” The term refers to the original format of hall dances in the early 1980s, which involved fixing up one’s friend with a date. Under the new rules, SYRs can still take place, just not in the halls. Student Affairs has pledged to make alternate venues available on campus and off.

As Poorman explained in his e-mail, the problem with in-hall dances is that dancing has become secondary to drinking. The main action takes place upstairs in crowded room parties with only occasional trips downstairs to the dance floor. Partly because many halls lack adequate space, there’s actually been a trend away from in-hall dances in recent years. Last fall semester, for instance, 29 of 47 hall-sponsored dances took place outside the host hall.

Students counter that taking all dances out of the dorms will damage the hall unity. In some halls, especially women’s, residents spend hours decorating in advance of dances to impress guests.
“My experience here would have been a lot different without in-hall dances,” said senior Mary Hoopes. “I think they contribute a lot to the dorm’s sense of community.”

The change also figures to diminish the excitement associated with certain so-called “signature” hall events. Among the most often mentioned is the Alumni Wake, a rite of spring that until this year included the rector of male Alumni Hall being carried into the dance on the shoulders of residents. In a coffin.

Students say the dance ban is just another example of an administrative crusade to curb freedom and fun in the interest of preserving or enhancing the University’s image. They point out that the past few years have seen the demise of several campus traditions — some rowdier than others — like Sophomore Sibs Weekend, camping out to purchase football tickets, the freshman orientation Graffiti Dance, in addition to the tailgating crackdown.

Writing in The Observer, O’Neill Hall President Joe Muto, who earlier spoke at the LaFortune rally, predicted: “This place will no longer be fun in 10 years. I say that not as a warning but as a statement of the truth.”

It’s unlikely any university has a student affairs chief with more firsthand experience of how its students live than Mark Poorman. Except for five years away from campus in the late 1980s pursuing graduate study, he has lived in Notre Dame’s residence halls continuously since 1980, when he began as a rector in Dillon. Since 1996 his address has been an apartment in Keough Hall, one of the new dorms built on the former back nine of the golf course.

As a priest in residence, the affable 47-year-old sees students at their best — studying hard, attending Mass, forming lasting friendships — and worst, which often involves drinking.

Earlier this year the Harvard School of Public Health released its latest findings from a continuing study of college alcohol consumption, based on surveys conducted on campuses nationwide every few years. The researchers reported that 44 percent of all students could be classified as binge drinkers (men who have had five or more drinks in a row and women who have had four or more at least once within the two weeks before the survey). Among traditional-age college students who drink, 7 of 10 are binge drinkers, according to the Harvard group.

Those statistics ring true at Notre Dame, where hall rectors continue to be awakened by phone calls in the middle of the night saying a resident has been picked up for public intoxication or is being treated for alcohol poisoning at a local hospital emergency room. Students who haven’t themselves gotten drunk to the point of illness have experienced drunken roommates throwing up on them or their possessions. A third of students surveyed report missing classes because of drinking.

In one of Campus Ministry’s “Considerations” columns in The Observer earlier this year, Father Gary Chamberland, CSC, ‘84, described some of what he’d seen in his three years as rector of Keenan Hall.
“[W]e have had guys pass out in the showers while drunk. We have endured vomit in toilet stalls, shower stalls and the elevator. Desk drawers and closets have been used as toilets and an expensive laptop computer was used as a urinal. Falls from lofts have resulted in bruises, and shouting, arguing, laughing and slamming doors in the middle of the night has awakened countless people. All are directly related to drunkenness. Men and women have left Keenan Hall strapped to stretchers with blood alcohol levels so high that they could not be awakened for six hours. One resident retched so violently that he tore his stomach. Sadly, this reality is not particularly bad by campus standards.”

Theories abound as to why abusive drinking is so prevalent at Notre Dame. The Harvard study has identified a correlation between binge drinking and a tradition of support for big-time varsity sports. Students say having relatively few social and cultural resources locally, compared to a big city like Boston, leaves drinking as one of the few convenient leisure time activities. Some say their course work is demanding, and alcohol helps them unwind on the weekends.

Another possibility involves the backgrounds of students. About 85 percent of Notre Dame students are Catholic, and there’s a belief that Catholic families take a more permissive view of drinking than, say, members of strict Protestant denominations. A telling example involves African-American students, who make up about 3 percent of Notre Dame’s undergraduates. Blacks students, who are mostly Baptists or African Methodist Episcopal (AME), often say they’re mystified as to why alcohol is considered essential to every social situation.

Poorman recalls a meeting with his counterpart at UCLA at which the two discussed abusive drinking on campus. The officer of the California college said fraternities and sororities continue to be the center of binge drinking culture, but he observed that drinking to get drunk is primarily a white cultural phenomenon. UCLA students are 40 percent white, 40 percent Asian with the rest other minorities, he told Notre Dame’s Student Affairs leader.

“When I told him Notre Dame is 84 percent white, his response was, ’No wonder you have problems with alcohol.”

Notre Dame’s president, Father Malloy, serves as co-chair of the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Earlier this year the group released the results of a new study called “A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges.” The study found that drinking by college students, ages 18-24, contributes to an estimated 1,400 student deaths, 500,000 injuries and 70,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape each year.

At Notre Dame, as at other colleges, it’s become popular to celebrate one’s 21st birthday by downing (or attempting to) 21 shots of hard alcohol. Notre Dame is fortunate not to have had a student die from alcohol poisoning. Averting such a tragedy is a primary reason Poorman had Student Affairs begin studying the drinking problem two years ago with an eye toward possible policy changes.

One of the landmarks in alcohol policy at Notre Dame was the 1984 report of the University Committee on the Responsible Use of Alcohol. Among other changes, the committee recommended doing away with section parties and banning the consumption of alcohol in public places (except at tailgaters). When word of the recommendations reached students, an estimated 1,500 marched to the Main Building in protest. Inside they began jumping up and down on the rotunda’s circular balcony and raining paper from above. A week later an even larger group rallied to protest the quality of the campus’s social life.

Poorman served on the 1984 committee, so he had more than an inkling of how students would react to further restrictions. But he defends the process that produced the changes. Student Affairs convened 30 focus groups composed of students, faculty, administrators, rectors and other hall staff, parents, alumni, police, city officials, landlords, even local bar owners. Although many students have complained that they had no voice in the deliberations, Poorman says 10 of the focus groups involved students, and hall presidents and student representatives from the Campus Life Council were invited to at least one focus group.

After the rally outside LaFortune, student government circulated a petition calling for a continuation of in-hall dances and an increased student voice. Approximately 4,000 students — about half the undergraduate population — signed. But the showing didn’t sway Poorman from his intentions.

No one doubts that a majority of undergraduates disapprove of the dance ban, and at least as many feel slighted by the process. But a considerable number quietly agree with efforts to make the campus culture less alcohol-centered. Witness the counter-reaction that followed the demonstrations and protest letters. Some said they were embarrassed by the forcefulness of the outcry over a potential loss of drinking privileges, given more important issues demanding attention, such as the conflict in the Middle East.

In a letter to The Observer the day after the bottle episode, senior Joel Ebner wrote, “This is the first time I’ve ever been ashamed to be associated with Notre Dame’s student body.” These kinds of demonstrations, he added, “inevitably give our legitimate opinions the political impact of a knock-knock joke.”

In another letter, sophomore Kevin McCormik observed, “Hidden under the ambiguous language of our student leaders who called the new policy an ‘assault on the campus spirit’ is the plain and honest truth that this policy hinders nothing more than our ability to get drunk. . . . It is true that the policy would change long-standing traditions such as the Alumni Wake, but even members of those dorms would admit that those traditions are nothing more than elaborate excuses for everyone in the dorm to get blasted.”

At the heart of the controversy is whether the changes will actually curb drinking. Most students say no.

“I think students are going to drink regardless,” said freshman Cameron Lang.

He and others say the restrictions will only motivate more students to move off campus, destroying Notre Dame’s cherished, and widely admired, sense of community. Or worse. Many predict that, just as the former alcohol policy anticipated, alcohol-loving students will simply do their drinking off campus, increasing the likelihood of drunk-driving accidents and other trouble. Thinking back to her days as an underclassman, one female senior says she felt safe “at home” attending parties in the dorms in a way she wouldn’t have if parties had been off campus. Others say student welfare will hardly be improved when students are drinking themselves sick and there’s no trained hall staff around to help them.

Poorman counters that it’s “naive and dangerous” to think the hall staff can monitor every resident’s drinking. And he doesn’t think taking away hard liquor and in-hall dances will “seriously threaten” the residence halls’ 160-year traditions of friendship, sports, prayer and intellectual life.

Early indications favor that view. At Poorman’s direction, the Office of Residence Life and Housing offered to refund the room deposit of any student who had planned to live on campus next year but couldn’t abide the policy changes. As of early April, four students had taken the office up on its offer.

In another positive sign, 26 percent of freshmen surveyed by the University’s Office of Alcohol and Drug Education this year, said they don’t drink at all. And while past national studies have shown binge-drinking to be much more prevalent at Notre Dame than other campuses, Gina Firth, director of Alcohol and Drug Education the past eight years, says the situation has improved and her surveys show the campus is now about average.

Poorman says the policy changes are an effort to take the lead in curbing alcohol abuse rather than clamping down after a tragedy, the typical scenario. Yet it’s debatable how effective the changes can be.

Senior Laura Sobchik, who lived in the dorms all four years, says moving dances out of the halls may actually increase binge drinking. She says she is not much of a drinker herself and she believes the administration has good intentions. But she knows from personal experience that when a hall hosts a dance, residents spread out their drinking during the hours before and during the dance. When the dance is held off campus, residents binge before leaving for the event, knowing they won’t be able to drink later.

Why is getting loaded before a dance such an imperative?

“A lot of people feel like in order to have fun they have to drink,” the senior says.

It figures to take more than a change in rules to change that.

Notre Dame Magazine, summer 2002