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As dialogue continues, controlled alcohol use returns to campus life

A winter of introspection, dialogue and education on issues involving alcohol, freshman housing, fraternities, communication and student-faculty relationships has created an atmosphere in which social changes in the MIT culture are beginning to evolve.

As spring arrives, a number of measures have been taken, including a system of citations and sanctions for underage drinking violations and plans to erect a new dormitory in order to provide more opportunities for improving the residential experience for all MIT students. Provost Joel Moses has tripled the budget for student activities on campus to $300,000 for the 1998-99 academic year. With strict controls, alcohol is slowly being reintroduced to undergraduate events.

In a letter to be sent to the parents of MIT students shortly, President Charles Vest says:

"Drinking behavior stems from peer pressure, social and family values and experiences, self-image, and the enormous pressure from advertising messages and images. At the same time, these are individual decisions: everyone makes his or her own choices regarding alcohol consumption. But individual choice does not absolve us of responsibility and accountability--both personal and collective.

"I believe that we must, and can, bring about cultural change and new peer expectations on these matters. Binge drinking cannot be legislated out of existence, but we can set community standards and expect each other to adhere to them.

"Over the past several months, I believe that we have made some progress on these matters."

The changes are developing from a process set in motion by President Vest shortly after freshman Scott Krueger's alcohol-related death last September following an informal party at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house.

Dr. Vest immediately banned the use of Institute funds to purchase alcohol for events at which underage students are present and called for a one-month suspension of alcohol service at all formal and informal events on campus. The general ban on Institute funds is still in effect for student-sponsored events at which persons under 21 are present.

President Vest also called for campus-wide discussions relating to the use of alcohol on campus and the quality of the living experience for students. Formal discussions were conducted in freshman seminars, residences and in meetings with students that included representatives from the Dean's office and the Medical Department. Meetings sponsored by the Interfraternity Conference (IFC) and the Alumni IFC attracted more than 2,000 participants, and included seminars with outside experts.

Throughout the year, standing and ad hoc committees and working groups--both student and faculty--have been grappling with questions of alcohol policy, the quality of the residential experience and undergraduate life in general. Countless informal discussions continue to revolve around the issues.

"MIT students have been through a year of extraordinary public scrutiny and policy change," said Dean for Undergraduate Education Rosalind Williams. "I hope we are now at a point where we can consider all that has happened and focus on developing student-managed living communities organized around the ethic of concern for each other. We have a framework for a clearer, more coherent alcohol policy. But the only way to make it a workable policy is for students to understand, endorse and implement it."


The Working Group on Prevention of Binge Drinking is completing six months of intense work toward providing a framework for keyadditional elements in the new era. President Vest charged the group of faculty and students with surveying literature; consulting with national experts; learning about the physiology, psychology and sociology of binge drinking among college students; and recommending preventive programs, "including the production of new and more effective educational programs and materials." Members have been meeting regularly since November.

"We're not going to try to ban alcohol on campus and therefore push it off-campus," said Professor Phillip Sharp, a 1993 Nobel laureate who co-chairs the working group with Dr. Mark Goldstein, chief of pediatrics and student health services in the Medical Department. "We have a high proportion of older students and visitors for whom modest use of alcohol is appropriate. That is the way it is in the society that our students are going into, and we should help prepare them for it."

One option under consideration is the appointment of a single individual to oversee all policies relating to alcohol in the community. A report that includes a schedule of discussions and seminars with experts for the 1998-99 academic year is expected by the end of the semester.

The Orientation Committee and the Working Group on Prevention of Binge Drinking have discussed a program on alcohol during orientation. In addition, the Working Group has considered assigning a MedLINKs representative or MedLINKs-trained person to each living group (MedLINKs is a peer-counseling service sponsored by the Medical Department). Another suggestion under consideration is to have undergraduate advisors, trained in how to raise the issue of alcohol with students, assume a more active role.

"We have to encourage FSILGs and dorms to take more responsibility for alcohol use, on how students can protect themselves," said Professor Sharp. "The idea is to integrate alcohol education into the future of MIT."

The Campus Police citation program has become an issue. There is a feeling that many students are reluctant to call the police for help in transporting students who have overindulged, fearing they will be cited during the process. As of yesterday, the police had not issued any citations. In addition, the officer responding to the medical call will not be the one who conducts an investigation if one is called for. Nonetheless, questions about the system persist and discussions about possible alternatives continue.

"We believe that asking for help should not be asking for trouble," said Dr. Goldstein, a specialist in adolescent medicine. "We need to have a transport system that will safely and expeditiously transport a student who is ill from alcohol to medical care, yet not bring on punitive actions. The Medical Department has worked very hard to have no barrier to students who seek medical care.

"As the students have related to our Working Group, there is a perceived barrier to care due to transportation issues. All of our community must be educated in this area and work together so that there is not any real or perceived barrier to medical care for the student ill from alcohol," Dr. Goldstein said. "We must also work to ensure all members of our community, especially the students, that all medical care given in the Medical Department is totally confidential and no information is released without the written permission of the patient."

Undergraduate Association (UA) President Dedric Carter also noted that many students wondered whether they could trust the Campus Police to offer emergency assistance while being charged with issuing citations. "It's interesting that the changes in educational policy are taking a whole lot longer than the changes in the disciplinary policy," he said.

Mr. Carter also hopes that educational programs suggested by the Working Group are "interactive and hands-on" and cover other harmful substances as well as alcohol. A good model, he said, were the ads sponsored by the Medical Department in The Tech.

"They were devoid of preaching and moralizing," said Mr. Carter, a 22-year-old senior in electrical engineering and computer science. "We need more of that. We're scientists and engineers. Provide the facts and we'll draw our own conclusions. We don't like people to think for us."

Dr. Goldstein believes educational programs are a valuable tool in combating binge drinking--not a solution. "Real solutions will be complex and long-term," he said. "Changing the campus drinking culture is a task not measured in months but rather in years, and it requires leadership from the grass roots, especially the students with support and leadership from central administration. The working group will be able to begin a process, but programs, support and the creativity and interest of our community must continue over the years to effect a solution."


While the IFC resumed the certification of fraternities to serve alcohol on a controlled basis last month, many houses continue to host dry parties. A national magazine hoping to take photographs exposing underage drinking visited two frats on a recent weekend, only to discover lively non-alcohol events in progress. "There's talk of hula hoops and milkshake parties," said IFC president Duane Dreger, only half-facetiously.

In late September, the IFC instituted a ban on alcohol at fraternity events while it pondered reforms in its policies. It established a three-strike policy of sanctions for alcohol violations and issued criteria for its approval of alcohol service at planned events. The sanctions call for a 120-day alcohol ban at events for the first and second violations, and loss of rush privileges for a third violation.

The new policy requires events for new members to be alcohol-free and the appointment of risk management and safety officers at each fraternity. It also bans tap systems and kegs, and prohibits spending house funds on alcohol and the purchase of alcohol for guests by the chapter acting as a group.

Once certified, a fraternity may hold BYOB events or parties with outside vendors serving alcohol. For certification, the IFC requires that:

  • ������������������Two-thirds of house members attend a program that covers alcohol physiology, emergency alcohol medical response and safe alcohol use.
  • ������������������The president, social chairs and risk manager from each house must attend a legal liability education program.
  • ������������������One-third of house members must learn TIPS (Training and Intervention Procedures) on how to serve alcohol responsibly.
  • ������������������At least two house members must be certified in CPR.

IFC certification must be renewed each year.

The first party certified to serve alcohol under the new policy took place at Delta Upsilon on March 19. IFC President Dreger, a junior in mathematics, said the party was sedate. "People are a lot more aware," said Mr. Dreger, a member of Sigma Nu. "We're working to change the old equation that alcohol equals fun and more alcohol equals more fun."

On the other hand, UA President Carter said many students "want to get back to the way things were." These students felt a key element was removed from their social life when alcohol was prohibited, he said, adding that some of them "drank a great deal" prior to attending dry events and others wondered why alcohol-free parties were scheduled at all. Their attitude is "if there's no alcohol, there's no party," said Mr. Carter, who does not drink.


Residence halls and student organizations have also started planning social events that include alcohol. The sponsors are required to submit a registration form which describes the event, estimates the attendance and the number of people under and over the age of 21, describes the amount and type of alcohol and food to be served, and outlines identification and monitoring procedures. Student organizations apply to Assistant Dean Katherine O'Dair in the office of Residence and Campus Activities.

A cash bar staffed by an outside vendor is required for all events attended by 75 or more people. No Institute funds may be used to purchase alcohol. Several graduate student groups and the Class of '98 have already sponsored events with alcohol. Baker House and Senior House, among others, have submitted forms requesting approval for upcoming events.


In October, President Vest appointed Associate Provost Phillip Clay to head a Working Group to Study Alcohol Policies and Procedures. The group articulated the goals and principles that should inform the Institute's alcohol policy, based not only on its review of policies here and elsewhere, but on numerous meetings with students, among them representatives from the Graduate StudentCouncil, the UA, the Dormitory Council and the IFC.

The Office of the Dean of Students and Undergraduate Education was then charged with formulating or revising specific policies and procedures, working under the auspices of the Academic Council and in consultation with faculty, staff and students. An ad hoc working group was convened by Dean Williams and Dean for Student Life Margaret Bates.

This group, consisting primarily of staff and housemasters, has been meeting regularly since January. One of the first issues the group dealt with was the lack of clarification about the consequences for violating the current alcohol policy.

In February, the group proposed a system in which Campus Police may issue citations when they witness underage drinking or someone providing alcohol to minors, then turn the matter over to the Dean's Office for disciplinary action. The system includes a set of escalating sanctions, ranging from an initial conversation with a dean to the ultimate sanctions in extreme circumstances of a $1,500 fine and expulsion.

The system has been in effect since mid-February. While Campus Police had not issued any citations as of yesterday, this system has raised questions about whether students would be reluctant to call Campus Police for emergency treatment or transportation during an alcohol crisis if they were subject to citations and sanctions.

The Dean's Office will now widen the dialogue by consulting with students and other groups about this and other issues relating to the development of a workable alcohol policy for the campus. "It's time to return to a much broader-gauged, community-wide discussion," Dean Williams said.


During various meetings of the faculty as well as during Family Weekend in the fall, many expressed reservations about housing freshmen off-campus or requiring them to make hasty housing decisions, sometimes without adequate information.

These issues were discussed by the Advisory Group on Orientation and Residence 1998, chaired by Professor J. Kim Vandiver, which concluded that requiring all freshmen to reside on campus in the fall was unfeasible, but that all first-year students who want to live on campus should be accommodated. The group made a number of recommendations to place less emphasis on residence selection during the orientation period and more on introducing students to academic life and the community.

At the March faculty meeting, Dean for Undergraduate Curriculum Kip Hodges described a set of changes to orientation that follow upon these recommendations, which emphasize stronger faculty engagement with students both during the orientation period and as advisors.

Responding to pleas from students and parents for more time to study residential options, incoming freshmen will receive information about residences earlier than in previous years--at the beginning of May--with draft copies of the residence guide available for April campus visits.

The guide will contain a reply card on which the student may check off the fraternities or independent living groups which he or she would like to have contact them over the summer. Only those groups will be permitted to contact the student during that period.

In addition to placing more emphasis on academics and community building, the orientation period will have lifestyle counseling that includes alcohol education events planned by the Working Group on Prevention of Binge Drinking and the Medical Department.

President Vest concludes his letter to parents with these words: "All of these activities are aimed at providing the tools, framework and context for the kind of problem-solving and leadership for which MIT is known. I welcome your reflections and observations, and your active participation, in this process."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 15, 1998.

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