Alcohol: More Questions Than Answers

There has been a great deal of negative publicity for the sorority community lately, specifically caused by media reports of four formals that seemed to get completely out of control. There were two incidents at Miami University, (incident 1, incident 2), an incident at the University of Dayton, and one at Ohio University. The reports of the happenings at these events are staggering.

When I was an undergraduate, I attended formals. I drank at those formals, and I witnessed some crazy behavior. But nothing like what these reports describe.

It serves as a reminder that our old arch-nemesis is still out there, trying to thwart our attempts at aligning Greek-letter organizations with the values they were founded upon. The nemesis is alcohol.

I’ve spent a couple of years with this blog trying to identify issues and offer solutions. Frequent readers may have noticed that I have left the issue of alcohol alone for the most part. There is a very good reason why:

I have no clue what to do about it.

In regards to alcohol and fraternity, I am dumbfounded. Perplexed. Confused. Dismayed. I just don’t know the answer.

I do have a lot more questions, now that I’m older and hopefully wiser. As I’ve thought more and more about this issue in recent days, here are some thoughts that keep coming back to my mind:

Should the drinking age be lowered?
My initial reaction is yes. I understand the philosophical reasons for lowering the drinking age, many of them promoted by The Amethyst Initiative. I do believe that 18 or 19-year old men and women should be able to claim the moniker of adulthood, which includes fighting for your country, voting for its leaders, and making big life decisions. Thus, why shouldn’t adults be able to choose to drink if they want to?

I have reasons for pause, however.  There is the drunk driving issue. Also, would making it legal to drink at 18 or 19 make it even more enticing for 16-17 year-olds? There are a lot of moving pieces in this issue.  It's worth noting that the drinking age was once 18.  We've been there before.

What messages are young people hearing from advisers and higher education professionals?
It’s a common refrain offered by advisers, facilitators and speakers when addressing fraternity and sorority members: “I won’t tell you not to drink, but rather, to do it responsibly.” Or, “I know you are going to drink, but I just want you to do it safely.” Or, “here’s a very funny drunken story from my college years and you shouldn’t do the same thing.”

I understand the realism behind these comments. After all, underage drinking may be the most violated state law ever, or it runs a close second to speeding. I also understand the motivations of the speakers. Why suffer through the eye-rolling, giggles, and ignoring that comes whenever young people are told not to do something?  Also, we're afraid of the "you drank in college, so why can't we?" card.

However, if you really think about it, when we say those things to young audiences, we are actually giving them permission to break the law. It’s still their choice, but we, as professionals they admire and look up to, just made that choice easier for them.  Are we mentors, guides, coaches or not?

And what about the recent sorority formals?  Sure, there was irresponsible and unsafe drinking at those events. But every irresponsible drinker started with one drink. And that irresponsible drinker might have attended an educational session at which the presenter essentially said that that one drink is okay – even if he or she is underage.

Is our reticence to take a strong stance on underage drinking actually helping it become a norm?

What’s worth more, our risk management and social policies or the paper that they are printed on?
I terms of changing behavior, the volumes of policies regarding alcohol that we (and billions of lawyers) have developed over the years have been worthless. The problem is as bad as ever – and potentially worse. These policies may serve as a protection against lawsuits, but that’s about it. There may be a few exceptions that we can count on one hand, but generally speaking, nobody uses guest lists and nobody uses BYOB. I admire the attempt, but we have to admit that it’s not working.

Perhaps it’s time for a new approach. Again – I’ll be honest – I don’t know what that new approach should be. I do know this: you could throw away almost every risk management policy we have right now, and nothing would be different. 

Other thoughts or questions I have include:
  • Are we increasingly inheriting this problem from secondary education?
  • Is there any effect when undergrads see their campus or headquarters staff boozing it up in Facebook pics?
  • Or, when they hear about them boozing it up at their professional conferences?
  • Will this issue ever be solved if it isn’t owned in equal measure by both men’s and women’s organizations?
  • What has happened to individual responsibility?
My thoughts will continue to evolve on this issue.  I’m more interested in yours.  What do you think is the solution for the alcohol issue in today’s fraternities and sororities?


  1. First of all John, I like your candid admission, for I too have no clue what to do about it. I don't think it's a fraternity/sorority issue as much as it is a college issue, and even then it's more of an issue of young people becoming adults. New things will be experimented with, and alcohol is easier to get, less scary (that is, better understood), and way more socially acceptable than cigarettes and hard drugs.

    I believe that lowering the drinking age could be effective, though it would have to be accompanied by a cultural shift. Go to most foreign countries, particularly in Europe, and you'll find that most adolescents were given their first drink by their parents. Let's think: who better to teach children life lessons about a pervasive element of society than parents? Contrast a safe, controlled introduction to alcohol in the home with the way it's often done now: a bewildering juxtaposition of student health professionals counseling one thing, and partiers modeling the opposite of the behavioral spectrum, and being rewarded for it in popularity. I'm thankful that I received the first form of training, and while I still had the occasional excessive evenings, I didn't stumble into college and have the novelty of readily available alcohol smack me in the forehead. Kids will experiment, but if you tell them not to, then you add the element of rebellion, and rebellion makes it cool.

    My conclusion, then, is that the national culture with regard to alcohol needs to change. It's a fascinating substance, because it has health benefits as well as socially desirable affects, but it can just as easily be misused, abused, and even blamed for poor behavior. I prefer being friends with alcohol, and hanging out casually in the evenings, rather than going face to face, toe to toe with a vodka bottle. There are no winners in that battle.

  2. I think you've got some good points here.

    However, my concern is personal responsibility. Behavior even without alcohol seems to be increasingly self-centered and disturbing. Alcohol only enhances it. We live in a me-first society that glorifies acting like a rockstar or moron from the Jersey Shore. Why are we surprised when students act out the way they do?

  3. I have gotten this from several sources now…it is becoming a pretty hot topic. I just have to say that in some respects, this is what collectively, the Big Ten fraternity and sorority professionals and students have been saying to the National Panhellenic Conference member groups and NIC member groups for three years now. Things are not working AND there needs to be more of a partnership in exploring way to combat this growing problem.

    Here at Purdue, our concerns have always been:
    1.Blanket, uniform policies for all sororities do not recognize, university, local and state governance
    2.Resolution 2000 NEVER WORKED as the women never left the fraternity houses and continue to co-sponsor at them
    3.The time is now for shared accountability with both men and women’s groups;
    4.All interfraternal partners need to try something different instead of simply turning their heads and saying “NO” to any conversation about RM reform.

    Not sure if you have seen Outside the Classroom’s recent publication: “The Greek Challenge: Effective Strategies for Reducing Alcohol Risk and Harm Among Fraternity and Sorority Member” Purdue was highlighted for its prevention program. It specifically recognized that what we were attempting was progressive and going against the traditional models that the NPC sororities adopted years ago to protect themselves from liability, but at the detriment to the fraternities. It subtly calls out some Inter/National sororities and only strengthened our position here at Purdue and within the Big Ten.

    Now this…many of these high profile, crazy alcohol parties were at sorority coordinated functions. Those campuses are not alone either as I have heard report after report all spring of incidents and problems at sorority functions. (we had our share of issues, too!) Gee…and to think that we’ve heard from a “select group” of the NPC members groups “that the MEN are the problem.” I bet some folks are rethinking that one, eh?

    I would like to applaud the leadership of the National Panhellenic Conference, its Executive Committee, Julie Burkhard, Deb Ensor & Zeta Tau Alpha, and Lori Hart Ebert for recognizing these issues and continuing the dialogue about alcohol issues within the NPC community. It will be a shame if their efforts fall victim once again to antiquated groupthink.

    Like John said, no one at this point has the answer, but there is a need for supporting campuses and Inter/National Organizations attempting to come up with one!!!

    Kyle A. Pendleton
    Assistant Dean of Students/Dir. Fraternity and Sorority Life
    Purdue University
    Schleman Hall, Room 250
    475 Stadium Mall Drive
    West Lafayette, IN 47907-2050
    Office: (765)494-1231
    Fax: (765)496-1902


  4. Please remember to lower the drinking age you will first have to get Congress to untie the federal highway funding to the 21 year old drinking age. States can set the age anywhere they want but will lose federal dollars if it's below 21. Since there is empirical data that drunk driving deaths did go down when the drinking age went up it will be a hard, if not impossible sell. Perhaps energy should be spent on other solutions.

  5. I think we must focus on the realities of the current drinking age right now. However, I do think it should be lowered. Not because of the equity issue with voting and serving in the army but rather because of the reality that college kids drink. You bring up a good point that we would then need to worry about 16 and 17 year olds drinking more but we have to hope that they would be protected by their parents. College kids are going to drink underage, its not up for debate. Would we rather have them drinking in clandestine apartments afraid to call for help because of the repercussions or have them drinking in venues where they can be protected?

    My national greek organization takes the approach that we must face the realities that people drink in Greek chapters and focuses on the message of dialing 911. Don't wait and see. Don't find the chapter president or risk manager. Just pick up the phone, dial 911, and help whoever needs help. Whatever repercussions come from the university if applicable and/or the national organization are far better than a dead kid and we will protect them as best as we can if they did the right thing. This is the best we have been able to come up with given the current drinking age and the realities of college drinking life.

  6. Spenser's comments about Europe versus the US simply don't stand up to scrutiny. Yes, there is a more tolerant attitude in family and public life. No, it has no positive impact on reducing dangerous drinking.

    There are more academic studies of this (the UK has a recent 130+ page report), but that link hits the main points. There's no evidence that Europe has hit on some policy or cultural solution to dangerous drinking.

    Whether or not reducing the drinking age is a "solution" for universities (and I don't see what it solves), it's clear that the consequences for drinking among even younger students in high school far outweigh any potential benefits. The declines in alcohol related deaths and injuries on the roads among young people swamp any other effect.

    On your other questions--inheriting the problem from secondary education? Largely, no. Drinking among secondary age students and binge drinking among non-college students have been dropping. It's in college that the problem has been growing.

    On individual responsibility...campus and headquarters staff are leaders. They need to decide where they want to lead.

  7. Excellent thoughts John! See for a related article in today's issue of Inside Higher Education.

  8. Great post John!

    I feel like I oftentimes have to have 3 different conversations about alcohol with students: one centered around RM policies, one centered on student safety and one centered on the law...the areas of overlap are sometimes very small. RM policies aren't always focused on student safety, the law doesn't always reflect RM policy expectations and the reality of what students are really doing is something else entirely! ugh!

    I too, come away from all of this with more questions than answers...

    Thanks again for the thought provoking post and questions for us all to ponder...

    Ashley Dye

  9. Great post!

    At my school we have a dry campus, which means no alcohol, no excuses. There are bag checks 24/7 in freshman dorms, 7pm-5am in upperclassmen dorms, and no frat houses. If you're caught, you go to jail until someone bails you out. Even if you're over 21 you are limited to what kinds and how much alcohol you are allowed to have in possession.

    I personally find it a little extreme. I hardly drank in high school and since going to college probably drink even less. This obviously seems to be a good thing, but the fact is, people who want to drink will find a way. It causes problems between students and security guards who are often wrongly accused of drinking, and it makes people nervous to go out past ten oclock because of being watched or followed by officers.

    It also puts a huge burden on my sorority because we truly do our best to live up to the highest standards, but there are always going to be people who are still going to drink. I agree with lowering the drinking age for all the reasons you stated. I am not even close to a regular drinker, but I would like to be able to go out and have a good time without feeling like I'm committing some huge awful crime.

  10. I think we need stronger relationships between adults & college students. I don't consider college students adults because most traditional-aged college students today are still psychologically attached to their parents via a metaphorical umbilical cord. College professors and staff don't live on campus or near campus anymore. They've fled to the suburbs - even in small college towns. Ever notice that on the outskirts of nearly every college town there are pretty subdivisions of molded new homes? Probably full of professors who rather than interacting with students outside the classroom in town, they flee. Maybe if Johnny and Katie see Dr. Shertzer at the liquor store, they will think twice about buying a dozen fifths of cheap vodka. Or maybe if professors challenged students on their behavior the students would reconsider their actions out of embarassment. Imagine if a professor saw a student is a member of a sorority with Christian ideals, yet sees that same student out for a hangover breakfast while the prof is out with family after church? Tough conversations that should be had.

    Lastly, there is NO accountability from the headquarters. They need to close chapters instead of worrying how a closed chapter will affect the next fiscal year's budget. The NIC & NPC should sanction national organizations that allow chapters to operate without institutional recognition. We all need to grow up and walk the talk.