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?