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The Drinking Dilemma

Colleges and universities nationwide are cracking down on student alcohol use. But at Stanford, officials are trying something different: education.

Illustration by Tim Bower

By Jim Tankersley

Ask a graduating senior to name a moment of epiphany from his freshman year, and he might pick the no-sleep sunrise of his first all-night problem set or the lonely fever dreams of his first flu with no parents to take care of him. But the image that sticks in my mind is Russ, from the second floor, sprawled over the faded green felt of the pool table, cue waving dangerously in two shaking hands. A white sphere in front of him and the lavender stripe of the fourteen-ball beyond that, in line with a corner pocket. And Russ, his face flushed, preparing to shoot, then angrily pulling back. "The table is moving," he announced to the three other players and the couple dozen observers lining the lounge of our all-freshman dorm on this spring quarter weeknight. "I can't shoot if the damn table is moving!"

The table must have weighed a ton or two -- at least that's how it felt when a group of us lugged it halfway across campus and up the stairs of Florence Moore Hall -- and nothing short of Loma Prieta II was going to move it. One of the other players explained this to Russ, who cursed and shook his head and took a big stab with his cue, smashing both the balls, striped and white, into the pocket. Then he downed a shot of vodka, as per the rules of Absolut pool, for scratching. A few minutes later, he was passed out in his bed, and I was in the third-floor bathroom helping a resident assistant hold another player's head over the toilet as the vodka came roaring back. I'd never seen anyone sick from drinking before, but the ra assured me it was normal for a guy who'd had 10 shots in less than three hours and, aside from a nasty headache, he'd be fine in the morning.

Three years later, I remember that evening for opening my eyes to both the dangers of drinking and Stanford's tactics to thwart them. And I empathize with the 50 percent of freshmen (according to admission statistics) who, like me, arrive on campus with little or no experience with alcohol. They enter a University that fights abuse with trust and education -- at a time when young people in colleges across the country are learning the hard way that alcohol kills; when colleges, driven by outcries from parents and alumni, are cracking down on binge drinking. They find a campus where alcohol regulations can seem as fuzzy as the four walls after five shots of tequila, where freshmen learn quickly how to drink without getting caught (or getting killed), where safety is an administrative mantra and still officials hold in half a breath, hoping everything will be fine the next morning.

In a second-floor office at Tresidder Student Union, right above the only two places on campus that sell beer (the CoHo and the Treehouse), a man in a yellow-and-orange-checkered bow tie frets more about the morning after than anyone at Stanford. Vice provost for student affairs James Montoya, '75, ma '78, handles the task of weighing the University's responsibilities to parents and liabilities under federal law against its goal of encouraging students to make their own drinking decisions. The last few years in American higher education have given him ample reason to be concerned. The Core Institute, a Southern Illinois University organization that studies alcohol in higher education, reports that nearly a third of U.S. college students have missed a class because of alcohol or drug use, and that the average college student spends $900 a year on alcohol -- compared with $450 on books.

The most troubling trend is binge drinking (defined as at least five drinks in a sitting for men, four for women). A 1997 study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that almost 43 percent of American college students binge at least once every two weeks. Those students are more likely to sexually assault or harass their classmates, destroy property and disturb the peace. But coroners, not researchers, are discovering the worst outcome of bingeing. Since 1997, several schools -- including the University of Michigan, Rutgers University, Louisiana State University, the University of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- have seen students die from alcohol poisoning or drinking-induced accidents. Alcohol hasn't killed any Stanford students in that time, but it has come close.

As the fear of death by drinking has spread, schools across the country have tightened alcohol regulations. Members of the Boston Coalition, a group of community leaders and two dozen college administrations, met in 1997 to study problem drinking. A year later, they adopted a common policy, modeled largely after the stringent rules to fight alcohol abuse at Northeastern University. Dartmouth banned its storied fraternity system, and Greeks faced crackdowns at lsu and mit. Congress got into the act in 1998, passing a bill advising colleges to enforce "zero tolerance" policies for underage drinkers.

Stanford followed its own course, one that Montoya labors to explain to me in his office on a rainy afternoon. He leans back in a walnut-colored chair, sipping water from a paper cup, choosing his words carefully, trying hard to articulate a policy that is so nuanced it borders on vague. I can't help but think it's meant to be that way. "It's one of the most difficult issues I face, because there is a delicate balance," Montoya tells me. "Do we create an environment where students feel it necessary to hide in order to drink?" Stanford's answer, he says, is an emphatic "no." And that drives the University's safety-focused approach to student drinking.

I got a jump on the college experience two weeks before freshman orientation, visiting friends at a small Catholic university in Eastern Washington. Five minutes after I settled into a dorm room, an RA knocked on the door and ordered us all out. Alcohol sweep. He impounded a bottle of tequila hidden in the back of a sock drawer; my friend earned a citation and a warning that a second violation would mean suspension. RAs never swept my room in my first week at Stanford (or any week since -- administrators say they don't want residence staff acting as police), and no one ever explained to me the official policy on drinking. But, accompanied by an RA, I did attend at least two education programs on the effects of drinking and a party at the Sigma Chi house, both in my first week on campus.

I didn't own a bottle of tequila, but I was still happy not to have RAs rooting through my sock drawer. The alcohol policy intrigued me, though: was Stanford a "zero tolerance" school, or even an avowed opponent of underage drinking? The official explanation never came, or if it did, I wasn't the only one to miss it. Talking to several upperclass student leaders about how the University governs drinking, I keep getting the same reaction. "What is the policy?" asks Tim Fisher, a senior and president of the Inter-Fraternity Council. "All I know is your RAs don't bust you." Adds Doug Mooney, one of four senior class presidents, "I'm not sure the University even has an official alcohol policy."

Ah, but it does. University Guide Memo 23.6 outlines -- at length -- the controlled substances and alcohol policy for Stanford students and employees. Section 2(b) reads, "Students who unlawfully distribute, possess or use controlled substances or alcohol in the workplace, on the campus, or as part of any University activity may be subject to discipline up to and including expulsion." Administrators concede it's not exactly a blueprint to curb problem drinking. "The policy is pretty straightforward," says Carole Pertofsky, director of health promotion services at Cowell Student Health Center, "but what is important is the framework we use. And that framework is an educational approach."

The practical reality boils down to a loose set of unwritten rules -- almost a code of ethics -- that help set the stage for an alcohol climate that student affairs staff believe increases student responsibility and maximizes safety. At the code's foundation, students know, is the assumption that it's okay to drink in your residence. Of the dozens of students interviewed for this story, none had been disciplined by residence staff or law enforcement for drinking in their dorms.

In-house drinking has two main advantages, according to residence staff and students. It lessens the chance that students will drive after they drink, and it fosters trust between students and the residence staff, on whom the University relies both to teach students responsibility and take care of them in times of emergency. "People don't hole up in their rooms [to drink secretly]," says Brent Jacobsen, '01, one of three RAs for 90 residents in all-frosh Donner. "It makes my job easier." Nearly all the women in his hall agree. "It's revolutionary in its logic," says freshman Joanna Levitt. "They expect a mutual adult respect between students and the staff."

Equally important -- particularly for young women and inexperienced drinkers -- is the formation of trust between students. Friends don't just hold friends' heads over the toilet. They also help them get home safely from parties, avoid potential acquaintance-rape situations and make the occasional, but crucial, drive to the emergency room. "Students are responsible," Montoya says, "and do a very good job of taking care of one another when there is alcohol present." But perhaps the most fundamental section of the unwritten code deals with the freedom to choose. Pressure to drink is relatively low at Stanford, largely because of the message encouraged by administrators: alcohol use is a personal decision.

On a Friday afternoon in the Donner entry hall, several freshmen seem to have their minds pretty well made up. They cart jugs of liquor and mixers, mountains of snack foods and armfuls of blue ice sacks through the hall, from their first-floor rooms to the dorm lounge. Someone says it's a progressive. Someone else says it's going to be the best party of the year. No one seems too worried about binge drinking, but maybe they should be. Ten Stanford students in 100 abuse alcohol, according to Pertofsky's stats, and nine of them are freshmen. That's why administrators, who keep up an endless round of dorm visits, put so much emphasis on alcohol education in freshman dorms.

If statistics are any indication, the efforts are working. Stanford students drink less on average than college students across the nation. While the campus jumps with parties most Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, ras in large, all-frosh dorms report few hospital trips for alcohol poisoning this year. Not all the news is good, though. Fewer Stanford students are drinking compared to 20 years ago, but more drinkers are bingeing. That may be due, in part, to a trend spotted by both Montoya and senior class president Mooney: increasingly busy students turn to binge drinking as a way to maximize their partying time.

But weekend bingeing can send ripples through the next week's classes, says vice provost for undergraduate education John Bravman, who has joined Montoya in the crusade against problem drinking. With Stanford's 10-week academic quarter, he says, there's no time to waste. Still, Bravman, '79, MS '81, PhD '85, who doubles as the dean of Freshman-Sophomore College, backs the notion that students ultimately must make their own choices. "There is no way that we can prevent drinking without becoming a police state," he says, "which we have no wish to do and cannot afford to do and won't do."

Many parents agree with Bravman. "I have always thought that children raised to appreciate the severity of what happens when you get drunk can be trusted when they go to school," says Benay Nordby of Bainbridge Island, Wash., whose son Evan graduated in June. Others worry that it gives their children license to break the law. "I feel like it's my daughter's safety at stake," says Gayle Knize of Tracy, Calif., mother of freshman Megan. "Why can't someone say 'no'?" Increasingly, parents nationwide are demanding a role in policing their children's drinking habits, and they're taking their concerns to Capitol Hill. Congress responded two years ago by giving administrators the right to call parents if students break alcohol laws. Since then, Montoya and other Stanford officials have phoned home in many cases, particularly when the violator is a freshman who earns a minor-in-possession citation from the Stanford police.

Sometimes the issue goes beyond a single student. Administrators say it's easy to spot two "problem areas" for alcohol abuse -- Stanford's Greek system and admit weekend, the annual event designed to convince accepted high school seniors to choose Stanford. Admit weekend is officially a "dry" event, but that didn't stop two admits in 1999 from drinking themselves into the hospital. Tighter event oversight prevented a recurrence this year. Housed fraternities -- the center of the Stanford drinking scene from Thursday to Saturday -- are on an equally short leash. Dean of students Marc Wais kicked Delta Kappa Epsilon members out of their house in 1997 after a freshman pledge had to be rushed to Stanford Hospital because he'd been drinking heavily at a fraternity event (the fraternity was already on probation). Phi Delta Theta lost its house, then its campus charter, in 1998 for repeat violations of University alcohol rules -- violations that proved nearly fatal.

The back deck at 680 Lomita Drive -- the former Phi Delt house -- looks out over the tall, wispy trees surrounding Lake Lagunita. At night, you can see the lights from the golf driving range across the lake; during the day, you look out onto a faded basketball court. This is where Michael Howard, '99, stumbled drunk out of his room and fell 20 feet on an October night in 1998. He lay on the ground, unnoticed, until friends found him at 8 the next morning. For months afterward, he lay in a coma, his brain seriously damaged. During Howard's stay in the intensive care unit, a University of Michigan freshman who had been drinking at a Phi Delt party in Ann Arbor fell six stories from a dormitory and died. The Stanford Daily reported that news along with an update on Howard's condition, and for many at the University, it was a jolt of reality.

"My greatest fear," Montoya says, "is receiving that early-morning phone call telling me that a student has died in a manner relating to alcohol abuse. No matter what policies we put in place, a University with 13,000 young people may find itself facing a tragedy." For now, the policies favor trust, but fraternity council president Fisher and other students say an alcohol-related death here would likely mean drastic changes. "As sad as [a death] would be," Fisher says, "I think that allowing students to make choices, to make their own decisions, should be the goal of the University."

Russ and I lived on opposite sides of campus this year, and I didn't see him that often. But he came along when a group of guys from my freshman dorm trekked to a bar on El Camino Real for a midquarter study break. We ordered pitchers of Spaten beer and shot games of eight ball until 2 a.m. All of us, whether we'd played in the game that long-ago spring night or just watched, laughed at the stories of Absolut pool. This time, no one came close to throwing up. Russ did beat me at pool, though. Must have been that moving table.

Jim Tankersley, '00, is a reporter at the Oregonian.

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