Beechert: A Slight Success

by Michael Beechert | 1/29/14 6:35pm

The stated purpose of the Greek First-Year Safety and Risk Reduction policy, as its name would indicate, is to reduce the overall number of harmful alcohol-related incidents on campus. The policy was met, predictably, with mixed reception when it was implemented this past fall. Some claimed that the policy was an effective means of lessening risk; others felt it was an empty public relations stunt that would accomplish nothing. A few even doubted the actual motivation behind the policy, feeling that it was simply the first in a series of steps that would bring about the end of their beloved Greek system. All of these reactions, at the time, were based on nothing more than personal anecdotes and gut instinct. That’s all well and good, but evaluating whether the policy achieved its stated goal required some hard evidence.

We now have that evidence. Data released on Monday by the Dartmouth College Health Improvement Program and the Greek Leadership Council indicated a small reduction in the proportion of alcohol-related incidents that involved freshmen. The figure decreased from 49 to 46 percent from the fall of 2012 to the fall of 2013. Moreover, alcohol-related incidents across all class years decreased for the third year in a row. In the fall of 2010, for example, 120 students were treated by either Dick’s House or DHMC for intoxication. This past fall, that number was 82. Perhaps most importantly, the number of incidents involving students with high BACs (over 0.25) has dropped significantly, from 36 in the fall of 2010 to seven in the fall of 2013.

This, I think we can agree, is all very good news. Dartmouth has a reputation problem regarding the student body’s excessive consumption of alcohol. Like most stereotypes, ours is grounded in fact. Joseph Geller examined this issue last week in a remarkably spot-on column (“What Are Your Priorities?” Jan. 24). Our alcohol problem is a significant detriment to our status as a high-level academic institution; if we want to be taken seriously by competitive high school students looking for an academic challenge, then our reputation as a hard-drinking school needs to die, preferably quickly. A little less pong would go a long way toward helping Dartmouth compete for bright and accomplished students who have to choose between several prestigious universities.

That being said, I do not think that keeping freshmen out of fraternities for six weeks had anything to do with the decrease in incidents reported by the data. The magnitude of the change should not be celebrated as successful risk reduction. It is too small a figure to be convincingly correlated with a single policy. It seems much more likely that the decrease is simply part of the trend, illustrated above, of the gradual reduction in alcohol-related incidents. Again, the data indicates that such incidents have been declining for years, well before the risk reduction policy was implemented.

However, I do not believe that this conclusion indicates that the policy was a total failure; in fact, I strongly support its continued implementation. Even if the policy did not achieve its stated goal of immediate alcohol-related harm reduction, I think it is fair to contemplate its other benefits. Namely, I believe the policy brought about a positive cultural change among the freshman class. By restricting freshmen from entering Greek houses for six weeks, the policy forced them to find other means of social interaction. Freshmen had to find other, healthier environments in which to get to know each other and upperclassmen.

The policy exposed incoming students to other aspects of life at Dartmouth. It demonstrated to them that there are better ways by which to interact with people than trying to hit ping pong balls into cups of light beer. Institutional memories, despite what traditionalists seem to think, are short in a place where students cycle in and out on a yearly basis. I sincerely hope that, as classes move through Dartmouth, the policy will gain traction among students and lead to a change in culture that permanently diminishes the social emphasis on drinking.