Woodward: Nor Any a Drop to Drink

by Aylin Woodward | 3/5/15 7:58pm

“Alcohol, alcohol everywhere, nor any a drop to drink.” I may have taken some creative license with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s words, but the sentiment rings true. I sat down with members of my coeducational fraternity last night to lay down the law as its president — no hard alcohol for anyone, anywhere or anytime after March 27. Needless to say, the reaction within my own slice of Dartmouth mirrors what I’ve seen from campus at large — most of the members resent the hard alcohol ban on principle.

But this is an opinion piece — I’m not here to recap the views of others. Personally, I’m not against the idea of banning hard alcohol. In fact, I’ve decided that the policy is motivated by a genuine desire to do good and to make students’ lives safer and more productive. It’s gutsy, and though it lacks nuance, it’s a step in the right direction. Administrators are clearly willing to double down for the sake of achieving progress in student social life, and they have refused to fall into the trap of pursuing piecemeal reform. It is that very adherence to a strictly all-or-nothing notion of progress, however, that will doom the ban to failure.

I predict the hard alcohol ban will ultimately be a zero-sum game — we may end up trading fewer liquor-related medical transports and pre-games hosted in dorms for fewer Good Sam calls and more sexual assaults, as the drinking culture is pushed into private rooms and residences. It will likely fuel escalation between students and administrators who will quickly find themselves on opposite sides of an unbridgeable chasm.

The reality is that certain things are beyond our control — in spite of the vast resources that will no doubt support this endeavor, it will likely prove near impossible to eliminate hard alcohol on this campus. There are just too many loopholes. What’s more, our culture and our choices surely can’t change by the order of magnitude that “Moving Dartmouth Forward” has in mind.

The ban’s rollout and the subsequently announced sanctions for violations are sloppy and nebulous at best. Though some may support the new alcohol policy, the number who express confidence in its potential to change behavior remain few and far between. Particularly laughable is the sheer lunacy of the idea that all of campus — despite the severity of the penalties of transgressions — will simply choose to uniformly adhere to these policies, even as many complain that they are unclear and unfair. The College seems to have adopted an unfortunate brand of paternalism that would hardly be out of place in the writing of Rudyard Kipling.

It isn’t a stretch to see parallels between administrators’ attitudes and the traditional Hobbesian view that a productive and mutually beneficial civil society is a fundamental public good that must be provided in exchange for authority. Public good, however, can take many forms. What College President Phil Hanlon and his loyal, hardworking team are trying to accomplish here is the provision of an intangible public good — student life. In his role as sovereign, he wants nothing more than to guarantee an environment that looks out for the safety and security of students. It is this Hobbesian treatment of Dartmouth, though, that — to extend the metaphor — has led to what the students consider a palpable breach of contract between a sovereign and his citizenry.

As the leader of this community, Hanlon faces a challenge — how can he mobilize his large constituency behind such a significant change? What this new alcohol policy lacks is what us government majors like to call a focal point — an equilibrium of mutually agreeable behavior, or the point where both opposing parties’ interests are maximized. Instead, we have two parties — administrators and students — disagreeing on the best way of fixing our drinking culture. There is, then, no single equilibrium, and neither side will likely budge in its preferences.

The sweeping consequences of this ban — from infringing on individual rights to running the risk of sending drinking culture underground — implicates administrators in the business of passing judgment on social practice, and that is neither their prerogative nor their job. It falls far beyond the scope of their professional mandate. I can only hope that this becomes clear when the time inevitably comes to re-evaluate the hard alcohol ban.

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