With the recent hospitalization of a prospective student due to alcohol poisoning, the College’s treatment of underage drinking has once again come under scrutiny. While this unfortunate event will likely prompt further attempts to restrict underage students from drinking, we feel that a different response is in order.
The College has two goals with regards to alcohol. The first is to prevent underage drinking. The second is to promote safe use of alcoholic beverages and to avoid alcohol abuse. We feel that the second, more important goal cannot be reached if an effort is made to achieve the first. Therefore, we suggest that the administration lobby the government to lower the drinking age to eighteen years of age. Although we recognize that this is a complicated issue with national ramifications, we believe that such legislation would be in the best interests of the college community.
The administration recognizes that efforts to prevent alcohol abuse need to be targeted at all students, including those who are under 21, in order for them to be effective. The College has always placed the interests of its students first and foremost, but the law of the land works against its ability to do so in this case. The College cannot take any action that would imply that it condones underage drinking; were it do to so, it could be sued by underage students who are harmed as a result of alcohol consumption. The recent proposal to include TIPS training in First Days is a good policy that will help create a more responsible student body. However, there is little more that the College can do in this arena without crossing the line that would open the door to potential litigation.
There are many arguments that can be and have been made against the 21-year-old drinking age, and while we agree with many of them, they are not arguments that would necessitate the involvement of the College in changing the law. However, the fact that the College cannot adequately provide for the safety of over half of its student body is cause for great concern. It is even more appalling that measures to curb underage drinking, which are necessary to imply full compliance with the law, actually create a less safe drinking environment by possibly encouraging misguided students to move their alcohol consumption behind closed doors. Allowing students between the ages of eighteen and twenty to drink legally would allow most alcohol consumption to take place in environments where regulation and protection of students would be easier and welcomed. In effect, the law increases the likelihood that students will be seriously harmed from alcohol consumption.
A crucial factor in ensuring safe, responsible behavior on campus is the maintenance of a healthy relationship between the student body and Security, and between the student body and the Williamstown Police Department. Currently, these relationships are extremely tense. The recent proposal by Interim Police Chief Arthur Parker to begin joint dormitory walk-throughs by Police and Security officers is a perfect illustration of the source of this tension. If students expect that they will be arrested, brought before the Dean, suspended, expelled, or even simply dispossessed of their alcohol, they will avoid both the Police Department and Security when engaged in alcohol consumption. It is at these times, when students are drinking, that Security should be most involved in protecting both intoxicated and sober students from themselves and each other.
The importance of the College in this policy issue cannot be overstated. While there are many advocates for a lowering of the drinking age, the vast majority is young and has very little political voice. Furthermore, it is difficult for most Americans to see a context in which the law actually harms, rather than merely inconveniences someone. The College provides just such a context. Here, structures that could be used to prevent harm are forced to be used in ways that achieve just the opposite. Unlike most crimes, few individuals are against drinking by students between the ages of eighteen and twenty in principle; people are in favor of the 21-year-old drinking age for reasons of policy, if at all. Our situation serves to demonstrate the inadequacy of such policy in dealing with the realities of college life, and life as an “underage adult” in general.
As a private, well-endowed institution, the College does not have the economic or political constraints of a state institution and can take action that may meet with some resistance but which is necessary for the benefit of the student body both here and across the country. Williams has always been a progressive institution, placing itself at the forefront of controversial measures that are ultimately vindicated with the passage of time. As history has shown, other colleges will follow Williams’s lead, not because we are Williams but because we are right.