Williams discourages faculty from serving alcohol to underage students

All faculty members recently received a letter from the Dean’s Office informing them that the College is no longer liable if professors serve students under 21 alcohol in their homes. The letter, dated Nov. 1, stated that state legislators had revised a law this summer, now making adults legally responsible for serving alcohol to those underage.

The letter explained, “On 8 August 2001 a change was enacted in the Massachusetts General Laws making it a criminal offense for any person to furnish alcoholic beverages to a person under 21 years of age. Previously, serving alcohol to [a person under 21 years of age] was not itself a criminal offense, except in the context of a licensed establishment.” It continued, “[Professors] should not serve alcoholic beverages to persons under 21, even at private social functions (e.g., department parties or at your homes).”

According to Nancy Roseman, dean of the College, the letter was circulated three months after the law had changed because the law was voted in at the end of the legislative session. As a result, it went largely unnoticed despite its importance to the academic community. She said the significant effect of the law was to make serving alcohol to underage students a criminal offense and that “otherwise, this law already existed.” Roseman continued, “My understanding is that this law was passed with the intent of focusing on high school drinking, particularly instances where parents buy alcohol and throw parties for their kids and their friends. You read about this kind of thing in the newspaper around high school graduations and proms.”

Many of the academic departments have functions where faculty members serve alcohol to students. The science departments occasionally have cookouts at which alcohol is available, and the foreign language department sponsors cultural events involving alcohol throughout the year.

Although being 21 is a requirement to drink at these events, it is possible that the revision of the law will prevent faculty from continuing to sponsor these kinds of gatherings.

Peter Murphy, professor of English and former dean of the College, said he viewed the letter simply as a “relatively legal sort of notification.”

He continued, “I think that very few people would take this as a kind of threat to the way they relate to students. I suppose if a faculty member is in the habit of buying kegs for students it might give them pause, but if it is a matter of a glass of wine once a year, I can’t believe the world has gone so far as to care deeply about that.”

Murphy’s comments echoed those of Tom Kohut, dean of the Faculty and co-author of the letter, who said, “There was nothing special that prompted the letter. We just realized that we probably should inform the community about the change in the law.”

Still, some faculty members read the letter as more than simply a legal statement. Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian, said, she found the letter “distressing.” She stated her fear that the law will act to prevent students from developing the mature attitude toward alcohol that casual drinks with adults can help promote.

“The problem is binge drinking – downing large quantities fast before a dry party – not having a beer, a few sips of vodka or a glass of wine with your professors,” she said. “People need to learn to drink in a responsible way and to understand how moderate consumption of alcohol is frequently an important part of a social gathering.”

Goldstein also mentioned the cultural benefits of experiencing the traditions of other cultures, traditions which sometimes include alcohol. “There are plenty of stereotypes out there – the Germans with their Oktoberfest brews, the French with their carafes of red wine, the Russians with their vodka – but what better way to try to enter into another culture than to experience their foodways, which include beverages?”

Goldstein mentioned that the new restrictions would affect the way she traditionally structures her courses.

“After spending a semester studying Russian culture through cuisine, students should be allowed to have an ounce of vodka at my house. . .[the new law] certainly infringes on the way I like to fete with my students at the end of the semester,” she said.

Besides informing faculty of the law’s revision, the letter also served to clarify issues of liability, stating “As a result of this change [in law], faculty and staff members cannot be indemnified under the college general liability policies if any injury or damage were to result from the behavior of individuals under 21 served alcohol at such a function.

Roseman summarized this statement, saying: “In terms of insurance liability, the letter is informing the faculty that the College insurance will obviously not cover them in an instance where they are breaking the law.”

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