As the University deals with numerous episodes of dangerous drinking, there is no doubt that we as a community should adopt a multi-pronged approach to change student attitudes toward alcohol. In addition to changing attitudes, it is important to create meaningful social alternatives to alcohol-centered partying. The Office of Alcohol Policy and Education’s Cardinal Nights program has done this to some extent, sponsoring a wide range of activities, some of which have been quite popular. However, Cardinal Nights may not be enough of an alternative for students who choose not to drink. As a result, the Editorial Board believes Stanford should pilot substance-free housing.
Substance-free housing refers to housing where alcohol and drug consumption is not permitted. This is not as much a legal approach as a social one, given that drugs are illegal and that for many of Stanford’s students, consuming alcohol is, as well. Substance-free housing would be an opt-in program for those students who wish to minimize their exposure to drinking and drunken behavior in their residential environment. This approach has caught on at a number of schools, ranging in size from small liberal arts colleges like Vassar to Ivy League schools like Dartmouth and large state schools like Rutgers.
The program would appeal to a wide cross-section of students, not all of whom would be freshmen. Students who do not drink for religious reasons would benefit from having a community that recognizes and values this aspect of their beliefs, and those who simply prefer not to drink would find a group of like-minded individuals. Indeed, when placed in dorms where drinking is the norm, many students who have no particular interest in drinking join the drinking bandwagon. In addition, those who had a troubled high school experience with alcohol or other illegal substances might find it easier to live in substance-free housing. .
Lastly, we believe there would be students who would choose to live in substance-free housing for the so-called “secondary benefits,” regardless of whether these students drink in other social environments. These benefits include the quieter atmosphere, less drunken damage or theft, less alcohol-induced vomit in the bathrooms and more. These secondary benefits have been a major driver for introducing substance-free housing at other schools, as Dr. Henry Weschler of the Harvard School of Public Health pointed out in a 2001 study on the subject.
Substance-free housing is not without its detractors. The first concern is that students, particularly freshmen, may not make the best choices coming into college – parents may pressure students to choose a substance-free dorm or students may find that while they choose not to drink, the friends they would otherwise want to live with do. These are valid concerns. One possible solution, at least in the beginning, would be to limit the substance-free housing to upperclassmen only. This would also alleviate the concern that the presence of substance-free housing would create a divide between students who opt in and those who choose not to. After freshman year, stigmas associated with certain residences generally become less relevant.
Another concern is what the presence of substance-free housing suggests about the other on-campus housing options: are they “substance-filled”? The answer, of course, is that alcohol and drugs will always be something that students experiment with in college. Having substance-free housing on campus offers a social alternative rather than a statement on what is or is not encouraged in the remainder of on-campus housing.
A pilot substance-free residence, restricted to upperclassmen, would give Housing and Resident Education a good idea of the benefits and drawbacks of the program, as well as an indication of how popular the program might be. Piloting housing programs is not unprecedented: although the reasons were quite different, gender-neutral housing was a pilot just a few years ago and has since expanded considerably due to its popularity. Giving students who don’t drink – and those who do – the chance to live in housing largely free from the peer effects and secondary effects of drinking is valuable. Both in the interest of helping all students feel safe and comfortable, as well as in pursuing multiple approaches to dealing with problem drinking on campus, the University should pilot an alternative in the form of substance-free housing.