Editorial Board: New alcohol policy will cause more harm than good

Aug. 29, 2016, 11:58 a.m.

On Monday, the University announced that, beginning this fall, hard alcohol will be prohibited at all undergraduate parties and distilled liquor containers will be restricted to those under 750 mL (a “fifth”). In his email to the student body, Vice Provost of Student Affairs Greg Boardman presented the policy as “an opportunity to embrace new cultural norms,” aimed at improving campus drinking culture and reducing alcohol misuse at Stanford.

We at The Daily feel that it’s important to take a moment to talk about these “new cultural norms.” The most notable change in campus culture caused by the restriction of hard alcohol is the destruction of Stanford’s informal “open-door policy.” For years, residences have followed an unofficial policy that asks students to leave their doors open when they choose to drink, with the goals of encouraging safer drinking decisions and allowing dorm staff to monitor residents to ensure their safety.

Even with the new hard alcohol policy, there will still be underage students who choose to drink hard alcohol. They will now be forced to do so behind closed doors. Residents will likely see student staff members as University representatives from whom they must hide their drinking habits, rather than as trained mentors whom they can approach for help in dangerous situations. Alcohol consumption behind closed doors not only decreases the likelihood that students will get the help they need in the case of alcohol misuse, but it also takes away from the resident-staff trust that defines dorm communities and distinguishes Stanford from its peer institutions.

Given the impact this policy could have on student life, the lack of transparency with which Stanford approached its creation is troubling. Besides generic language about changing campus drinking culture, the administration has yet to provide data to support the policy’s institution or its intended effectiveness. While the overall number of alcohol-related incidents rose between autumn 2014 and autumn 2015, the number of transports declined, and the University has not released any numbers to demonstrate other trends in student alcohol use on campus.

Regarding the University’s belief in the effectiveness of the policy, Boardman stated only that the policy aims to “reduce the availability and accessibility of hard alcohol.” The University’s new Hard Alcohol Policy Information page explains that research on container-size limitation “focuses on reducing alcohol outlet density and increasing alcohol taxes and costs,” but the page fails to cite any concrete studies. The University’s plan for measuring the policy’s effectiveness is equally ambiguous:

“We are combining this policy shift with a commitment to enhance our educational approach, to try different methods of environmental management, and to study the effects of our various efforts through a system of robust assessment,” the page states. “Should these combined efforts fail to engender sufficient change, we are committed to adjusting the policy further.”

In addition to the lack of supporting evidence for the policy’s creation, the process that led to the change has remained similarly opaque. While President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy Ph.D. ’82 met privately with resident fellows (RFs) and the Faculty Senate to share the possibility of a ban, no campus-wide discussions were held with the student body. The specific policy is the product of an administrative working group that had no student members and whose existence was not publicly acknowledged until Monday.

Despite the fact that over 91 percent of students voted against a hard alcohol ban in April’s ASSU election, this nebulous working group appears to have entirely disregarded community input when drafting the policy. Stanford’s Student Affairs office provided no comment regarding the support or perspectives of resident assistants (RAs) and RFs, who will be left to enforce the new restrictions. Ralph Castro, director of the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education (OAPE), explained, “We’re not necessarily looking at popularity, but rather functionality.”

In their March email to the undergraduate student body, Hennessy and Etchemendy said they intended to have “a structured conversation” surrounding alcohol consumption and expressed a desire for “broad student engagement and input.” Yet student engagement and community conversations are impossible when decisions are made by secret committee, without public forums for student discourse. Thus far, the most transparent account of the policy’s origins is a blog post from a student who served on the initial Alcohol and Drug Subcommittee of the Mental Health and Well-Being Advisory Committee (separate from the final working group that drafted the new policy). According to this post, this subcommittee had suggested a hard alcohol ban in freshman dorms; no all-campus policy was recommended.

This lack of transparency has led to student and media speculation about the cause in policy change. Despite OAPE stating that the new restrictions are not a direct response to the issue of sexual assault on campus, news outlets such as CNN and Time have correlated the sudden shift with national headlines surrounding the Brock Turner sexual assault case. Students also see the shift as part of the University’s desire to sanitize campus culture to prevent liability issues, in line with controversies surrounding the travel ban placed on the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band and the potential discontinuation of Full Moon on the Quad.

Monday’s email also comes in the midst of Hennessy’s departure as University president. According to Boardman, incoming president Marc Tessier-Lavigne had no input in creating or approving the alcohol policy, but within a few months, the policy will fall to the new president and provost to uphold. While there is no reason to believe that the alcohol policy will change again, Tessier-Lavigne and the new provost will have the opportunity to create a more open relationship between the Stanford community and its administration.

Drinking culture is an issue that needs to be discussed on Stanford’s campus. But the creation of these new restrictions has only made it more difficult to have productive conversations. If the University had provided clear evidence of rising alcohol misuse on campus or demonstrated a higher regard for community input, perhaps the ban would appear justified, or at least comprehensible. If Stanford had outlined a reasonable explanation for the sudden change, perhaps we would be having data-informed conversations about the dangers of alcohol, rather than seeing outrage at the continued lack of transparency by Stanford’s administration.

Instead, we are left with an unpopular regulation that damages dorm communities and continues to reflect the University’s disregard for student voices in enacting policy change. Boardman was right to say that this policy sets “new cultural norms” for Stanford — but we believe these new norms will do more harm than good.

Contact the Editorial Board at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

Editorials represent the views of The Stanford Daily, an independent newspaper serving Stanford and the surrounding community. The Daily's Editorial Board consists of President and Editor-in-Chief Kylie Jue '17, Executive Editor Will Ferrer '18, Managing Editor of Opinion Michael Gioia '17, Head Copy Editor Stephanie Chen '18 and Senior Staff Writer Andrew Vogeley '17. To contact the Editorial Board chair, submit an op-ed (limited to 700 words) or submit a letter to the editor (limited to 500 words) at [email protected].

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