Mixed responses to alcohol policy in residential staff training

Sept. 26, 2016, 7:04 a.m.

As student residential staff completed their training prior to New Student Orientation, The Daily checked in with residential staff members as to their feelings and plans with regard to the recent change in alcohol policy.

From interviews and an anonymous survey filled out by a quarter of student residential staff members, 86 percent of respondents said they were not in favor of the changed policy — and questions about enforcement displayed a wide range of plans and confidence levels among residential staff.

Lack of support, enforcement uncertainty among student residential staff

The survey, which had 106 responses and was conducted internally by a Resident Assistant (RA) who requested anonymity, was distributed to all student residential staff. The respondent pool was largely RAs (93 percent) and freshman dorm staff (45 percent).

In the comment section of the survey, a variety of reasons were given for opposing the hard alcohol limit. As one respondent wrote, “this policy is unsafe and discriminatory against low-income students.” Other comments included that “we all know this is just a PR move for Stanford” and that the policy “addresses the symptoms of the true issue, not the issue itself.”

In addition to the general lack of support for the new alcohol policy among staff members, only 21 percent said they would enforce the policy; 45 percent indicated they might enforce the policy and 35 percent indicated that they do not plan to enforce the policy.

While a strong majority of staff members — 70 percent — would have taken their positions had they known about the new policy, only 35 percent of staff members would have taken their positions had they known that they would be required to enforce the new policy. For both questions, the next most popular choice was “I’m not sure” followed by “no.”

Mixed messages in residential staff training

Another common theme amongst the survey’s additional comment section was that student staff perceived a lack of unified opinion among Residential Education (ResEd), the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education (OAPE) and higher-ranking administration.

According to Dean of ResEd Deborah Golder, ResEd anticipated that the new alcohol policy would be a big focus for staff members and planned accordingly to allow RAs to discuss the policy among themselves and various involved parties, including OAPE and Student Affairs.

“We were the first people that RAs got to talk to, but throughout training, we set up multiple places within alcohol training and small group, set up time with Greg Boardman and Ralph Castro,” Golder said.

For the trainees, however, this messaging did not always appear consistent. One survey respondent wrote that ResEd, Castro and Boardman “all sort of seemed like ‘oh, I can’t really justify the policy because it’s not my policy and I don’t agree with it.’” The commenter indicated a wish for someone within the university to take ownership of the policy changes.

A returning RA, who also spoke to The Daily on the condition of anonymity, said that different stances seemed to be advocated at different points throughout the training.

“At one point, we were told it was about reducing the number of transports, and then the severity of transports — a measure Stanford doesn’t even track,” the RA said. “Later, we were told it was about campus culture and non-drinkers feeling excluded, but there weren’t any studies or surveys done to demonstrate that.”

Varying plans for enforcement

According to several of the anonymous staff members interviewed, ResEd more so than OAPE and Student Affairs expressed an understanding that the policy would likely have to be enforced on a case-by-case basis, with adjustments based on the situation.

“We have found the greatest success by not being subscriptive,” Golder told The Daily. “This requires real sophistication on the part of our staff — ResEd’s job is only as facilitator.”

In an attempt to build consistency in the policy’s rollout, several of the residence deans held meetings with the RFs and student staff members under their jurisdiction. One new freshman dorm staff member agreed to talk to The Daily anonymously following one such meeting.

“Our goal of the all-complex meeting was to come to a consensus and have some consistency across the board, but I don’t think we accomplished that,” the staff member said. “I personally feel very comfortable with the policy that my dorm has decided upon — being concerned with behavior and not bottle size — but I’m concerned about other dorms being inconsistent and having to change the policy we’ve come up with because freshmen might only go to more lenient dorms to party.”

According to another freshman RA, their dorm staff plans to treat the new policy the same way previous RAs have treated the rules against anyone under the age of 21 — essentially not enforcing the policy. That being said, the RA described the change as another tool to identify high-risk behavior and support necessary responsive action.

Golder also added that different types of residences, from freshman to four-class dorms and from coops to Greek houses, would likely need to evaluate the policy and its enforcement practices differently for their given needs.

Maintaining the resident-staff member relationship

According to Golder, this flexibility is part of ResEd’s commitment to keeping a good relationship between RAs and their residents, which has traditionally led to improved resident safety and sense of dorm community.

“Our standing approach to the alcohol policy new and old is to keep relationships at the center,” Golder said. “This is what Residential Education is all about, and so that’s our starting point among alcohol, risk mitigation and community.”

According to one of the freshman dorm staff members The Daily talked to, ResEd’s attitude toward the policy and toward staff relationships was very clear. The staff member said that ResEd doesn’t seem to want RAs to act as “police” in the dorms.

“I feel like this policy was devised by people who were very high up in the ranks, and ResEd tried to push back,” the staff member said. “ResEd’s first priority has been maintaining the student-staff relationship.”

While most of the student-staff that spoke with The Daily agreed that this was ResEd’s priority, some still expressed worry that the new policy would make it harder for RAs to encourage safe drinking practices.

In particular, the returning RA said they were concerned about the lack of empirical evidence to support the policy and not knowing how to explain themselves in potential enforcement situations.

“It’s hard enough convincing people you’ve done something for their own good when it’s justified, like under the old policy,” the RA said. “It will be a lot harder when, at the end of the day, it’s just the stricter policy and there’s no research.”


Contact Ada Statler-Throckmorton at adastat ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Ada Statler '18 is an earth systems major hailing from Kansas City (on the Kansas side, not Missouri). She's most passionate about environmental journalism, but cares about all things campus-related.

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