Affirming the University’s alcohol policy

Oct. 19, 2016, 12:40 a.m.

Dear Stanford Community,

The campus community has had many questions since the August announcement of revisions to the university’s alcohol policy.

We have heard the questions and concerns, and we would like to address them directly and openly.

The policy revisions are intended to help reverse recent alarming trends in hard alcohol consumption by undergraduates at Stanford. This letter elaborates on the approach the university is taking and why. We welcome continued dialogue on what we hope is the shared goal of creating a less dangerous campus alcohol culture.


Why was a change needed?

The following facts are important to consider:

  • Over the past five years, excessive consumption of hard alcohol has been implicated in 95 percent of emergency transports for alcohol poisoning at Stanford, about 60 of which occur per year. These students consume an average of eight shots the night of their transports.
  • More than 70 percent of Stanford frosh drinkers reported “pre-gaming” in fall 2015. This compares to 49 percent nationwide, and is up from 50 percent of Stanford frosh drinkers in fall 2009, just six years earlier.
  • The same survey found that 58 percent of frosh drinkers in fall 2015 were drinking hard alcohol shots, up from 43 percent in fall 2009.
  • Last year, among undergraduates, 13 percent of drinkers who were surveyed reported vomiting in the 30 days prior to the survey. 12 percent reported experiencing a blackout or memory loss from alcohol in those 30 days.
  • Only 25 percent of last year’s incoming students indicated in their initial AlcoholEdu survey that they intended to drink hard alcohol at Stanford, but once here, 58 percent of frosh drinkers consumed hard alcohol. We also have heard directly from individual students that they feel pressured into drinking by the drinking culture.  

The increase in excessive consumption of hard alcohol is alarming, and the pressure many feel to join in should be a concern to us all. It represents a serious health threat for our campus community, and addressing it requires fundamental and sustained change.

Tragically, other universities have lost students in apparent alcohol-related deaths already this academic year. Preventing such a tragedy remains an essential priority.


What about the efforts Stanford already has in place?

After a 2011 review of the campus alcohol culture, we developed several educational and programmatic approaches to diminish the centrality of alcohol in student life. We made more alternative social options available through Cardinal Nights; we offered substance-free housing; party organizers created more inclusive opportunities for social gatherings that de-emphasize drinking; and staff in frosh and Row houses worked to shift behaviors and norms.

Based on feedback, it is clear that these programs have had a very positive effect, but they have unfortunately not been sufficient to reduce high-risk behavior as indicated by the continued rise in high-risk drinking. It was clear that we needed additional actions to reduce the presence and harmful impacts of the inappropriate use of hard alcohol in our community.


What were the process and rationale behind the policy changes?

The current policy grew out of discussions with Resident Fellows initiated by Provost John Etchemendy and former President John Hennessy in March of this year, along with an invitation for campus input that produced more than 100 replies.  Some have questioned how we ended up selecting the specific intervention of curtailing large containers of hard alcohol.  We acknowledge that broader consultation would have been ideal, and we will rectify this going forward, but here are the considerations that led to the policy.  

We considered a full ban on hard alcohol but respected the concerns of the campus community in deciding not to jump to this solution immediately.  

Instead, we sought initially to identify a less extreme intervention that still had the potential to help. Extensive public health research indicates that reducing alcohol availability and increasing the cost does reduce consumption and related harms. Since purchasing large quantities of alcohol in small containers is more difficult and costly, we decided to investigate whether container restrictions could help us meet our goal of addressing a serious student health issue in a way that fits our campus culture.  It is an experiment, and many campuses across the country are watching to see if it works.

The concept of restricting container sizes is not new. Our own students first suggested it in 2012 as part of an advisory group effort to develop further solutions to alcohol misuse on campus. It was not pursued at the time, as we tested the other policies listed above, which unfortunately proved insufficient.

In addition to limiting the sizes of hard-alcohol containers in undergraduate housing, the updated policy also prohibits hard alcohol at all undergraduate parties and prohibits shots at all campus parties. These steps expand upon previous limitations and seek to further address the high-risk drinking behaviors that are so concerning.


Will these changes drive high-risk drinking underground? Will they undermine the relationship with residential staff?

One concern that has been voiced about the policy provision limiting container sizes in undergraduate residences surrounds the potential for consumption of hard alcohol to be driven “underground” or behind closed doors.

It’s an important consideration, and one that guided our decision not to impose an outright ban. Any policy approach that seeks to curtail high-risk behavior has the potential to move the behavior elsewhere. But it is critical to remember that the policy does not ban hard alcohol entirely — it limits container sizes, in an effort to reduce high-risk consumption of large amounts of hard alcohol.

In addition, this is where our community norms come in. If we recognize the dangers of high-risk drinking and care genuinely about the safety and well-being of our friends and neighbors, we can each play a role in creating social norms that truly reduce the problem rather than simply moving it to other locations. This policy is one tool in addressing a problem that should be a concern to all of us.

The role of residential staff also is important. The policy prohibits large containers of hard alcohol in undergraduate residences. But other dimensions of the residential experience, including the relationships between students and Resident Assistants, can and do continue. While RAs at Stanford develop deep trust and rapport with students that is an essential part of the Stanford residential experience, RAs also play a role in upholding campus policies and supporting community norms.  They always have and always will.


Will the university actually enforce this policy?

Yes. We expect Residence Deans, RFs and RAs, and others in the campus community to hold students accountable for compliance with the policyContainers 750 mL and above will not be permitted to remain in the residences. Repeated alcohol incidents will result in a referral to the RF and/or RD and to the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education for administrative action. Continued or worrisome behavior will likely result in removal from university housing and/or referral to the Office of Community Standards.

In order for this policy to achieve its goals, all members of the campus community must take ownership of both the problem and the solution. Only by changing cultural norms will we reduce high-risk consumption of hard alcohol.

The university alcohol policy requires compliance with California law, which prohibits alcohol for those under the age of 21. The university’s public safety officers can and do cite or arrest underage students in possession of alcohol or drunk in public.


How will the policy be assessed, and is more input welcome?

We understand that not everyone agrees with this solution to addressing an alarming and high-risk feature of our campus culture. We welcome the suggestions of the campus community for additional solutions to this important health issue, but we need to be clear that inaction is not an option.  

Over the course of the academic year, we also will be working with experts in the field to assess the effectiveness of the container-size policy by measuring key indicators of use patterns, high-risk behaviors, negative consequences and attitudes.

We are committed to creating mechanisms for students, faculty and staff to work together to ensure a campus culture that is safe and healthy for all students.  We value your thoughts, your ideas and your involvement.

For more information on the research that was used as the underpinning of this policy strategy, visit the updated Frequently Asked Questions page that was provided to students in August, at


Greg Boardman
Vice Provost for Student Affairs

Ralph Castro
Director, Office of Alcohol Policy and Education

Deborah Golder
Dean of Residential Education

Chris Griffith
Dean of Students

James Jacobs
Executive Director, Vaden Health Center

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