There has been a low buzz this year about the Stanford alcohol policy in freshmen dorms, a conversation that is most relevant as Resident Assistant (RA) candidates for freshmen dorms finish their interviews and Resident Fellows (RFs) make their selections. For years, Stanford has had a liberal alcohol policy, dedicated to the idea of informed personal responsibility. But conversations we hear today fundamentally question this ideal. If these talks become anything more, then students needs to be fighting the change tooth and nail, and freshmen RAs should be leading the fight.
The Stanford alcohol policy is uncommon at other schools. We’ve all heard stories from high school friends silently pounding drinks behind closed doors, avoiding their RAs. Contrast that with the relationship that most Stanford freshmen have with RAs — friendly and cooperative. The decisions regarding treatment of alcohol consumption are, within reason, left up to fellow students who are much more in touch with actual danger and risk than any one-size-fits-all policy ever could be. Potentially dangerous behavior can be openly watched, simply because students trust their RAs to use their leeway wisely and reasonably.
This arrangement seems to protect students’ well-being relatively well. Depending on whom you ask, there are around 1,400 college alcohol related deaths annually, yet we have not had any in years. While not a perfect comparison — we have indeed had a number of close calls, and it is probably inaccurate to compare the Stanford student population directly to national college statistics because of socioeconomics and other factors — something is working.
Perhaps more important than safety, though discussed less frequently, is the promotion of personal responsibility. Whether or not our parents are comfortable with the idea, Stanford students are adults. While we are not in the real world yet, we are rapidly approaching it. When we get there, whatever choices we make will be ours, and we will be wholly responsible for their repercussions.
Many of our generation are raised far away from the realities of responsibility. While it is obviously not representative of everyone’s experiences, our generation is characterized by less freedom, less criticism, inflated egos, fluffy talk of individuality and uniqueness and a removal from the natural order of cause and effect.
Realizing that we are powerless to prevent parents from sheltering their children, what better place than college to introduce the future leaders of the world, as we like to refer to ourselves, to the idea of consequences? If I drink to the point where I am throwing up in the bushes and am so hung-over that I fail my midterm the next Monday, that is my responsibility. I don’t get to blame the person or house that provided me the alcohol, or the professor for scheduling the midterm the Monday after the best party of the year, or the random bystander for not jumping on me, demanding that I drop the shot glass and step away from the handle. Because when I’m sitting over the toilet the next morning feeling like my head was run over, or when I have to tell my parents I’m retaking chemistry, I’m the one who is responsible.
There are hints that we are drifting away from this system. Programs like AlcoholEDU make sense, helping students make informed choices and realize the likely outcomes of their actions. But now students who have had alcohol incidents are being forced to sign agreements not to drink, and there is talk of holding RAs responsible for the trouble that their freshmen get into. A month ago Professor Cliff Nass, the Otero RF, even suggested that those who supply alcohol to, or do not stop the alcohol consumption of, those who get themselves into trouble should be found in violation of the Fundamental Standard.
We need to be aware of this creeping paternalism, our reluctance to blame individuals for their actions or the outcome of their drinking. Mistakes will inevitably be made, and consequences will be faced. These consequences may hurt, and they may hurt a lot. But something is working, and instead of pretending that they are shocked that houses, clubs and organizations give alcohol to underage students when something goes wrong, the University should accept these incidents, except in the most bizarre cases, as the responsibility of the student.
To the next batch of RAs: we have something good going. Don’t let panic and paternalism take it away from us. Don’t let yourselves become the rubber-stamp enforcers of a flawed policy. Whatever it says on your official job descriptions, there is one lesson you can teach your freshmen that is one of the most important they will ever learn: how to live in a world where choices matter and how to take responsibility for one’s own actions.