How does alcohol intertwine with the college experience? A January 2021 publication from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimated that 53% of college students had consumed alcohol in the past month, and 33% had engaged in binge drinking (five or more drinks for men in a single event, four or more for women). Those numbers mean that alcohol is a major part of college. Even for students who don’t drink themselves, it’s likely they will have friends or classmates who do.
When it comes to alcohol consumption, Stanford’s numbers are even higher, despite interventions Stanford has been implementing, including a 2016 ban on hard liquor from campus parties, asking RAs to report students for incidences of “high-risk drinking” and prohibiting hard liquor in containers larger than 750 mL. From the 2012-2020 alcohol trends report (frosh-only), 66% of frosh had consumed alcohol within the past year, and 51% within the last two weeks. And of students who had consumed alcohol within the last two weeks, 52% had engaged in binge drinking. As of this year, Stanford has undertaken the most drastic change yet: eliminating the so-called “open-door policy,” transforming RAs into mandated reporters who are required to report any incidents of underage drinking (as well as “high-risk drinking” for students over 21). For context, Stanford’s open-door policy refers to the unofficial policy that RAs are not required to report underage drinking, but students in dorms are required to give RAs information about where they’re drinking and leave their doors open while doing so, which allows RAs to keep track of students and their alcohol consumption.
Some may believe that draconian measures are the only way to curb binge drinking. Stanford’s administration certainly does. But I’m going to argue a different side: turning RAs into sources of fear and discomfort is going to cause far more long-term harm than the open-door policy ever did. Stanford’s peer schools, like Cornell University, have implemented similar policies where RAs are mandated reporters. Not only has it not curbed drinking (40.5% of Cornell students reported engaging in high-risk drinking in the past two weeks in a 2015 study), it hasn’t changed the number of students who are transported for overconsumption of alcohol.
The first question Stanford needs to ask is: What is its long-term goal? Is it to stop underage drinking altogether? Or, is it to limit the number of students who do drink underage, and ensure that of those who do, they do so as safely as possible?
If the goal is the former, Stanford is well out of luck. Around 32.8% of high school students in the United States already have consumed alcohol by the time they get to college, and 57.8% of that third have engaged in binge-drinking (2015 CDC report) — and all that is despite the fact that high school students have far less access to alcohol than on college campuses, as well as limited access to space with which to consume alcohol. Drinking culture is so ingrained that there is essentially no way to stop students from drinking entirely. Even completely “dry” campuses (complete bans on alcohol) still report problematic levels of drinking.
So, one would assume that Stanford’s goal is instead to (1) limit the number of students who consume alcohol underage, and (2) of those who do, ensure they do so safely.
If we focus on (1) first: Stanford has already begun doing the work needed to give students valid alternatives to drinking culture. Cardinal Nights, now a decade old, provides fun activities on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights that are alcohol-free. Examples include trips to San Francisco Giants games, screenings of movies like “Inside Out,” and dozens more events that provide great alternatives to parties. In 2015, Cardinal Nights had 26,000 attendees in over 117 events, a roaring success however you look at it. Cardinal Nights could continue to expand programming and partner with other organizations on campus to offer diverse and varied alternatives — but in terms of alternatives to drinking, Stanford’s already done the legwork.
So now we turn to (2). If, as we’ve established, around a third of freshmen will come into school having already consumed alcohol, and some percentage of students who have not will end up trying it, then the question now becomes how to ensure students drink responsibly. This area is where the truly devastating effect of Stanford’s policy becomes clear: it is going to harm students who are victims of sexual assault. At least 50% of sexual assaults on college campuses involve alcohol, and in 97% of the assaults that involve alcohol, both the perpetrator and the victim consumed alcohol. In Stanford’s own 2012-2020 Alcohol Trends Report, 8% of students who reported drinking the past two weeks experienced sexual assault. If RAs are mandated reporters under the new alcohol policy, this means that underage students may be afraid to seek help for an assault if they were drinking at the time. While Stanford has promised that victims and witnesses will not be subject to reporting, they have nevertheless taken away trust between residents and RAs: RAs are known to students as reporters, and RAs could write up victims if they were drinking at the time, even if Stanford claims they won’t. Stanford’s policy can function only if it assumes the unquestionable goodness of RAs, but that’s ridiculous: RAs are just students, too.
To be fair, Stanford has maintained a “Good Samaritan” law, meaning that if a student has consumed too much alcohol, those who call 911 or emergency services will not be disciplined for consuming alcohol. Even so, Stanford explicitly states that students may still be required to undergo “educational” training — as a consequence, many students may decide to wait longer to call emergency services. And because students may no longer trust their RAs, intoxicated students will be forced to make judgment calls themselves over whether a peer has consumed too much alcohol.
I’ll end with a brief story from the fall of my freshman year. We had hosted a small dorm pregame (open door) before attending a larger all-campus party, and while most of us had limited our alcohol consumption, one of our friends had forgotten to eat. When we returned to the dorm, it was clear that they were becoming unresponsive, and we had no idea what level of responsiveness was normal. So the first thing I did was pick up my phone and call the RA, who came immediately to help us, and was able to make a sober judgment that we should call the paramedics, even though my friend seemed to be getting better. The paramedics came, gave them some water, and determined that my friend was not in need of a transport. They then gave us advice on how to arrange our friend’s sleeping position so that they could sleep in a safe position without fear of asphyxiation. We all woke up unharmed the next morning.
Stanford might look at that story and criticize our drinking, or say it wouldn’t have been a problem if we hadn’t pregamed. They’ll tell us the way to solve it is to ban hard liquor, or ban liquor all together. But I know better. I know that having that trust between myself and my RA meant that my friend was okay. Feeling safe enough to call the paramedics, and knowing I wasn’t going to get in trouble for it, meant that professionals, not scared freshmen, looked at my friend.
The new alcohol policy means that the pregame wouldn’t have been open-door. More of us might have consumed liquor more quickly because we were afraid of getting caught. I wouldn’t have felt safe calling my RA, and I would have had to weigh getting myself in trouble against how drunk I thought my friend was. My RA might have been hesitant to call the paramedics. My friend might not have been checked out by a professional, who wouldn’t have given us the advice of how to position them to sleep. Everything would have been more dangerous, more fraught and more worrisome.
The difference between me and Stanford is that I look at that freshman-year story and think of it as a success — because my friend was fine. Because I trusted my RAs and the paramedics. Stanford looks at it as something to punish, perhaps without understanding that drinking on college campuses is a much bigger problem than any one university could solve. Stanford’s new policy erodes trust between residents and RAs, and hasn’t even worked to curb drinking at other universities. Stanford should ask itself what it wants to prioritize: grandstanding about the dangers of underage drinking, or a genuine interest in student safety. I know which one I would choose. Does Stanford?
The author is in the class of 2022 and is being kept anonymous due to the subject matter.