Dartmouth bans hard alcohol in vain effort to reduce sexual assault

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Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon announced a campus-wide ban on hard alcohol Jan. 29 in response to recent scrutiny surrounding the school’s infamous drinking culture. The ban is one component of a larger movement called “Move Dartmouth Forward,” (MDF) the purpose of which, according to the Office of the President, is “to put Dartmouth at the forefront in creating higher expectations of college students while strengthening Dartmouth’s longstanding commitment to leadership in teaching and learning.”

The ostensible goals of the movement are laudable, but the shoddiness of the policies themselves suggest the college might be more interested in saving face than protecting its students. Dartmouth should consider an open door policy if it truly hopes to affect change on campus, as closed door policies are dangerous and incorrectly blame alcohol for sexual assault.

Hanlon’s plan was prompted by a civil rights complaint targeting the school’s mishandling of sexual harassment cases––one of the numerous investigations surrounding Dartmouth’s drinking culture. Hanlon endorsed the ban despite referencing little research to validate its implementation, which suggests that the administration sought to find a visible quick fix rather than a comprehensive, feasible solution to a vicious problem.

But even calling the ban a quick fix might be generous. Banning hard alcohol will not eliminate student consumption but instead literally push it behind closed doors. The ban provides a new opportunity for men to lure women up to their rooms at parties for a drink, putting them in a vulnerable setting for potential assault.

Most disappointing of all, the ban paints alcohol as the culprit of sexual assault rather than perpetrators themselves. Without providing any tangible proof or research to suggest this policy will work, the administration has left students both confused and skeptical as to its true purpose.

“The ban on hard alcohol is merely a Band-Aid policy that fails to address the true source of the issue: a lack of understanding and disregard for consent and bystander intervention,” Dartmouth student and Theta Delta Chi fraternity Risk Manager Khori Davis said.

Student doubt is only augmented by the plethora of studies corroborating the policy’s fallacies. Many higher education experts, including Laura Forbes, the former chair of the American College Health Association’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Coalition and David Hanson, an authority on collegiate alcohol policy and a professor Emeritus of sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam, publically question the viability of and logic behind the ban.

Dartmouth follows the lead of schools like Bowdoin, Bates and Colby in its ban, even though their measured success is murky. Colby’s administration claims that “‘highest risk drinking’ seems to have been reduced”––an ambiguous assessment in itself––while students say the ban has only pushed first-year pre-games underground and left upperclassmen drinking culture unaffected.

Other schools approach the issue of alcohol abuse with strategies of lenience rather than regulation. Duke, Stanford, Colgate and Swarthmore allow hard alcohol on campus while reserving the right to ban it at certain kinds of events on campus.

“I actually think our drinking policy is pretty reasonable,” Duke student and Sigma Nu member Shiv Gidumal said. “A similar ban at Duke would also not be enforced and would just force even more students to go to off-campus bars. Binge drinking is going to happen no matter what schools do and the sooner they realize that, the sooner they will be able to develop a reasonable and effective policy that actually keeps students safe.”

Stanford’s open door policy allows students to drink in their rooms with doors open so as to allow residential education staff to interact with students should their health and safety be at risk. Banning hard alcohol only drives binge drinking underground or off campus, eliminating campus safety as a potential resource when alcohol consumptions take a dark turn.

“If I were to design the policy, it’d be pushing alcohol into the open so that it’s as visible as possible,” Dartmouth’s Kappa Delta Epsilon Social Chairwoman Catherine Donahoe said to The New York Times.

In addition to providing more resources for students who find themselves in precarious situations out at night, lenient policies help to tame dangerous pre-games. When students know they won’t find the drinks they want at events, they consume more alcohol before the party and put themselves at greater risk.

Occidental students know this equation all too well; it is this pre-game pressure that led to enough hospital transports last year to cause administration to temporarily dissolve campus dances.

“Despite its flaws, I do believe MDF has a lot of potential to create positive change––as evident from the constructive dialogue that it has already produced––it’s just a matter of how far past the surface we’re willing to go,” Davis said. “I will say, I’m proud to be a part of a college actively and publicly trying to address the issue of sexual assault.”

Whether Dartmouth’s new policy was enacted to save face or affect real change, that the administration felt the need to do anything at all to address its issues of alcohol abuse and sexual assault is a step in the right direction. But policies that are radical simply for the sake of being radical, are not enough to prevent people from being raped in the dark corners of a fraternity basement. In fact, if as negligently considered as Dartmouth’s, these radical policies can inadvertently put people at a higher risk for assault. College administrations must study their campus cultures closely and carefully in order to develop a vaccine that functions to eliminate the cause of the epidemic, rather than treat a disease with a Band-Aid.