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The Party Is Dead; Long Live the Party

11.1.91

The undergraduate could scarcely believe his eyes. He looked at his watch to make sure it was in fact Saturday night. It was. He looked around to make sure he was really in Pennypacker Hall. He was. He looked high and low for a party. There was none to be found. Here, on the wide central staircase, where on so many weekends in his freshman days the music had blasted and the beer had flowed, where the walls had echoed with cries of "Party at the Tack," three students sat eating frozen yogurt and talking about their scores on the achievement tests. 

Alas, he reflected, he had entered the College in a happier time, before Congress had decided that national morals were speeding hellward in a handbasket, when a czar was someone you studied in Russian Civ. It was a time, that is to say, before the Drug-Free Schools and Campuses Act of 1989. 

That law, which took effect in October 1990, prompted the apologetic announcement of a much-tightened College policy on underage drinking. Apologetic because the new policy is almost as unpopular in some administrative circles as among students. But Harvard's hands, or more properly, its purse-strings, are tied by Congress's decree, which mandates that federal funding (in Harvard's case, $200 million annually) will be denied to schools that fail to enforce drug and alcohol laws vigorously. Administrators, tutors, and campus police officers, accustomed to winking at all but the most flagrant offenses, are now required to take action on any violation of state and federal regulations. Possible penalties range from a formal warning to the requirement to withdraw. 

In the Houses, the new policy's main effect has been to make alcohol less visible. No longer do the masters' teas feature bottles of sherry chaperoned only by a polite sign thanking students for "observing" the laws of the Commonwealth. Weekly happy hours in the junior common rooms become truly happy only after tutors have left. Student parties themselves go on mostly as before—albeit with precautions taken not to attract undue attention from House authorities. A significant concern is that the policy will hurt resident tutors' relationships with undergraduates by forcing them into the role of policemen. Some administrators also worry that its overall effect will be to make students more secretive drinkers without making them more responsible. "The policy merely encourages a tendency toward drinking underground and not in a larger social setting, where there would be better social control and more peer pressure not to drink as much," says Alexandra Barcus, Lowell House's senior tutor. 

The brunt of Congress's reform zeal, however, has been borne by the freshmen. At the beginning of September, College officials reaffirmed the ban on serving alcohol at all Yard parties, public and private. In the succeeding weeks, a swelling tide of freshmen made its way riverward, to parties in the Houses and the final clubs, bringing with it reports of a Puritan crackdown unequaled since the days of the Mathers. There was simply almost nothing to do weekend nights in the Yard, they said. What few parties existed were thanks to dwindling pockets of underground resistance. (Literally underground, in one case: residents of one dorm were said to have gotten so desperate that they had a party in the basement laundry room, because they thought the police wouldn't hear them there.) For the most part, though, the familiar institution of the freshman party—the cramped common room, the blaring classic-rock, the hundred sweaty bodies elbowing their way toward a keg of warm Budweiser—seemed to have gone the way of Gen Ed, straw hats, and parietal rules. 

The undergraduate heard all the rumors. "The Yard has been transformed into a place with sixteen hundred freshmen wandering around asking, 'Where's the party?' and there never is one," one freshman acquaintance told him. But he had to see for himself. And so, on a recent Saturday night, he set out for the Yard. 

Shocked to find Pennypacker quiet, he asked a few of the dorm's residents for an explanation. There had been no big parties there since the beginning of the year, when several had been broken up by Harvard police, they said. "The cops come every night just to poke around," one explained. "Every time you turn the stereo up, they're here." The undergraduate asked hopefully if they knew of anywhere else there might be a freshman party. The suggestion: "Try M.I.T" 

His next stop, however, was Weld Hall, associated forever in his mind with legends of beer kegs rolled down steep stairways in an attempt to replicate, on a thrilling scale, a popular video game. Coming down the stairs of Weld tonight, however, were a pair, not of kegs, but of freshmen. Were they on their way to a party? "No," said one, "I have to write my Expos paper." Her companion, too, was planning a night of study. Was there anything going on in the dorm? the undergraduate asked. There hadn't been a real party in weeks, they said, but he should try the third floor—they thought there might be something small up there. Eagerly the undergraduate bounded up the familiar staircase. On the third floor, a half-dozen students were watching the eleven o'clock news. That was all. It was the same everywhere. In Stoughton, someone folded laundry. Through a lighted window of Mower, someone else read a book. In Holworthy, they played computer games. The lights were out in Massachusetts Hall. In Thayer, the undergraduate met a friend who told him that a few weeks before, she had had a few friends over to drink beer and listen to the stereo. Alerted by the loud music, the police came within minutes, and when they left they took the beer, as well as a few bursar's cards, with them. "Later that night I saw the same cops in Store 24," the hostess recounted. "They were buying chips." 

Last stop, Matthews Hall. Six or seven of the dorm's residents were sitting on the steps, and the undergraduate joined them. He was looking for a party, he said—well, actually, he was working on an article on how the new alcohol policy had changed the social scene, had eradicated freshman life as he remembered it. "Oh," one of the students said, "was this really a party school once? My mother says it was when she was here, but that was twenty-five years ago." 

Scarcely had the undergraduate begun to describe in glowing terms the bacchanalian past than he was interrupted by a voice more seasoned than his own. "Come off it," said the proctor who had been listening quietly from the foot of the stairs. "I remember coming here when I was an undergraduate, and we would sit around and drink and complain that there was nothing going on. It's the same now. The problem isn't the new policy, it's short memory—every year always seems worse than the year before." 

The undergraduate mulled this over as he crossed the Yard and headed back toward the river. He thought, too, about a chance conversation with Burriss Young, who's been associate dean of freshmen and a Yard resident for thirty years. Dean Young had observed that, although freshman parties might seem like innocent fun, administrators feared that overconsumption of alcohol posed a serious health risk to inexperienced drinkers. "These are people who are on their own for the first time, making decisions for the first time, and being exposed to temptations they haven't faced before," the dean said. "If they get a bellyful of beer, they can get very sick, and if they get a bellyful of beer, plus vodka, plus Kool-Aid, plus tequila, plus God-knows-what-else, they can get very, very sick. We had a couple of kids last year who had to be taken to University Health Services by their proctors. That's part of why we hope that they'll view their proctors as people who are there to care for them, rather than people from whom to hide." 

The undergraduate also thought about another Saturday night in the Yard—an October night in the waning months of the Reagan administration, a night about which his memory was even sketchier than the time gone by would suggest. He had gotten a bellyful of vodka and Kool-Aid and God-knowswhat-else that night, and had staggered back to Canaday Hall much the worse for it, silently thanking the housing office for having given him a room on the ground floor. He had never seen eye-to-eye with vodka since then. Maybe he never would. No thanks to Congress, that is.