Countering Alcohol

In the fall of 2003, dean of Harvard College Benedict H. Gross—once an undergraduate here himself—paused in his work as a mathematician and leader of the undergraduate curricular review to deal with a more immediate concern: the use and abuse of alcohol among current undergraduates.

The statistics were sobering indeed: 24 undergraduates were treated at University Health Services (UHS) for alcohol-related problems that September alone, up from 15 the previous year. Freshmen in particular required medical attention for similar reasons during their first months on campus. The Board of Overseers, disturbed by the spike in hospitalizations and calls from concerned parents, pushed Gross and University provost Steven E. Hyman for action.

Hyman said that even though the number of drinkers at the College did not approach the levels at other schools nationwide, "the problem is bad enough to be taken seriously." He and Gross appointed a committee, chaired by Currier House master Joseph L. Badaracco Jr., Shad professor of business ethics, charged with producing a set of recommendations to improve alcohol education and treatment at the College. (Gross had earlier pointed to the rise in UHS admissions as an indication of a student body more aware of the benefits of seeking needed medical attention, not necessarily an increase in the number of students binge-drinking.)

Joseph L. Badaracco Jr.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

After a year of deliberations, meetings with experts, and immersion in articles about alcohol use at colleges, the 13-member committee (including professors, students, and administrators) issued its report this past September ( The 21-page document reflects on the problem of irresponsible college drinking nationwide, but offers suggestions to keep Harvard safer through new approaches to education and treatment. The recommendations range from encouraging the College to plan more "dry" social events to creating a new administrative post to deal with on-campus student alcohol use.

One of the greatest difficulties the committee faced is that most students, by Massachusetts law, should not be drinking at all. This obstacle was surmounted with a little help from the general counsel's office. "What we actually learned is that [our efforts are] not a matter of circumventing the law," Badaracco said in an interview. "We have a responsibility under the educate students on responsible drinking."

Of particular concern, he explained, were students who arrive at Harvard with little experience of alcohol—students who may not know that "12 shots in two hours could put them in the hospital, or worse." Badaracco also said students need to learn how to be the leading agents of care for one another, as the "primary line of defense." "Given the dual responsibilities imposed on the University, the Committee strongly recommends that the College develop ways to educate students more fully about issues involving alcohol and reduce the frequency of drinking behavior that puts them at risk," the report notes. "Students are usually the principal or sole monitors of their own drinking, and they need to know how to do this safely and responsibly."

Representatives of non-College-sanctioned social groups such as final clubs also met with the committee. The committee's report may open a new phase in the relationship between the clubs and the Harvard administration, which now deals with them at arm's length, primarily through their graduate boards. "The College ought to seek a working relationship with [the clubs to] focus on dangerous drinking, without recognizing the clubs," Badaracco said. "We didn't address recognition. [Alcohol] is where everybody's got a common interest. Nobody debates whether students should risk death or serious injury."

When treatment is needed, the report emphasizes the importance of "continuity of care" at UHS and seamless provision of services for in- and outpatients. It calls for more UHS staff and resources to be dedicated to intervention and prevention, defining alcohol programs as "part of the larger category of substance-abuse programs." The report also urges Harvard to look to the examples of other schools and public-health officials in determining its alcohol-education and response procedures.

The committee also suggested that Harvard appoint an "alcohol coordinator"—an administrator with experience in the field as well as with students, who will report to UHS's director of mental health, alcohol, and counseling services, Dr. Paul Barreira, and will help guide alcohol policies across all of Harvard's schools. Gross said in October that a candidate search was already underway, funded by the provost's office.

Heightened concern about alcohol on campus predated the committee. Tailgates at the 2002 and 2004 Yale games at Harvard Stadium were kegless, a policy implemented by former dean of the College Harry R. Lewis. Gross has upheld the keg ban and added new restrictions, including I.D. bracelets and an interdiction on student groups renting trucks for tailgates. The College also hired an alcohol distributor for The Game, to provide drinks to students with proper identification. Even so, University Health Services reported that 30 students were transported by EMTs to area hospitals for alcohol-related incidents, more than twice the number admitted the last time Harvard hosted The Game. (None of the cases was life-threatening.)

Although the report addressed the need for planning before major events associated with drinking, it did not specifically address The Game. But Badaracco said that some of the most compelling testimony the committee heard came from Harvard police chief Francis L. "Bud" Riley, who described the near-death of a student from alcohol poisoning at the 2002 Game.

Its attention focused by such stories, the committee created its own narrative on alcohol. "There are a lot of people at this university who have researched this problem and who have a lot of knowledge, but a lot of this is diffused," Badaracco said. "Our goal was to bring a lot of experience together."

Undergraduate Council president Matthew W. Mahan '05, who has worked with student representatives from the UC and other committees in assessing the report and implementing its recommendations, is pleased with the outcome. "I find it encouraging that the committee has attempted to address issues of alcohol safety and health within the broader context of student life," he says. "When alcohol is treated as an isolated, and even taboo, topic, students remain ignorant of its effects and enticed by its special status."

~Rebecca O'Brien


Read more articles by Rebecca O’Brien

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