The myth of the South Bend party school
By C. SPENCER BEGGS
In commentaries on the 2002 change in the alcohol policy that banned hard liquor (defined as drinks containing 14 percent alcohol by volume or more), students proclaimed that the Notre Dame tradition that the students know and love would be gone in the near future and that the new restrictive alcohol policy would drive students to move off campus, which would lead to a higher incidence of alcohol-related accidents in an uncontrolled environment.
The ire was nothing new. When the last major changes to the University's alcohol policy, which limited the amount of alcohol students could possess among other regulations, came into effect in August of 1984, the student outcry was the same. Banners hung out windows declared "This place is going to pot" and angry letters to The Observer chastised the administration for ruining the on-campus lifestyle. The Observer's headline on April 17, 1984, boldly stated: "The Party's Over."
But, had the party ever really started? As the years pass, students and alumni lament the University's descent from being a fun place. It seems that everyone remembers the campus being more liberal, more traditional and more fun.
Ironically, many of the traditions that students and alumni feel are threatened are not that old. It wasn't until 1972 that women were even admitted to the University. Father Sorin's boys club was 130 years old when the first pair of double X-chromosomes sat through her first class. And even though mixed-company social events with women from Saint Mary's did exist, the sex relations before the admission of women were, by most accounts, non-existent.
In fact, like female students, alcohol was prohibited from campus altogether until the early '70s. Notre Dame students frequented bars in Michigan and Chicago. But after a relaxation or regulations in the early '70s, the relatively non-existent alcohol policy lasted just over five years. In 1978, the University banned kegs from the campus, and the 1984 regulations limited where students could drink.
The idea of an on-campus life may have been around 30 years ago, but it was in a far different form. When Notre Dame was all male, students lived in a different dorm each year. The idea of hall spirit as it exists today simply wasn't a facet of Notre Dame's campus lifestyle. So, what happened in 30 years that made the administration feel that regulation was necessary?
Some have argued that the ultra-litigious environment of the country has Notre Dame's near $4 billion lawsuit-inviting endowment making the decisions. But, while claims of liability must certainly be on administrators' minds, the same claim was made in 1984 before the heyday of the coffee-spill millionaire. Perhaps there was another reason: Notre Dame had a drinking problem. With a reported 51 cases of alcohol poisoning in just one semester last year, 49 of which involved hard liquor, the statistics seem to speak for themselves.
The debate has been between those who feel that ending on-campus events, such in-hall SYR dances, will destroy the Notre Dame community and those who feel that without regulating those events, and the drinking at them, the Notre Dame community will destroy itself.
And despite the cries of the Cassandras, Notre Dame's on-campus tradition has survived. And despite the administration's often heavy-handed attempts to curtail high-risk drinking, it continues to rise. The irony abounds.
While the debate is often portrayed as one of the administration versus the students, there have been a number of groups that have attempted to bring the two together. Peers Inspiring Listening, Learning and Responsible Social Life (PILLARS) is one such group.
PILLARS, a student organization that works closely with the Office of Drug and Alcohol Education, presents a range of services including dorm presentations, sponsoring speakers and the freshmen presentation each year. Though most students don't have much contact with PILLARS after the first mandatory freshmen presentation, the group is trying to be more present on campus this year.
Former PILLARS co-president and current advisory board member senior Colleen Slusser pointed out that the members of the group do not have the same perspective on issues of alcohol use and abuse. PILLARS is not a teetotaler organization, some members do drink.
"PILLARS is a group where everyone has their own opinion, but has the same goals and objective which is to educate," Slusser said.
Slusser thinks that the new alcohol regulations are important for the health of the campus community.
"I think the changes in the alcohol policy are very necessary, due to the fact that alcohol abuse is one the rise on campus and there are statistics to back that up," she said.
Heavy drinking is an unfortunate fact of the American university experience. But therein lies the problem between drinking and University tradition: they've become entwined if not one in the same.
"Based on the fact that [Notre Dame] is an Irish Catholic university, drinking is territorial. Maybe it's an Irish thing, maybe it's a Catholic thing, but it's brought into the University," Slusser said. "I think that alcohol is more associated with college life than it is with University tradition … I think that Notre Dame has enough of a tradition that the absence of hard alcohol will not destroy people's day-to-day lifestyle."
Perhaps part of the impasse stems from a mistake in understanding what University lifestyle is. While some see it as the upperclassmen on-campus dorm camaraderie, others see it as the "40s at 4" drinking tradition.
PILLARS recognizes that there always has been drinking at Notre Dame and probably always will be. Rather than fighting an impossible battle, the group hopes to change the perspective on drinking to one of responsible behavior.
"If there's one thing I'd like to see in 10 years, it's that people would go out to party and alcohol might be around, but people would not go out just to drink … it would exist there but it wouldn't be central," Slusser said.
The campus group FlipSide offers a different perspective on the situation.
"I think [drinking is] a matter of convenience. I mean, I think people think, `Gee I could pay for a taxi, pay for where [I'm] going and pay for the taxi back. Or I could just go next door,'" junior Katy Hall, a former FlipSide co-president, said.
FlipSide offers non-alcoholic events to the campus. But the club is not just for non-drinkers, but they do ask that alcohol and intoxicated people not be present at their events. The group feels that building a positive campus atmosphere that gives students an alternative to drinking can be part of the solution to the University's alcohol woes.
"I think one of the biggest things that needs to be done is [developing] a closer relationship with the city of South Bend … If Notre Dame would work with the community to make it a college town, not necessarily with a lot of bars and a lot of clubs, it would make it easier for kids who are not 21," Hall said.
Nobody believes that the University's problems with student drinking will be solved overnight or by a single policy. The unique situation of students going to college poses complicated problems for both students and administrators and sometimes help is not easy to find.
"For most people, their only interaction with PILLARS is the freshman presentation. And freshman year you're getting so many mixed signals on what's cool what's not cool, it's hard to form a solid foundation," Slusser said.
"Every rumor says, `You're go to college and there's drinking.' It's the first time we're away from our parents and the first time we have the opportunity. I think it happens at every college," Hall said. "I think part of college is making your own choices and being your own person. If you deny [students] that opportunity you may, one, encourage them to do it more, and two, deny them the opportunity to make adult decisions."
Contact C. Spencer Beggs at firstname.lastname@example.org
All Scene Stories for Monday, September 23, 2002