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Alcohol and Safety

Many older alumni remember a time when alcohol was much less central to social life at the clubs than it appears to be today. They remember limits on the number of party nights that could occur each year and the amount of time a club could spend “on tap.” Now most clubs treat every Thursday and Saturday night as a party night, and beer may be on tap most if not all nights of the week. One alumnus characterized the change as one from “eating clubs” to “night clubs,” and many asked whether it was possible to scale back the centrality of alcohol in the life of the clubs. The concern was not about the responsible consumption of alcohol, but its pervasiveness, especially in settings where most club members are likely to be below the legal drinking age. There were also concerns that a number of students are deterred from joining clubs because of this alcohol culture; that emphasis on alcohol detracts from other positive aspects of club membership; and that emphasis on alcohol can encourage excessive drinking and may contribute to the practice of “pre-gaming” (drinking hard alcohol in the privacy of one’s room in a short period of time before going out to socialize).

Both alumni and students point to aspects of club life that offer a “safe” environment for students who drink. As a result of “best practices” that have been adopted by many of the clubs in recent years, there are safeguards in place to control who is admitted and who can be served, water and other alternative beverages are available, and training is provided to those who dispense alcohol. Drinking at the clubs takes place in settings where students look out for each other’s well-being; the alcohol served, for the most part, is “weak beer”; and because of the location of the clubs, Princeton students don’t “drink and drive.”

On the other hand, the fact that the alcohol is “free” can encourage excessive consumption, and unfortunately there continue to be occasions when hard alcohol is consumed and dangerous drinking is encouraged, or at least condoned, especially during initiations. Students express concerns about pressures they feel to drink at the clubs or as part of the selection process, and about drinking contests and other organized incentives to drink to excess. On the Saturday of initiations at one of the clubs this spring, hard alcohol was served to newly admitted members at various stations within the club, and the club set up a “sick room” with tarps on the floor, buckets for vomiting, and other preparations in expectation that students would drink to excess. Even if excessive drinking was not “encouraged,” it certainly was expected, and the presence of hard alcohol increased the risk that students would in fact need to make use of the room. While this may have been an isolated instance of bad judgment on the part of this particular club, there are many examples of similar occurrences at other clubs, as well as recurring incidents like one club’s annual “Viking night,” which is characterized by excessive drinking and occasional property damage at other clubs. Excessive drinking has serious health and safety implications not only for the students who drink, but for others who may be affected by their actions, including students who become victims of sexual harassment and assault.

As a task force, we call upon the clubs and the University to:

  • Continue to take steps to reduce the pervasiveness of alcohol in the clubs, and especially the risks of excessive drinking. One constructive step this year was an initiative by the bicker clubs to require sophomores to pledge that they would refrain from excessive use of alcohol during the selection process. Steps at the clubs need to be part of a larger strategy to encourage responsible drinking at Princeton — on-campus and off — as well as to reduce the incidence and risks of “pre-gaming.” In this respect, club-based initiatives to encourage responsible use of alcohol should be coordinated with on-campus initiatives and the work of the Alcohol Coalition Committee (a largely student-led group that is seeking to reduce the incidence of high-risk drinking on campus). We believe that one element of a larger strategy could be the reintroduction of a campus pub.
  • Take steps to create a more diversified social infrastructure at Princeton. Whether by design or default, most social life at Princeton revolves around the clubs, and the clubs frequently point out that the burden of providing students with social life falls on them and their members, even though the participants in their parties and activities include many non-members, including freshmen, sophomores, and juniors and seniors who are not in the clubs. One step might be the expansion and improvement of on-campus activities of real interest to students that do not involve alcohol (the Wilson College Black Box is frequently cited). Survey data confirm that students who drink as well as students who don’t drink would like to see more such activities. Another step might involve the reinstatement of a former program under which the clubs collectively agreed to offer at least one major alcohol-free event each week that would be subsidized by the University. A third step might include some increase in on-campus events with alcohol for of-age students and perhaps faculty and staff, such as wine and cheese parties, and here again one element of such a plan could be the reintroduction of a campus pub.
  • Reaffirm the importance of steps taken by the clubs in recent years to better control excessive consumption of alcohol, including better security, wrist-banding, the provision of water and other alternative beverages, and better training of bartenders and club officers. The clubs should consider whether further steps along these lines could be taken, and whether they can take steps to reduce the time on tap and the number of party nights, and to discourage drinking games, dangerous initiation or other “hazing-type” rituals, and other incentives to drink to excess.
  • Reaffirm the importance of being attentive to those who have consumed excessive amounts of alcohol and calling for help when necessary.

Many comments on our website expressed concern about recent interactions between the clubs and the Princeton Borough police and asked whether there would be merit in returning to a time when the University’s public safety department served as first responders at the clubs, with support from the borough only as needed. The University’s new director of public safety and his senior staff have expressed interest in exploring this possibility, along with encouraging greater and more constructive engagement between the clubs and public safety and better training in the clubs. We believe that this is an idea worthy of active consideration.