Web Exclusives: Tooke's Take
a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: cwtooke@princeton.edu)

May 15, 2002:

Party off
More musings on alcohol at Princeton

The older I get, the more I become convinced that the best form of government is a system derived from one rule: Do what you want, so long as you're not a pain in the ass. This rule applies particularly neatly to college life, which is subject to its own particular set of pressures and constraints; namely that most college students are hopelessly pack-oriented, self-absorbed, and generally foolish. I know that I spent most of my four years at Princeton in a haze of benign idiocy, a condition that I would lament if I weren't convinced it was a necessary phase of my development.

I think of the pain-in-the-ass rule every time I read something about the alcohol situation on the Princeton campus. It's a curious situation, alcohol at Princeton. I often find myself writing about it, yet my feelings about my experience as an undergraduate are mixed. Sometimes, to paraphrase W.C. Fields, I think that Princeton drove me to drink, and I never even had the courtesy to thank it. But other times, when I read some statistic or story about life on campus, I wonder why Princeton continues to blindly bear the costs of undergraduate drinking.

The most obvious cost, of course, is the occasional undergraduate who drinks far too much, does something stupid, and then sues. It's happened before; it's going to happen again. This last Houseparties weekend, 10 undergraduates drank themselves so silly that they ended up in either McCosh Health Center or the local hospitals. Surprise. This happens every Houseparties weekend. It happens most Initiations weekends. It sometimes happens on Canadian Flag Day. At some point another kid's going to end up in front of a car or brain dead. That's just statistics. And those statistics are why Princeton and all its affiliate organizations — eating clubs, for example — carry such high insurance premiums, which are essentially a transfer of Princeton's resources from the innocent to the stupid.

Second, binge drinkers negatively affect the quality of life for other students on campus. Call me a loser for raising the issue, call a kid who wants to study rather than party a dork, but that's the fact, Jack. According to a recent campus study, 38 percent of students have had their living space "messed up" by binge drinkers, 34 percent have had studying interrupted, and 19 percent of students feel physically unsafe. On the other side of the equation, 12.6 percent of drinkers admit they have damaged property while under the influence.

I worry when friends of mine who work in secondary schools tell me that a lot of smart, focused students drop Princeton off their lists because they worry about the social life. A school with as many academic resources to offer talented kids shouldn't have to worry about driving away anyone.

But the most worrying fact about Princeton and alcohol is the incredibly efficient job the university does at turning non-drinkers into drinkers. According to the 1998 Core Survey, 71 percent of the freshmen who arrive on the Princeton campus have consumed alcohol fewer than six times per year. Those statistics quickly change on campus. Forty-six percent of current Princeton students binge drink (using an admittedly debatable definition of "binge" drinking), 83 percent drink, and 97 percent feel that the social atmosphere promotes alcohol abuse.

That dramatic swing is probably why so many students are so bad at handling alcohol; they simply don't have enough experience to understand the line between drinking and blind, stinking, urinate-on-your-roommate drunk. And since the university usually doesn't provide any consequences for the latter, is it any surprise that so many students act so badly?

The statistics I've used in this column were compiled by Brian Muegge '05, who is on a campaign to have the university institute substance-free dorms. I've always thought that substance-free dorms are a way evading the problem — part of going to college is living with a wide variety of people — but given that Princeton can't or won't inflict consequences on kids who insist on being a pain in the ass, it seems like a logical first step. No kid who actually wants to work on a Thursday night should ever be even slightly inconvenienced by someone who wants to party.

Princeton is an alcohol-laden institution. It always has been, and I admit that I was a sometimes-enthusiastic participant while I was an undergraduate. But I have to admit that I grow more and more confused as to why the university is so reluctant to aggressively support the students who actually want to use its superior resources. The right to be a dumbass isn't engraved in either the Constitution or Princeton's Right, Rules and Responsibilities; it's time that the university started holding its student accountable for what they do at 2:00 a.m. on a Thursday night.

You can reach Wes at cwtooke@princeton.edu