Widgets Magazine


No Free Lunch: Drunk and Responsible

There has been a low buzz this year about the Stanford alcohol policy in freshmen dorms, a conversation that is most relevant as Resident Assistant (RA) candidates for freshmen dorms finish their interviews and Resident Fellows (RFs) make their selections. For years, Stanford has had a liberal alcohol policy, dedicated to the idea of informed personal responsibility. But conversations we hear today fundamentally question this ideal. If these talks become anything more, then students needs to be fighting the change tooth and nail, and freshmen RAs should be leading the fight.

The Stanford alcohol policy is uncommon at other schools. We’ve all heard stories from high school friends silently pounding drinks behind closed doors, avoiding their RAs. Contrast that with the relationship that most Stanford freshmen have with RAs — friendly and cooperative. The decisions regarding treatment of alcohol consumption are, within reason, left up to fellow students who are much more in touch with actual danger and risk than any one-size-fits-all policy ever could be. Potentially dangerous behavior can be openly watched, simply because students trust their RAs to use their leeway wisely and reasonably.

This arrangement seems to protect students’ well-being relatively well. Depending on whom you ask, there are around 1,400 college alcohol related deaths annually, yet we have not had any in years. While not a perfect comparison — we have indeed had a number of close calls, and it is probably inaccurate to compare the Stanford student population directly to national college statistics because of socioeconomics and other factors — something is working.

Perhaps more important than safety, though discussed less frequently, is the promotion of personal responsibility. Whether or not our parents are comfortable with the idea, Stanford students are adults. While we are not in the real world yet, we are rapidly approaching it. When we get there, whatever choices we make will be ours, and we will be wholly responsible for their repercussions.

Many of our generation are raised far away from the realities of responsibility. While it is obviously not representative of everyone’s experiences, our generation is characterized by less freedom, less criticism, inflated egos, fluffy talk of individuality and uniqueness and a removal from the natural order of cause and effect.

Realizing that we are powerless to prevent parents from sheltering their children, what better place than college to introduce the future leaders of the world, as we like to refer to ourselves, to the idea of consequences? If I drink to the point where I am throwing up in the bushes and am so hung-over that I fail my midterm the next Monday, that is my responsibility. I don’t get to blame the person or house that provided me the alcohol, or the professor for scheduling the midterm the Monday after the best party of the year, or the random bystander for not jumping on me, demanding that I drop the shot glass and step away from the handle.  Because when I’m sitting over the toilet the next morning feeling like my head was run over, or when I have to tell my parents I’m retaking chemistry, I’m the one who is responsible.

There are hints that we are drifting away from this system. Programs like AlcoholEDU make sense, helping students make informed choices and realize the likely outcomes of their actions. But now students who have had alcohol incidents are being forced to sign agreements not to drink, and there is talk of holding RAs responsible for the trouble that their freshmen get into. A month ago Professor Cliff Nass, the Otero RF, even suggested that those who supply alcohol to, or do not stop the alcohol consumption of, those who get themselves into trouble should be found in violation of the Fundamental Standard.

We need to be aware of this creeping paternalism, our reluctance to blame individuals for their actions or the outcome of their drinking. Mistakes will inevitably be made, and consequences will be faced. These consequences may hurt, and they may hurt a lot. But something is working, and instead of pretending that they are shocked that houses, clubs and organizations give alcohol to underage students when something goes wrong, the University should accept these incidents, except in the most bizarre cases, as the responsibility of the student.

To the next batch of RAs: we have something good going. Don’t let panic and paternalism take it away from us. Don’t let yourselves become the rubber-stamp enforcers of a flawed policy. Whatever it says on your official job descriptions, there is one lesson you can teach your freshmen that is one of the most important they will ever learn: how to live in a world where choices matter and how to take responsibility for one’s own actions.


To agree, disagree, or rant drunkenly at the writers, contact Dave or Zack at daveg4@stanford.edu or zhoberg@stanford.edu.

  • Missed the point

    The “creeping paternalism” that you speak of is a preemptive attempt to get students to be more responsible. Your logic boils down to, “Well we’ve done well so far, and nobody’s died, so the university should just accept that close cases are a problem of those students’ responsibility.” What Cliff Nass is indicating is that if we don’t up the ante now (not necessarily in stricter alcohol policies, but do SOMETHING), then we will have someone who dies. Then what? Nobody will want to hear you say “well that’s the student’s responsibility!”, because there’s more than one person at fault if that were to happen. There’s no denying that Stanford’s policy might be a little too lax. It’s in a gray area right now, where one of two things is true: we’re not near that state where someone is going to die, in which case Cliff Nass is FOS, or we are near that state where someone is going to die. We don’t know exactly where we are in that gray area. So doesn’t it make sense to err on the side of safety, just in case we are closer to that line than we think? Seems like the responsible thing to do, if you want to talk about responsibility.

  • Cliff Nass

    I would like to clarify a few things:

    1) I am not advocating that RAs police students’ drinking. I don’t think that that would be effective.

    2) I did not say that students who provide alcohol to students who become a risk to self or others should be found guilty of a Fundamental Standard violation. I simply posed the question.

    3) There is a tragic confusion between “creeping paternalism” and being supportive of members of the community. Adults generally do not live in a “red in tooth and claw” world: most adults benefit from friends who don’t encourage dangerous behaviors.

    4) Taking care of others IS the most responsible thing that a person can do.

  • ’11 Reader

    It’s not just something to consider for freshman dorms and underage students. In my junior year, I often felt uncomfortable in my dorm because there were always loud drinking games right outside my room and people getting sick/leaving messes in the bathrooms. Maybe it’s nice that everyone was being treated like an “adult” and was allowed to act freely, but it felt like neither the students nor the RAs were taking responsibility for enforcing any sort of limits. I think this issue could be well addressed not from the perspective of harshly cutting down on drinking, but creating shared dorm living agreements that make everybody feel comfortable. It’s not just paternalism, but creating an environment that feels reasonably peaceful and safe to all residents–which would also be the goal in any adult living situation outside of college.

  • Zack

    @missing the point:
    We are not at all saying that the fact that nothing has happened in recent memory means that our policy is good. Policies attempting to adress things like alcohol abuse are not judged on a binary scale–if we had an absolutely terrible policy it is still possible that we would have no problems, and we could have a student die even if we had the most perfect policy possible. It is all probabilistic, and the fact that we have done relatively well compared to other schools says that something is working. I think it is likely that this has little to do with the actual policy and more to do with what kind of people come to stanford, and what the general/unofficial ethos of campus (more about that in a little bit) are. Given that, it seems reasonable to give students freedom, and attempt to inform people about their choices and let them take the consequences. And your conclusion regarding what the result of this binary outcome status falls into one of the most classic logical fallacies. Yes, we could probably make things slightly safer by tightening up the policy. But there would be risk, so we could tighten it up more…and more… This is the same train of logic that leads to (in other issues) strip searches in airports, the revocation of habeas corpus, and in other countries censorship or the complete shutdown of the internet, to mention just a few examples. We could always make things safer, if we are willing to give other things up. That tradeoff is not always worth it, and that is the point. Which you seem to have missed.

    @Professor Nass:
    1–glad to hear it
    2–glad to hear that too, although I would like to warn that, coming from a person in your position, merely posing the question has consequences, and seems (at least to this student) to be more than a mere philosophical point
    3/4–I dont think we disagree on these points. Obviously I want students to look out for their fellow students, tell them if they have drank too much, take care of them, tell them if they have a drinking problem, etc. I agree that one of the most lofty ways a person can act is as a good samaritan. But that is something that people should–and do–do of their own free choice, not because it is legislated that they need to. Our good samaritan laws clearly agree with this principle–you are protected from prosecution if you try to help someone in need, but you are also protected if you do not. In essence, we benefit from the willing help of friends and good people. Hopefully we will have this support for the rest of our lives. But we do not benefit when institutions teach us that others are responsible for our mistakes.
    And when something does go wrong, as it is bound to do, we need to acknowledge that even if nobody helped them, that person is (in most cases, not talking about date-rape, being forced to drink, hazing etc right now) the one that got themselves into that trouble, and not use organizations or other individuals who merely facilitated those choices as scapegoats.

  • @Zack

    I agree that there’s still the possibility that someone could die, no matter how strict the policies are. As you said, it’s probabilistic, and therefore my point is that given the current policy, there’s a higher likelihood of that happening. We could cut that likelihood down by taking action, as there are many preventative options available. Your argument that we’ll continually misunderstand where to draw the line in terms of strictness of policy is a grave logical error–the slippery slope fallacy. (You have to admit, it’s ironic that you demonstrate your proof of my “classic fallacious” point with a famous fallacy. Which you seemed to have missed.)

    Should we not act simply out of fear that we might end up going crazy with it and falling down that slippery slope, making our policies too strict? No, that doesn’t make sense at all. Clearly the solution is to think carefully about what the next action should be. Just because we think it’s a problem now does not mean that, given some newly enacted rule, we’ll still think there’s a problem and will then enforce a newer, stricter policy. Your conclusion is that the tradeoff is not worth it; but let’s say that there was incontrovertible evidence that Stanford was dangerously close to a student dying (or worse, a student actually dies, but let’s say that hasn’t happened yet). Should we not act then, for fear of an “undesirable tradeoff”? Of course not.

    Obviously the difference in opinion here is what I highlighted before: that we disagree as to where Stanford is in that gray area. You say we’re not near enough that line that we don’t need to act. I say we are. Who’s to say how close we are to that line, exactly? No one. Nobody can tell for sure. So why not err on the side of safety and try out a newer policy? Again, that doesn’t mean that we’ll fall down a slippery slope, deciding that later, we need to “err on the safe side” again and enact a newer policy. With each step, we look at the evidence to see whether there’s need to take further action. This, I think, is where we agree to disagree: some of us think that that action is now, given the evidence; others think we’re just fine. We are simply interpreting the evidence differently. But FWIW, I think RFs who see the problem first-hand have a good idea (yes, that seems like an appeal to authority, but I’m not saying they’re necessarily right, rather that they could be. Here it’s appropriate: since no one can say with certainty where we are, it makes sense to listen to those who have more experience, knowledge, and wisdom on the issue). I just don’t agree with, as you say, simply “inform[ing] people about their choices and let[ting] them take the consequences,” when those consequences include death.