Amherst College Still Hasn’t Learned Its Lesson

Courtesy of Amherst College Police
Courtesy of Amherst College Police
Courtesy of Amherst College Police

(Ethan Corey) For next year’s Orientation, the College is planning on requiring all Orientation, FOOT, and CEOT leaders to sign a contract stating that they will refrain from drinking alcohol during Orientation (even if they are 21), and, more disturbingly, that they will not be in the same room as any first-year with alcohol. If students violate the contract, they will lose their jobs and face a potential fine or community service. Rumors suggest that the College would like to extend these restrictions (or something similar) to other students on campus for Orientation, with the general goal of creating a “dry campus” for Orientation. Now, I don’t know if these rumors are true, but if they are true, then the College is pursuing a misguided, counterproductive, ill-conceived, overly paternalistic, ineffective, useless, and all-around bad policy. Further restrictions on alcohol use will do very little to actually curtail alcohol use and only push drinking deeper underground, and welcoming the Class of 2017 to campus by effectively shutting down the campus’s already depressing nightlife sends the wrong message to a bunch of eighteen year-olds trying to enjoy the first week of the independence that is concomitant with becoming a college student.

To be fair to the administration, I can sort of understand the administrative reasoning that might go into a decision like this. Alcohol is undeniably linked with sexual assault; sexual assault is especially likely to occur during the first few weeks of college; removing alcohol from the period of greatest vulnerability is probably a good way of reducing sexual assault. But this sort of reasoning conflates the correlation between alcohol consumption and sexual assault with causation. Drinking doesn’t turn otherwise sexually respectful gentlemen into misogynistic, woman-assaulting monsters; it might “reduce one’s ability to read sexual cues,” but rape requires a lot more than a simple misunderstanding. No, sexual violence is the product of a culture that reduces women to sexual objects and glorifies sexual exploitation (for instance). Thus, taking alcohol out of the picture for one week does very little for the rest of the weeks of the year, when, presumably, alcohol will be more readily available.

Moreover, such reasoning assumes that Orientation Week is uniquely dangerous in terms of drinking and sexual violence, but this just isn’t true. While statistics suggest that there are unusually high amounts of heavy drinking and sexual misconduct during Orientation, this has far more to do with the fact that it is often the first time that new students have the independence to go out and party, which leaves them more vulnerable to the risks inherent to binge drinking. Nevertheless, making Orientation Week substance-free will only push all the bad decision-making forward to Labor Day weekend and only make the month of September that much worse for ACEMS and Campus Police. In fact, it is probably better to let first-years make their bad decisions when there are less upper-classmen on campus, so that they gain some valuable experience before the rest of the school gets on campus. Wouldn’t it be better for them to learn their limits when most of the upper-classmen on campus are there as Orientation leaders, FOOT and CEOT leaders, and others who are ostensibly there to help welcome first-years to the College?

In addition, any argument for a dry campus must assume that banning drinking for Orientation Week would actually be successful. This, as most students know, is pure fantasy. Students will drink no matter what; unless campus polices starts raiding students’ rooms unannounced looking for illicit drinking, students will find a way to drink. Of course, one area where an alcohol ban might actually be successful is in discouraging older students from including first-years in their drinking. This, however, would be a bad thing. Integrating new students into the campus community often happens through drinking, whether the administration likes it or not. By encouraging older students to shut the door on alcohol-hungry first-years’ faces, the College would be further dividing the community between new and old, hindering first-years’ efforts to integrate into the College’s social scene and promoting a highly exclusive and hierarchical relationship that leads to disrespect.

Banning drinking during Orientation Week would also just show a total lack of respect for students on the part of the College’s administration. While that wouldn’t be totally surprising, the administration doesn’t need to maintain their negative reputation among students on the alcohol issue. If the College trusts students enough to be Orientation, FOOT, or CEOT leaders, then the College should also trust these students to be responsible in their efforts to welcome first-years to the College. If the College thinks students aren’t mature enough to look out for incoming first-years during Orientation, then it shouldn’t be employing them as Orientation, FOOT, or CEOT leaders.

If the College really thinks a dry Orientation is a good idea, then our administration really has learned nothing from the past six months. Students don’t need or want the College to act like their parents; they need and want the College to help create a safe, strong, and inclusive community that offers respect—and a good time—for all of its members. A substance-free Orientation does nothing to strengthen that community, and probably hurts it. A far more productive way of creating a safe Orientation environment would be to include bystander education as part of the training for Orientation, FOOT, and CEOT leaders and empower students to promote and model safe drinking and sexual respect for new students just entering our community. The College could also create night-time programming for new students that serves both as an alternative and a supplement to the traditional social scene, relieving some of the pressure to drink and creating a safe space for students new and old to interact and get to know one another. Instead, it seems that the College is continuing to pursue a contradictory and schizophrenic approach to drinking that only serves to alienate students and promote unsafe and disrespectful activities.