Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Over the past two years, no issue has dominated campus discourse like the new alcohol policy. Introduced in fall 2014, the new policies banned hard alcohol at registered parties, introduced a medical amnesty pardoning underage drinkers seeking help, and cracked down on “DJ funding,” a loophole that allowed students to get college funding for alcohol under the guise of paying a DJ.
By the end of October, the Phoenix had published three editorials criticizing the new alcohol policy. Although the third—titled “Yet another bad decision, poorly made”—asserts that the editorial board is “tired, very tired, of running editorials about alcohol policy,” students continued to attack the changes, claiming they created a culture of pregaming, limited queer life on campus, and decreased the diversity of parties, to name a few criticisms.
This year, students have taken these critiques even further, linking the shifts in alcohol policy to other unpopular policy changes, such as the shortening of senior week and new restrictions on PE credit. Some op-eds argue these changes are part of a larger administrative effort to “regulate fun” or create a “new Swarthmore.”As one anonymous senior put it, “there is a small part of me that is glad I’m leaving before Swarthmore changes even more.”
Earlier this semester, The Daily Gazette went through our own archives to see whether the policy changes were apparent in Public Safety’s case log, which we’ve published every week since fall 2012 as “The Swatter.” We found that since 2012, the number of alcohol incidents at major parties has been generally increasing, which bolsters the claim that harsher alcohol policies promote unsafe drinking habits.
For this article, we decided to dig deeper. We went through all of Public Safety’s weekly crime logs since fall 2011—before the Gazette started publishing them—and built a database with the category and location of every incident, broken down by semester.
Critics of the college are right in that alcohol incidents have generally increased since fall 2011. Below is a graph showing the number of alcohol-related incidents in each semester we looked through. Our numbers are slightly different from the ones in the college’s annual Clery Act Report in that we counted every entry that mentioned a drunken student, regardless of whether they were disciplined. We also didn’t count incidents that occurred outside the semester or didn’t involve any Swarthmore students.
That said, it’s not clear that this increase is all due to the new alcohol policy. In fact, the most intense period of growth was from spring 2012 to fall 2013, while DJ funding didn’t end until fall 2014.
One possible explanation for the uptick in reports is that students are just more likely to call Public Safety than they used to be. Michael Wheeler ‘16, a current RA who has also worked as a Party Associate (the predecessor to Swat Team) his first year and a Swat Team manager for the past three, said that RAs and Swat Team members are encouraged to call for help more than in years past. Lihu Ben-Ezri-Ravin ‘16, another RA who has worked with Swat Team for the past three years, agreed.
“My freshman year, you’d see [Party Associates] physically hauling passed out drunk people back to the dorms; this is (thankfully) no longer the case,” Ben-Ezri-Ravin wrote in an email. “Moreover, I think people are getting more comfortable calling Public Safety in borderline situations, just to be safe. I’m honestly really happy about this, and I think it speaks to a lot of good work from both Public Safety and the administration.”
Additionally, students may feel more comfortable calling Public Safety because of the medical amnesty policy the college introduced, Dean of Students Liz Braun said.
“Another thing the numbers can’t tell you is that we’ve had many more reports of students who aren’t seriously intoxicated but intoxicated enough that their friend is concerned about them, because there is less fear of getting a friend ‘in trouble,’ ” Braun wrote in an email.
The numbers are more supportive of another criticism students have made: that the lack of DJ funding pushes alcohol to dorms and fraternities. The graph below shows the percentage of incidents recorded in either a dorm or a frat by semester.
The percentage of incidents at dorms and frats is significantly higher after the new alcohol policy than before. One possible explanation is that the demise of DJ funding left frats as the primary source of free alcohol.
“[DJ funding] democratized party hosting. It meant that any student, any Swattie, could reserve Paces, throw a party, it was funded by the school, and it was open to everyone,” said Razi Shaban ‘16. “I didn’t appreciate it until we lost it. Because now, it’s the frats that throw parties, because they have access to capital, because they have money, they buy alcohol, and they have the space, so they get away with it.”
Others counter that, regardless of the negative effects removing DJ funding may have had on student life, the old policy meant that the college was effectively buying alcohol for minors, and Swarthmore isn’t immune to federal and state laws.
“I didn’t appreciate [DJ funding] until we lost it.”
– Razi Shaban ’16
“We can’t change the law. We’ve tried to live with it. There’s the potential for pushing alcohol underground, and therefore it might be the people putting themselves in more danger than if you’re dealing with it in some other way,” said Maurice Eldridge ‘61, vice president for college and community relations. “The tricks people are using in how they have alcohol, in how they’re recording what they’re spending—I don’t know if we’re putting them on the path to an honest life if you just ignore that.”
As an alum and a longtime administrator, Eldridge has a uniquely informed perspective on alcohol policy shifts—Swarthmore has a rich tradition of “new alcohol policies” since the Student Activities Committee (SAC) was first formed in 1988 to fund social events. Within a year, the college had added two extra members to the committee specifically to enforce penalties on misusing funds, due to what a 1989 Phoenix article cited as a “growing consciousness of how special our alcohol policy is and how vulnerable we are.” In 1993, the college formed an Alcohol Policy Review Committee to make sure it was compliant with federal law. Four years later, SAC cracked down on groups using fake receipts to cover up alcohol purchases, despite student complaints that, “if we’re all responsible drinkers,” SAC funds should be “used for alcohol as much as for pretzels,” as one student told the Phoenix at the time.
Another round of alcohol policy changes happened in response to undercover police raiding Delta Upsilon’s (DU) 1999 Margaritaville party, resulting in 27 arrests for underage drinking. The Dean’s Advisory Council discussed reforms such as outside audits on receipts or opening direct accounts at stores for party purchases, which SBC objected to on the grounds that “those implementing the policy would become very unpopular very fast, thus making it next to impossible to find the people for the job.” However, the updated 2001 alcohol policy ultimately only required Party Associates (PAs) to check students’ ID’s and stamp the hands of those 21 and over so that student bartenders would know whom to serve.
The college cracked down on receipt fraud once again in 2006. This happened in response to an incident where a drunken student threw a coffee table from the Sharples balcony, which landed on the head of a student below. Rather than call an ambulance, PAs walked the injured student to Benjamin West, from which Public Safety drove her to the hospital. In his Phoenix column, PA and future Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu ‘08 accused them of endangering her life to avoid attracting attention to the college’s illegal funding of alcohol. Chu wrote that “the college has effectively cut itself off from the legal system by directly encouraging illegal behavior on a massive scale.”
The crackdown on SAC-funded alcohol was actually preceded by DU making its own alcohol policy stricter, getting rid of kegs and open containers and starting to dilute mixed drinks. They were motivated by a desire to “look out for ourselves and make sure that when people come to DU, they can be sure they’ll be safe,” according to a DU brother quoted in a 2005 Daily Gazette article. Even further, he said, the fraternity was in favor of stricter policies by the administration: “My fraternity brothers and alumni I’ve spoken with all agree—it’s about time the administration has done something.”
“[T]he college has effectively cut itself off from the legal system by directly encouraging illegal behavior on a massive scale.”
– Arthur Chu ’08, writing in 2006.
What bridges the gap between DU calling for stricter alcohol policies from the administration and “regulating fun at Swarthmore”? As Chu pointed out, the old policies were a liability, which became a problem when federal investigators arrived in fall 2013 to look into the college’s mishandling of sexual assault cases.
“With the submission of the Title IX complaint and the Clery Act complaint [about mishandling sexual assault], Swarthmore began to receive a lot of federal attention, or was anticipating an investigation,” Shaban said. “So I think in response to that, the school made a number of decisions to limit liability, to basically put on paper things that looked good, so that when the investigators came, they could say, look at all these things that we did or have been doing.”
Both the Title IX and Clery Act complaints were part of a larger period of student unrest during the spring 2013 semester, famously dubbed in a campus-wide email by College President Rebecca Chopp as “the spring of our discontent.”
The discontent Chopp referred to was a result of several separate issues all coming together during that semester. The revelation that the college had been mishandling sexual assault provoked outrage within much of the student body. This gave momentum to the Swat Vote Yes campaign, which pushed for a student referendum to abolish greek life at Swarthmore on the grounds that the fraternities were more likely to shelter perpetrators. There were repeated incidents of urination on the Intercultural Center door, which sparked tension between students. At the same time, Mountain Justice’s campaign for divestment was gaining more and more momentum.
“A lot of people who had never at all really been interested in campus politics became very involved and very interested. I’d never seen such fractious debate about things,” said Danny Hirschel-Burns ‘14, who wrote an article last year on that spring’s legacy. “People were really suspicious and really oppositional toward the administration in a way I hadn’t seen before […] every event that they held had the potential to be just totally volatile. And that I think was new for most people, at least most students. It felt like a real break with the past.”
While much of the tension during spring 2013 was between students and the administration, there was arguably even more animosity between students.
“To me, what characterized that spring, and what made it so unpleasant was the fact that, more than any other year, the campus was tangibly fractured along ideological lines,” Ben-Ezri-Ravin wrote. “There were large swaths of people that you’d hate before ever meeting, which was particularly constricting given the size of our campus.”
However, the intense atmosphere of the college also allowed some students to bond over shared experiences and values.
“There was definitely a sense that you kind of had to watch what you said, and that there were these issues that were really driving people apart. But I think the part that I felt that I think is kind of getting erased is also the intense camaraderie,” said Allison Hrabar ‘16, who was a member of Swat Vote Yes. “We were commenting and talking about all this stuff in a very different way than I think we talk about school issues now. You don’t make friends based on your opinion of the schedule change.”
While the referendum to abolish greek life completely was voted down by 61% of students on April 7, 2013, the campus atmosphere remained tense.
The spirit of discontent reached its peak on May 4, at a Board of Managers meeting in Sci 101. Originally set up as open session where students and board members could give presentations on divestment, the meeting took a different turn roughly one minute into the first presentation, when Mountain Justice President Pat Walsh ‘14 interrupted the speaker to announce that the format of the meeting would shift to an open forum where students, faculty, and administrators could voice their concerns with the Board (video of the announcement). As he spoke, more than a hundred students walked into and encircled the room.
For the most part, administrators and board members sat and listened as students spoke about a variety of issues, accusing the administration of mishandling sexual assault, lack of response to student concerns, and lack of support for students of color.
Perhaps the most controversial action the group of students took was to “clap down” Danielle Charette ‘14, a student in the audience who stood up about ten minutes into the student presentations to protest the changes in the meeting’s format. The video below shows Charette, a member of Swarthmore Conservative Society, arguing with the students for roughly a minute before the group starts to clap loudly in unison, silencing her.
“Clapping down Danielle Charette, I think, is the biggest mistake we made, because we thought she was a manager,” said Hrabar, who was at the meeting. Before the takeover, she said, the students organizing the takeover had agreed not to clap down any fellow students, which they also stated in their apology letter following the incident.
“She was sitting in the middle of the board of managers, and she was wearing khakis and a sweater,” Hrabar said. “No one knew who she was. It wasn’t that ‘Danielle Charette is conservative, let’s not let her talk.’ It was ‘let’s make sure the students are talking and that this adult’s not interrupting them.’”
While Charette accepted the apology on behalf of the Swarthmore Conservative Society, she denounced the meeting and the organizers in a scathing op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal on May 15. Titled “My Top-Notch Illiberal Arts Education,” the article was another one of the many negative stories about Swarthmore that appeared in the national media that spring.
The Board of Managers did little to protest the takeover at the time; in fact, two members, Nate Erskine ‘10 and Susan Levine ‘78, lined up and spoke. However, the takeover did increase tension between the student body and administrators, many of whom resented the students’ tactics.
“It was a bit manipulative in one way, because Mountain Justice folks at that time realized that they didn’t really have a breadth of allies, and so they decided to take their opportunity and give it over to other people who had grievances, so that would give them access to those people as supporters,” Eldridge said. “In any case, that’s my perspective. It’s not everybody’s perspective. But the way it was done, was really uncivil. And some people who may even have agreed with what was intended were alarmed that the administration just sat and took it.”
While the tension between different groups of students from the spring of discontent has somewhat subsided as more and more of the students who were there graduate, the tension between students and the administration still lingers.
However, some students maintain that the current student frustrations with administrative policy are separate from the issues student activists were confronting during the spring of discontent.
“No one had a problem with vague, neither here-nor-there policies when the result was students getting free alcohol,” Ben-Ezri-Ravin wrote. “When people discuss party policies or calendar changes, it’s rooted in a sense of entitlement toward what they’ve lost, and results in students banding together to scapegoat some poor fuck in the OSE […] During spring 2013, there was so much more student against student anger. When people were angry at the administration then, it was because of what they *didn’t* do, rather than what they did.”
“No one had a problem with vague, neither here-nor-there policies when the result was students getting free alcohol.”
– Lihu Ben-Ezri-Ravin ‘16
Additionally, SAC-funded alcohol was always destined to end sooner or later as long as it was a liability, regardless of whether the Title IX investigation happened or not. The loss of DJ funding is outweighed by the college’s broad changes in sexual assault policy, as well as the addition of a full-time Title IX coordinator and numerous staff, Hrabar said.
“Those are very good improvements that came along with the alcohol policy,” Hrabar said. “I think that people shit on the alcohol policy changes too much, because it’s really easy to blame the activism for, and it’s really easy to say ‘the activists took away our fun.’ It wasn’t a sustainable measure, and frankly, it’s not a huge sacrifice. People can still drink at Swarthmore.”
However, some of the legacy of the spring of discontent persists in the changed relationship between students and the administration, which now has a bigger presence at student events.
“My freshman year [at Worthstock], there were no inflatables, there were no food trucks, there were no security guards patting down your bag when you went into the courtyard,” said Ariel Rock ‘16. “I understand, again, liability […] but it didn’t feel as artificial. It didn’t feel like it was manufactured by the administration, it felt like it was part of some larger student vibe. And that’s gone now.”
However, some students are still optimistic that the relationship between students and the administration will eventually reach some kind of equilibrium, where they can collaborate to come up with student life policies that both groups are happy with.
“I think that there’s kind of a responsibility on both sides to make this work, and I think that sometimes the students are to blame, sometimes we do ask for unreasonable changes or unreasonable things, or we don’t really take into consideration the restraints that maybe apply to a lot of the administrators,” said Veda Khadka ‘16, outgoing Swat Team director. “I think that with a little bit of work on both sides, there could be a compromise. It could be reached. I don’t know what it would look like […] but there is room there, and I am hopeful.”
Disclosure: Allison Hrabar ’16 is the co-Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Gazette. She was not involved in the production of this article.
Correction: Danny Hirschel-Burns is a member of the class of 2014, not 2013.