How should administrators handle student-sponsored events that feature alcohol? Or, for that matter, half-naked partygoers dressed in caution tape?
It isn't just an academic issue for justifiably cautious student life coordinators and campus safety officials, who have not only substance-related injuries to worry about, but the potential for sexual abuse as well. A number of campus parties known for risqué themes have ended in multiple hospitalizations in recent years, causing a swift response from administrators. Brown University's notorious "Sex Power God," for one, has historically been a metaphorical (at least) orgy of partially clad or costumed students sponsored by the Queer Alliance student group. It was temporarily placed on probation when the event ended with 24 hospitalizations in 2005.
"The university concentrates its education and outreach efforts on behavior that threatens student health and safety -- alcohol and substance abuse, vandalism, threatening behavior, physical violence -- and intervenes when student health and safety are at risk," Margaret Klawunn, Brown's associate vice president of campus life and dean for student life, said in a prepared statement.
Students tend not to appreciate official incursions into their social lives; there was grumbling at Columbia University this week about an alleged crackdown on dorm parties.
But crackdowns pose some vexing issues for campus administrators, too: the knowledge that overstepping their bounds could send more students into closed dorm rooms or unlisted parties off campus.
Just last week, Brandeis University informed a student group that its "Wear Anything But Clothes" fund raising dance -- in which students were to pay $1 to $4 for admission based on how creatively they covered themselves without actually donning clothes -- could not take place as planned this weekend. The administration claims that concerns over drinking or sexuality were not the reason for the decision, although an earlier event held by the same group, Liquid Latex, allowed the least-clad students to pay the lowest entrance fees and ended with three cases of alcohol intoxication.
A chief concern for administrators is how to attract students to on-campus events while keeping the themes relevant and worthwhile. Since students can always go to parties not under the supervision of the university, "we work hard to have students be attracted to on-campus events, and to have those events have sound social, educational and recreational value to them," said Rick Sawyer, the vice president for student affairs and dean of student life at Brandeis, in an e-mail.
"We also have tried to have balance in our practice which lets students know that we care about their health, that we care about their ability to find an appropriate and safe social life and that our practice recognizes that the vast majority of our students are mature and responsible and don't need to be 'parented' by us," he said.
Sometimes that means offering alcohol at university-sponsored events. There are three locations on campus licensed to serve students of drinking age, Sawyer said, although the canceled event didn't fall into that category. He added: "Our students like to have a good time. For the most part they do not feel that getting high or drunk is a requirement. They like the feeling of trust that we share by allowing alcohol to be a regulated part of the program, whether they are of legal age or not."
Dianne Ma, a co-coordinator of Liquid Latex, which raises funds for an annual performance of students slathered in the group's jellylike namesake, said that drinking is "still obviously very prevalent, and I don’t think the administration can do anything about it."
She added that creative, edgy events like the "Wear Anything But Clothes" dance attract students who might otherwise be drinking off campus. "Probably more people are gravitating towards off-campus parties and especially the frat parties ... just because we haven’t had any dances," the junior said.
Brown may always retain some association with spirited free-for-alls, and some colleges may be more hard-drinking than others. But the underlying concerns over safety and responsibility, balanced with student freedom, apply everywhere.
"We are not unhappy with the culture of parties that are held on campus, with or without alcohol," Sawyer said. "In regards to parties off campus where alcohol is present, my wish for a change in culture is universal to all campuses -- students hosting unapproved parties should better understand the responsibility that the hosting implies and the price to be paid should someone get hurt as a result of attending their party."
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