Taming St. Patrick's Daze

February 29, 2008

The drinking has already begun. You might be reading this first thing Friday, but somewhere on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus, students are pounding beers. They've been up since dawn on this "Unofficial St. Patrick's Day," ready to hit the bars before noon and keep it going throughout the weekend.

Somewhere on campus an administrator has a headache. How much debauchery will there be today? A professor is planning his class but wondering how many students will show. And will they be sober? A police officer is preparing to issue her first alcohol citation of the day. What will be the final tally?

Nearly every year at Illinois, the real St. Patrick's Day falls over spring break. As a way to make up for lost money, local bars began to celebrate an "unofficial" day of revelry at a time when students are still on campus.

University leaders have never been fond of the celebration, but this year one high-ranking official has taken a more public stand. Richard Herman, Illinois's chancellor, told the Champaign City Council this week that he'd like to see the event abolished -- or at least greatly curtailed.

“We’re working hard to build our reputation," said Robin Kaler, a university spokeswoman. "When you have an event like this that brands you as a party school, that doesn’t help build an image as a world-class research institution.”

Especially when the event might be doubling in length. A local bar owner is promoting this year's celebration as a Friday and Saturday event, though some other local owners haven't warmed up to the idea.

Herman has suggested not opening bars until 5 p.m. either today or Saturday (taverns typically let students in well before noon for the event), and setting a temporary 21-year-old age limit to enter (19-year-olds are commonly allowed into establishments but cannot drink.)

No action was taken on the chancellor's proposals, but the city has made its own stand. Champaign's mayor, under his authority as liquor commissioner, issued an emergency order regulating the sale of alcohol in licensed liquor establishments for today and Saturday.

Under that order, bars in town can't serve alcohol before 11 a.m., or serve pitchers of beer or shots of hard liquor. Drinks must be served in paper or plastic cups, and a doorman over the age of 21 is required to check identification during all hours of operation. The mayor's office is also sticking to a one-keg-per-off-campus-residence policy.

Even so, local hospitals are gearing up for a busy weekend. (Two years ago, a recent Illinois graduate died on "Unofficial" day when she fell off her motorcycle.) Last year, police gave out more than 150 alcohol-related citations, Kaler said. That's up from just over 100 the previous year -- which the university sees as a sign of the event's growth.

The majority of offenders aren't Illinois students, Kaler said. They are people -- students or otherwise -- who are visiting campus for the weekend.

The second-semester bash is common to many colleges; it just happens that Illinois's is among the first on the calendar. Administrators can do little to regulate the actions of students away from campus, but in a time of much concern over liability and safety, they are exerting greater control of what happens within their borders.

For the second straight year, Herman sent a letter to parents asking them to talk to students about their conduct over the weekend. Illinois's provost sent a message to faculty and other staff reminding them that the "university does not support or condone this [business] promotion,"and giving professors advice on dealing with disruptive students. (The message: Avoid confrontation and seek assistance.)

Student affairs and academic affairs staff will be walking through academic buildings where drunken students have visited in past years. Ushers from the basketball arena will be used to check students for illegal drinks as they're entering buildings and rooms. Campus police officers are being stationed near the buildings, and the university has set in place a no-guest policy in dorms over the weekend.

Marella Maybell, an Illinois sophomore, said despite the university's efforts, the event continues to put Illinois in a bad light. Cracking down on students who bring guests to campus won't do the trick, she added, because visitors will just stay in hotels.

"Sure, there will be tickets, citations and arrests, but for what? So they can post bail and go back to drinking," Maybell said. "The only way to fix the mayhem that happens on this campus year after year is to drastically modify the type of events that are being pubbed, or if all else fails, cancel it."
Stuart Warren, an Illinois senior, said that while the event has grown over the years, the university's increased action hasn't been an effective counter.

"If anything the attempts to crack down are getting more people interested," he said, adding that if students aren't drinking in bars they will do so unsupervised on campus.

Or, as some hope, they'll be playing video games and eating popcorn. For this year's event, the Religious Worker's Association, an interfaith campus group, is sponsoring alcohol-free alternatives across the campus. One event is being held at McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church, which is a block away from many of the bars.

"The thought was rather than complain about the problem, because it becomes a big drunken party for many, let's provide alternatives for those who don't drink or may be on the fence," said Rev. Keith Harris, an associate pastor.

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