Drinking in tradition
College students keep alcohol in core curriculum
By Linda Temple: Special for USA TODAY Feb.30, 1998
Spring break's splashy metamorphosis into a week-long public
drunk has made it one of the most recognizable of today's college
Meanwhile, waves of evidence indicate that student drinking is
out of control, from the string of agonizing campus deaths that closed
out 1997 to the more recent news from Harvard researchers that nearly
half of today's college students are binge drinkers.
But while worried adults scramble to dry out the campus,
students defend alcohol's ritualized role, handing down their
high-octane traditions to the 1 million new freshmen entering U.S.
colleges every year.
"The first time I got seriously drunk at college was during
Welcome Week," says Brian Kemppainen, a senior at Michigan State
University, Lansing. "A street was blocked off, and about 2,000 of us
were down there every night, with kegs at every house. It was a really
On nearly every campus there are rituals to be learned and songs
to be sung.
"Fill the steins to dear old Maine" begins the University of
Maine's drinking anthem. University of California at Berkeley students
sing, "And when the game is over we will buy a keg of booze, and drink
to California 'til we wobble in our shoes."
Ivy Leaguers at the University of Pennsylvania toast dear, old
Penn with "a high-ball at nightfall," and even a newly minted rambling
wreck from Georgia Tech knows that a hell of an engineer will "drink
his whisky clear."
Students say that when they find themselves surrounded by
drinkers – 85% of those on today's campuses - the warnings they've been
pummeled with since childhood become a distant echo.
"Alcohol has been so demonized, of course it's attractive;' says
Uni-versity of Colorado at Boulder senior Andrew Simons.
On campus it's as common as ketchup. "During the first month or
so you're scared to get caught with it," says Fred Dill, a senior at
Ball State University in Indiana, "but pretty soon it's all around you."
They've seen the headlines, but most feel the risks are
"A few freak accidents and all of a sudden it's a big issue,"
says Michigan State's Kemppainen. "People are going to drink, and
nothing's going to change that."
"Most of the people dying are inexperienced freshmen," says
Jason Dimberg, 22, a California State Polytechnic University senior.
"If I drank then as much as I drink now, I'd have been in the hospital
on a daily basis. You throw up and pass out, but eventually your
Epic acts of alcoholic stupidity form the basis of a rich oral
history, and the most legendary excesses are burnished and passed down
like treasured heirlooms.
"My sister used to tell us how drunk she got and how people had to
carry her home," says Mitchell Whaley, a University of Mississippi
senior. "I brought to college the mind set that the more you're
drinking, the more fun you're having."
"During slide shows, the fraternities show you what their
parties are like and how crazy they can get," says sophomore Mac
Monteith, 19, also of Mississippi. "You think, 'I want to be that
crazy. I want to be in some of these pictures next year.'"
Shot glasses and beer mugs stamped with school crests and
mascots can be scooped from campus bookstore shelves along with the
textbooks and other essentials. "Peo\ple line them up on their dorm
windowsills," says Dianne Reis, 18, a Penn State freshman. "But they're
pretty much for show. Everybody drinks out of plastic."
Fake IDs can be snapped up for as little as $20, and although
about 60% of underage college drinkers say they carry them, many say
using them is hardly necessary.
"Most people just go to frat parties or dorms;' says Erin Matts,
21, a junior at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. Residence
advisers, purportedly the front line in the war on dorm drinking, have
always made lousy cops, she says.
"We had parties all the time. Our RA didn't care."
One "bought a keg for us," says Jeff Parker, a senior at
Creighton University in Omaha. The RA then disabled an alarm so the
beer could be hoisted through a fire escape, he says. "They understand."
Steve Kline, director of public relations and information at
Creighton, says: "We require that our students obey laws regarding
alcohol use, Illegal or inappropriate use of alcohol is prohibited.
"We do have some resources in place to assist students who might
have alcohol problems."
Consequences for getting caught range from written warnings to
mandatory alcohol counseling, and while repeat offenders can be ousted
from a dorm and even expelled, such cases are reportedly rare.
"If you get caught by somebody who gives a damn, they usually
just tell you to pour it out," says Mississippi's Monteith.
Amid the flourishing alcohol task forces and high-profile
aversion strategies are many well entrenched double standards, students
"This is supposedly a dry campus, but you see people drinking on
the porch of the president's house," says senior Dimberg of Cal Poly.
Kegs are toted into the gym for the pre-game parties of alumni, he
says. "The rules only apply to some people."
Alumni, whose donations make up as much as a third of some
college budgets and total nearly $3 billion nationally, "would go
ballistic" if liquor bans were enforced, says University of Mississippi
Drinking in his school's venerable Grove before football games
is a revered alumni tradition, he says. "You can’t bite the hand that
Alumni aren't the only adults who drink with students. Creighton
junior Scott Anderson says he and his 21-and-over classmates went
drinking at their professor's invitation last fall. "He's such a cool
guy that it didn't surprise me. He used to be in a chapter of my
Such customs date to the ancient Greeks, says University of
Colorado senior Simons. "Plato used to get drunk with Socrates. It's
always been a part of the culture."
More visible Greek traditions are under high-profile attack.
Many students feel that the watering down of their fraternity rituals
is designed to shield schools from liability, not safe-guard students'
With things heating up on Greek row, many students are simply
Sports clubs and other social groups are helping fill the
breach, and club sponsored trips on beer stocked buses to ski resorts
and beaches are increasingly popular.
Many universities are promoting alcohol free events, but
students say response has been flat.
"Nobody goes to them, not even nondrinkers," says Bob Wahl, a
sophomore at Florida State University, Tallahassee. "People who don't
drink want to be where everybody else is. They just go to regular
parties and don't drink."
Calls for abstinence have a hypocritical ring, students say, in
a society where drinkers make up a nearly two-thirds majority. "Alcohol
is a way of life for people in general, not just college students,"
says Chris Brown, 22, of the University of Colorado.
"Some people feel they need to regulate our morality," says
sophomore Michael Zivin of Cornell Uni-versity in Ithaca, N.Y. "But
we're not party animals, just stressed out students who need to unwind
on the weekends."
"It would be hard to imagine college without alcohol," says Matts
of Colgate. "People think, 'When I get out, I won't be a staggering
drunk four nights a week.' But I'm young, these are my golden years,
and I'm going to have as much fun as possible because as soon as I'm
out I'll have to bust my tail."
Contributing: Emily Boling at the University of Mississippi, Oxford,
and Heidi Juersivich at Creighton University, Omaha.