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 drinking rituals.
  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 big deal."
  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 exaggerated.
  "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 tolerance increases."
  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 say.
  "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 senior Whaley.
  Drinking in his school's venerable Grove before football games is a revered alumni tradition, he says. "You can’t bite the hand that feeds you."
  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 fraternity."
  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' health.
  With things heating up on Greek row, many students are simply drinking elsewhere,
  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.