With Alcohol Policy, Tradition Succumbs to Ebb and Flow

Claremont McKenna’s Dean of Students Office will allow ASCMC to resume registering Thursday night parties this week, after an incident in early September led to heated backroom politicking between the two organizations.

The exchange, which at one point led to a walkout by ASCMC officials, marked a climax in a conflict over alcohol that addresses both realities and perceptions of CMC’s social life.

Student government officials see a change in social culture being imposed by the administration, after the cancellation and suspension of a string of traditional events on campus. The Dean of Students Office (DOS), in contrast, sees a line that has been crossed, a reputation being tarnished and a student body increasingly putting itself in danger.

After three kegs were found at the first Thursday Night Club (TNC) of the year – two more than allowed by college policy – DOS expected “negative ramifications” from the student body once informed of another suspension notice.

“We now have no trust in ASCMC and all the promises they have made us,” one DOS official wrote in an e-mail to staff members.

ASCMC President Tammy Phan echoed the mood.

“I think there's a deeper meaning behind every action they've taken,” she said. “I think ASCMC needs to be very cautious about what DOS is doing.”

Dean of Students Mary Spellman, the subject of much controversy surrounding alcohol policy review over the past several months, reiterated the e-mail’s claim in softer terms.

“The voices that are heard – and the voices that ASCMC caters to, in many ways – are the students that choose to drink,” Spellman said. “You will very rarely hear a group of students stand up publicly on the Forum, or any other forum, and say no. And the college has to serve all students.”

The Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) at UCLA reported in 2009 that 91% of Claremont McKenna students drink beer on a frequent or occasional basis, while 95% report drinking wine or liquor with the same frequency.

CMC’s figures are markedly higher than comparable institutions, UCLA’s report showed, such as Middlebury, Dartmouth and Harvey Mudd.

What students now perceive is an administration hostile to these reports and the publicity that comes with them, such as our presence on Princeton Review’s “Most Beer” list or the Daily Beast’s “Happiest College in America” ranking. With the alteration of TNC and Dry Week, drama around the Thesis Party, and the cancellation of Madrigal – all major events surrounding alcohol – deep suspicion has begun to take root within the CMC community over what the DOS Office intends.

The decision to hire Mary Spellman as Dean of Students last January, on face value, seemed to confirm those suspicions.

THE SPELLMAN HIRE

“Let me take a step back,” Spellman told the Forum. “When I first got here, I did not come with a mandate or an expectation that I would look at alcohol. That was never part of the conversation.”

At the time of Spellman’s arrival, a conservative student blog linked to a report from the Sadie Lou Standard that implied otherwise.

“Responsible, periodic, socially-endorsed drinking seems to be a concept that completely eludes Mary” at Sarah Lawrence, the anonymous student author wrote, claiming Spellman had succeeded at “putting students on the defensive for events.”

Many students made the assumption that Vice President of Student Affairs Jefferson Huang, in charge of the search, was hiring Spellman based on this record.

While Spellman said she stands by her record at Sarah Lawrence, she asserts that the article was skewed. “The particular event in question was a pumpkin carving in the middle of the quad in the early evening,” she noted. “It didn’t necessarily seem appropriate for the event.”

For his part, Huang is deeply displeased with what he sees as the “vilification” of Spellman, who was “absolutely not” hired for her past work on college alcohol policy. “I think she’s been unfairly scapegoated,” he said. “I’d like to think that my word is worth something, and I’m saying I did not hire her to go out there and be the alcohol czar.”

He added: “I have several times asked her, ‘should I be out in front of this?’ And she has said, ‘I’m the Dean of Students, I need to do these things.’”

Spellman does admit to her involvement in the review of alcohol policy at Sarah Lawrence, and even says her “legacy” may very well be a policy that is “perceived as being more stringent.” The college had previously no standard protocol for handling case-by-case drinking indiscretions, and she sat on a committee to organize such a protocol. And while she didn’t chair it, she was responsible for making sure the committee came together – and that it accomplished its aims.

TARGETING THURSDAYS

Whether or not Spellman was brought in for this specific purpose, alcohol policy review was a clear priority to DOS before her arrival, and has been ever since.

In 2009, an Alcohol Task Force was commissioned by Dean Huang to review the state and success of the current college policy.

Among over two dozen suggestions, the task force recommended the reduction of high-risk drinking be designated an “institutional priority by all groups” at the school; a reevaluation of Dry Week dates, which occurred; more Friday class offerings; and a thorough evaluation of the “Hall Monitor” model of residential living.

The Thursday party “phenomenon” was the target of many of the report’s recommendations.

Last year, a record low number of Friday classes were offered – only 4.3% of all classes at the school – partly due to professorial interest in expanded research hours.

“I don’t know if it’s the college policy to diminish Thursdays,” Spellman said. “But it’s not meant to be a party night. And it is concerning to me that more and more students consider their academic week as shorter.”

In recent years, ASCMC has hosted Thursday Night Clubs throughout the campus, often centered around North Quad dorms. The parties in these facilities have proven difficult to control because of their porous structure, and guests, from both CMC and other Claremont Colleges, frequently “front-load” alcohol before the party in the privacy of their own rooms.

One answer to the front-loading, “pre-game” problem is a hall monitor system, where resident assistants are given stricter directives from deans to enforce policy within student rooms.

Dean Huang says such a policy shift is “on the table for consideration,” noting that, in the past, the sanctity of the room has almost always been protected.

“I suppose we could go there,” he said. “I didn’t want to go there, and I don’t think our students want us to. But we don’t generally go looking for problems unless they present themselves to us.”

The combination of enforcement difficulties, DOS officials say, creates a daunting threat to the safety of students on a regular basis. And for the few that don’t participate, it causes notable disturbance.

“We get a fair number of complaints, but they’re usually pretty quiet,” Spellman said. “Those are the students that either suffer in silence, which a lot do, or they don’t want to be known as the person that’s complaining because its not popular. The popular sentiment is that Thursday night is our party night, and that CMC throws great parties.”

She added: “You may want a CMC education, but you may not want the CMC party culture.”

A ‘PARTY’ REPUTATION

There is no reasonable evidence to believe the administration has a clear, set plan – or a “conspiracy,” as Dean Huang called it – to crack down on alcohol. But there is certainly concern amongst its officials over the direction that drinking is pushing the school’s image.

“The college wouldn’t be doing its job if we didn’t talk about the things that impact students coming here,” Spellman asserted.

Spellman agrees that it is not about a shortage of applicants, with CMC accepting just 15% of students who apply. “But do you want that reputation to be attached to your degree?” she asked rhetorically. “It’s not just a reputational issue and us wanting to be perceived as the best; it’s what it says about you, and the experience you had, and the degree.”

“It’s reputational in that aspect, and in a very powerful way,” she continues. “It snowballs. That’s how schools get reputations.”

Other members of the administration blame various articles and rankings on the Internet for promoting the party image, which, to some, appears mutually exclusive with academic rigor.

“I don’t want us compared to a lot of schools we’re often compared to on the party list, because I don’t think they’re very good academic schools,” Huang asserted. “I think it discredits the institution to do that.”

Asked whether CMC could be called a party school today, Huang replied: “We’re creeping into that zone. I worry about that.”

The admissions office has been challenged most directly by the reputation question, and its dean, Richard Vos, has expressed concern. Over the past year, overnight stays offered to prospective students on Thursday nights have been cancelled, and some of the best candidates, he told the Forum, have cited the college’s drinking culture as the reason they chose to enroll elsewhere.

“For the past few years Jeff Huang, Pamela Gann, and I have been talking about the effect on CMC's admission program as a result of the negative perception,” Vos said. “We have evidence that the perception that CMC has a strong drinking culture has hurt our admission efforts.”

It brings up a question prospective applicants ask themselves frequently: is it possible to have it all?

CMC students clearly think they can. When ranked the happiest college in the country last year, students prided themselves on their ability to balance work and play by citing the ranking’s methodology, which compiled a mix of data from both U.S. News and College Prowler guidebooks.

“Students here are treated like adults,” Phan stated. “Part of our education is learning how to socialize and network in the real world, and the real world includes alcohol.”

Huang, on the other hand, had mixed feelings on the ranking. “You know, I’d rather be two or three,” he said. “One is a tough place to be.”

CIRP at UCLA found that 58% of Claremont McKenna students partied 3-10 hours a week, versus comparable schools, where the number stood at 40%.

Acknowledging the worry, Dorm Activities Chair Alexander Reichert, who coordinates Thursday night events, rejected the notion as paranoia at best, derision at worst.

“Some say that Dartmouth has a party school reputation, but nobody compares Dartmouth to ASU,” Reichert stated. “We’re absolutely not a party school. Labeling us as one not only insults the faculty and the alumni. It insults the students, who continue to demonstrate success in whatever field they choose to pursue.”

Nevertheless, the worry is growing. And it may explain why parties, as students have lived them, are changing in tone and frequency.

“I want it to be the place where students are incredibly talented, and gifted, and hardworking, and they also happen to throw some kick-ass parties,” Spellman added. “That’s very different than being a party school.”

WHAT ABOUT TRADITION?

To ASCMC, the core issue is really what is at stake beyond the day-to-day drink: the tradition of CMC students being able to just enjoy it.

That tradition has manifested in various forms over the years, from day parties on Green Beach to Keg Thursdays in North Quad.

Students argue that they chose this school in part for such freedoms, and that a college’s alcohol policy is a barometer for how much it trusts its students.

But that position assumes the student culture has historically been constant, that traditions at the college have had long lives, and that parties today are of similar scale to parties thrown twenty years ago. And that does not appear to be the case.

Jim Nauls, the Assistant Dean of Students who has been with the college for seventeen years, remembers a period when parties had a dozen kegs, a period when parties charged students entry, and another period when bartenders were hired for every event.

“It’s constantly evolving,” Nauls said. “It tends to reach this peak every three or four years, when new students come in and the old ones leave, and people tend to forget how things were.”

Huang, who has been with the college as long as Nauls, shared similar sentiments.

“I can remember a time when the Senior Thesis Party was a champagne toast. Then I remember the time when the speakers came out. Then I remember when faculty started complaining about the music. Then I remember, just recently, a student had her laptop damaged and, just this past spring, someone was injured by broken glass.”

Since the college officially went co-ed in the mid-70s, the nature of its traditions has changed. Few have stuck. With the changeover in students every few years, a mental relapse occurs, and traditions, first crystallizing, never fully form.

But ASCMC, to its credit, has made efforts to change that.

“The registrar's office used to give out champagne to every senior who turned in their thesis, which led to the fountain party,” Phan added. “They stopped doing that. ASCMC stepped in to foot the bill. And Madrigals never started with ASCMC, but with the threat of losing it, Brad Walters revived it when he was president. And we're doing the same thing now.”

“We try to preserve the culture here,” she continued, “as we know it.”

So whether change is due to student actions or wobbly policy is up for debate. But as a result, what exists of CMC traditions has succumbed to the ebb and flow of our drinks and our tolerance for it all.