5 Myths about CMC's Alcohol Culture

Tyler Sonnemaker '15 contributed to reporting.  In early September, over a thousand students flooded back onto CMC’s campus, overflowing with excitement as they reconnected with friends who they hadn’t seen all summer, or, for freshmen, met an entirely new crowd. They came ready to unleash a summer's worth of energy upon an unsuspecting north quad, a slightly more prepared Campus Safety, and a seasoned Dean of Students office.

What does DOS do to prepare for (and guard against) this stampede of amped up college students? Among other things, they have us sign the “Guide to Student Life” handbook, which is our official commitment to abide by campus rules. After that, they expect us to act with some degree of responsibility, safety, and common sense. For the most part, CMC students are pretty good about acting maturely when given privileges. DOS treats us like adults, and most of the time we rise to the challenge.

Earlier this year, however, a few rumors began floating around concerning the alcohol policy and alcohol-related incidents affecting students’ health and safety. We heard buzz about stricter TNC policies, arguments about athletes and freshmen being out of control, and even the dreaded, “They’re going to change the alcohol policy!” Curious and confused, we set out to separate fact from fiction.

After talking with Assistant VP and Dean of Students Mary Spellman and Athletic Director Mike Sutton, we were able to set aside most of these rumors as being far from accurate. So, we wanted to take a minute to debunk a few myths that may have surfaced throughout this semester.

1)   Underage drinking is allowed on campus: FALSE. Spellman was very clear that there is not much room for them to go around the law: if you’re under 21, it’s illegal to drink. The “Event Guidelines” are what allow alcohol to be present at parties. Most often people run into issues when their gathering has gotten too big and they failed to register it. If you’re unsure whether or not to register a pre-game or other event where alcohol will be present, just go in and talk to Jim Nauls, who can answer any questions.

2)   The alcohol policy is going to change: FALSE.  First of all, as noted above, the alcohol policy is not quite what everyone thinks it is. Per the "alcohol policy," students under 21 may not drink on campus. Spellman said that DOS has no intention of changing that policy. And remember, it's actually the Event Guidelines that control how parties work.

3)   Campus Safety’s authority: When Camp Sec rolls up to your pre-game, they aren’t allowed to actually “punish” you. They have a pretty specific routine they follow when they find an unregistered party. First, they call the on-duty dean and inform him or her of what’s going down. The dean will most likely tell them it’s okay, or, if it has gotten too out of hand, he or she will have Camp Sec shut it down. However, Camp Sec officers can write you up, which puts your name on a list that shows up on DOS’s desk every Monday morning, at which point DOS decides what action to take, if any.

4)   TNCs aren’t 5C anymore because the other 5Cs are too broke to help fund them: Sorry, but they actually never were 5C; it’s just that Camp Sec is actually enforcing the ID checks so that students from the other schools can't slip in. However, due to some arduous negotiation by our ASCMC board members, we’ve secured one 5C TNC per month. The issue with 5C TNCs is not money; the biggest issue is location. Because of how big they get, a dorm lounge can't hold everyone, so this limits them to a few locations such as McKenna, the old tennis courts, the Senior Apartments, or Green Beach.

5)   There are way more people getting hospitalized this year: Again, not entirely true. Sutton noted that "obviously we would always prefer for no one to be transported," but this year’s numbers aren’t alarming by any means. Typically, the school sees around ten per year. To specify, these are transports in which an ambulance picks the student up from CMC’s campus, which doesn’t necessarily indicate that the incident happened there or that the student attends CMC.

So far this year, there have been eight transports. While this seems to indicate a higher rate than normal, Spellman doesn't think it's significant enough to merit attention. It is common for the bulk of incidents to come early on in the year, as students are readjusting to the social scene, and many freshmen are adjusting to a new situation in which alcohol is either new or much more readily available. Unfortunately, we could not get a breakdown on how many students have been transported to hospitals by their Resident Assistants.

So, we didn’t find anything unreasonable to rant about; there aren't any new policies, nor have the policies gotten stricter. Instead, what we were able to gather from talking with Spellman and Sutton was a better understanding of their perspective on the role of alcohol in our social culture (perspectives that echo those of many administrators at CMC).

Spellman believes that students feel pressured to drink to fit in among peers, and “some of the messaging that comes out… is that this is what’s expected of CMCers… and even if you’re not going to drink, this is who we are.”

She argued that the majority of students are not the crazy partiers that campus lore would have you believe they are, and she worries that our culture and the messages we send are not respectful of different attitudes regarding alcohol and partying. She quickly explained herself: "I don't think there's anyone at the college that would say we don't want students to have a good, positive social life, but we want to do that in a safe way and in way that honors that...a significant number of students aren't major partiers."

Similarly, Sutton raised the concern that alcohol has become a necessity in our social scene, not a “feature.” Both Spellman and Sutton suggested that perhaps this has something to do with the perceived decrease in party attendance because it discourages students who don't want to drink from showing up, and it means that every event is essentially the same dog and pony show.

Spellman wishes that alcohol would be more of a sideshow and less of a main event, and she thinks "the social culture could be happier if the attitude was more, 'Oh, great event, and I can have a beer.' Instead, alcohol is the reason for the event." In the same vein, Sutton wondered if we "rely on alcohol to have social interaction" but noted that perhaps, up to a point, this isn't a bad thing, as long as it is "enriching your experience and not bringing you down." However, he did note that if he "had a magic wand and could dial it down a bit, I would."

The good news is that neither Spellman nor Sutton proposed unrealistic solutions to these issues. There was no talk of abstinence or prohibition. Sutton remarked that, for the most part, he agrees with the policy, first, because he believes that dry campuses "tend to be less safe" and second, because policies that treat students like adults and allow us to make our own decisions help us "create a community that is thoughtful and respectful."

Rather, they turned to us, the student body, and put the future of our social scene in our hands. Both Sutton and Spellman made a conscious effort to drive home the importance of a student-driven effort to keep an eye out for our friends and to create an environment in which people don’t feel a pressure to drink themselves over the edge. Sutton recognized that it's a tough situation, saying, "It's hard to call each other out, but it's a good skill to have." Spellman smiled wryly as she said she realizes “[it’s not like] y’all are going to come to McKenna Auditorium and [listen to] me tell you, ‘Hey look out for each other.'”

And, quite frankly, she’s right in two major respects: one, we’re not going in McKenna anytime soon unless it’s for TNC, and two, we won’t respond nearly as well to administrators preaching alcohol-safety to us. They don’t want to; we don’t want them to. So, let’s start thinking about each other and our culture and trying to keep our friends safe when they drink because the alternatives don’t sound so appealing.

Sutton laughed as he summed up his opinion: "The College has it mostly right, and it's a tricky issue they're trying to navigate. It's hard for them, and it's hard for you. But I think the best 'policy' I've heard about partying was what John Pritzlaff used to say: 'Have fun, but don't be famous.'"