Matt Carberry (kingpin248) wrote,
Matt Carberry

Alcohol and Adulthood on the East Hill

Two years ago, it was the new Greek system rules. Last year, it was the call to "end pledging." By definition, that made it a tradition, and it's apparently time to renew the tradition of an annual post on Cornell's social life. This year, the occasion is merely an editorial in The Cornell Daily Sun, Hannah Deixler's "Uncle Ezra, Bring Back the Frat." She might be right about the immediate effects of the Cornell administration's policy on fraternity parties, but it's the equivalent of crying over spilled milk, and I have some issues with her along the way.

First, I should restate that I never was in or considered joining a fraternity, either at Cornell or later at Hofstra. At CU, I was in the marching band, which always makes me want to point out that in my day (insert image of shaking fist here), we had parties with both beer and other beverages, they were self-serve, and we had no problem handling ourselves. But every time I have that thought, I check myself and realize that comparing the band to the other parties in Collegetown is essentially apples to baseballs. Generally, those band parties are closed parties. If the three young women Deixler mentions had arrived at the front door of Bonehouse and been unable to identify who had invited them, they quite probably would have been asked to leave. Even first semester freshmen at band parties know the people in their section, and as that semester goes along, they gradually get to know people in other sections. Thus it isn't really fair to claim that the open parties (like the one that led to a porch collapse) can be expected to step right in and keep new students safe, just because the parties I attended more than a decade ago were able to do so.

What Deixler advocates for ultimately goes to the role of the university in loco parentis. To phrase it more modernly, are college students adults in a meaningful sense of the word? Leaving aside the rights and privileges (save for legal alcohol consumption) conferred upon them on their eighteenth birthday, I don't believe there's clear consensus here. A few months ago, a friend of mine asked me, "Matt, am I an adult?" After a few seconds of thought, I answered in the affirmative. My friend, a 23 year old graduate student, told me I had answered incorrectly. And I feel like I've read innumerable columns in the Sun that either imply or state outright a belief that the so-called "real world" begins at commencement. By contrast, I was imbued with the notion that adulthood did indeed begin at eighteen. From leaving promptly after my things had been unloaded on the day I arrived at Cornell to compelling me to repay the funds they'd lent me to go there, my parents made it clear to me that they'd be there to help along the way, but that I was fully responsible for my choices from that point on.

How does Deixler answer the question? From my reading, she tries to have it both ways. In her penultimate paragraph, she declares that Cornell students "are, for the most part, responsible, driven and intelligent adults." Yet she goes on to extol the virtue of a fraternity basement thusly: "a way to have fun in a safe and controlled way." She then makes the following overbroad generalization:
Without any structure, [freshmen] have to figure it out on their own, which only ends badly.
With all due respect, I give freshmen a bit more credit; I'm sure they can find ways to navigate their new array of opportunities without it necessarily ending badly. What Deixler seems to want is the restoration of an option that, if exercised, restricts the choices of students, so that they might be less likely to harm themselves - in essence, a social playpen.

Maybe that's not the best analogy. Perhaps a better one is a pool, and these hard liquor-free parties Deixler is so fond of are like swimmies. Basically, what Cornell did here was take the swimmies away and stick a knife in each one so it can't ever be inflated again. Evaluating that decision brings us right back to the question about the adulthood of college students I posed earlier. If you hold that they're not adults (as I think Deixler does), then the decision to confiscate the swimmies looks stupid and craven; if you believe they are (as I do), then even new arrivals to the East Hill should know which areas of the pool they can comfortably swim in, and Cornell's decision is entirely reasonable.

Deixler believes it "imperative that [Cornell] provide new outlets for students to take a break, meet new people and maybe even dance." How, pray tell, does The Bear's Den not qualify under these criteria (save for the one about dancing, which even she concedes is not absolutely necessary)? And besides, I don't think it's "imperative" that Cornell make these options available to students on demand. If the University's provision of such services is deficient, wouldn't it stand to reason that other entities would step in and fill the void?

And is Deixler attaching responsibility (either moral or legal) to Cornell for how its students respond to their stress? To hold the University directly liable for the negative consequences of the acts of its students, whether to themselves or to the community, could expose Cornell to very large judgments against it (including in three two* currently pending lawsuits). What effect might that have on the administration's commitment to keeping a Cornell education affordable and accessible?

I'll close with a history lesson. Ten years ago, then President Hunter Rawlings, in his lame duck year, killed off Slope Day as we knew it, ruining it for future generations of Cornellians imposed restrictions on Slope Day (particularly the fences and catering) that set it evolving toward its current form. The perceived motivation of this change was the reduction of the University's legal liability at the expense of student safety.  The protests were loud, claiming the new format would shift drinking to unsafe times and places. But the administrators held their ground, and like the Borg, the student body adapted. I'm confident that the current crop of Cornellians will be able to do the same.

P.S. Cal is in the Pacific-12, and the conference that Wisconsin and Michigan occupy is written as "Big Ten."

*Corrected because I initially misremembered the details of the lawsuit over George Desdunes' death; if I'm not mistaken, the SAE local and national chapters are named, but Cornell is not.
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