Harvard's Alcohol Amnesty Policy

As this year's high school seniors choose colleges, parents might be surprised to learn that Harvard, Yale, and other elite schools have far more permissive attitudes toward underage drinking than many others—and alcohol-related hospitalization rates are rising. Is it smart policy or reckless negligence?

04.20.10 10:48 PM ET

On my second day of college, Harvard taught us how to drink.

The entire freshman class, divided into smaller groups, attended meetings organized by the Drug and Alcohol Peer Adviser program. We met with a student adviser and a woman who worked with University Health Services. She was the only adult in the room. They sat us down around a long table and told us that no matter what, no matter how drunk or sick we got, if we called an ambulance, were picked up by Harvard University Police Department, were taken to the University Health Services infirmary or even to Mt. Auburn hospital, we would not get in trouble. We would have to attend a meeting with our Resident Dean, but our parents would not be notified. This is Harvard’s amnesty policy. One boy raised his hand and asked, “Are there any loopholes?”

“We realize that we’re in a college environment and that people are going to abuse these things, and so we’re here to basically reduce the harm,” says one Harvard alcohol peer adviser.


As other colleges and universities crack down on underage drinking, Harvard and many other elite schools are trying to do with their alcohol policies what they do with their students: Make them smarter. This has often meant a less penalty-driven attitude toward alcohol, and policies that emphasize to students that they will not get in trouble if they reach out for help.

But the efforts, whether they're working or not, are having an effect that could make some parents squirm. On February 17, The Harvard Crimson reported that the number of undergraduates seeking treatment for intoxication or alcohol poisoning from University Health Services is likely to rise for the second straight year. The Crimson writes, “In total, 102 students sought medical attention for alcohol-related sickness at Stillman Infirmary last semester—and the number will likely reach roughly 200 by the end of the spring term, according to AODS Director Ryan M. Travia.” If that forecast is correct, it will represent a 43 percent rise over the past two years.

Increasing numbers of alcohol-related hospitalizations are occurring at Yale as well, where, as the Yale Daily News reported on February 15, “The past year has seen a record number of alcohol-related hospitalizations.” Like Harvard, Yale also has an amnesty policy with regard to alcohol-related hospitalizations.

In other words, at the top Ivies, the number of kids who are showing up in emergency rooms, drunk to the point of passing out, is steadily increasing.

Spokespeople for both Harvard and Yale say the hospitalizations are evidence of their policies’ success. “As the amnesty policy has been more widely communicated to students,” says Harvard rep Kevin Galvin, “one might expect a subsequent rise in alcohol-related admissions not because students are drinking more dangerously, but rather because they are being better bystanders, seeking medical care for friends who may have had too much to drink.” Tom Conroy, a spokesman for Yale, also expressed a hope that the rising numbers there are due to students being vigilant and erring on the side of caution if they think that a friend may need medical attention as a result of excessive drinking.

Many universities focus their efforts on enforcing alcohol abstinence among underage students. For example, if a student living in university-owned housing at Georgetown is found to be in possession of “alcohol-related paraphernalia,” that infraction constitutes a Category A Student Code of Conduct violation, punishable by judicial sanction—regardless of the student’s age. Georgetown’s Code of Conduct cites board games designed for alcohol consumption, beer funnels, and beer pong tables as examples of alcohol-related paraphernalia. Students caught drinking can be put on housing probation, and any level of probation triggers parental notification.

Harvard’s alcohol policy, on the other hand, is focused around harm reduction. As Cullen McAlpine, Harvard class of 2011 and president of DAPA, explained, “We realize that we’re in a college environment and that people are going to abuse these things, and so we’re here to basically reduce the harm.”

At Harvard, at least, reducing the harm means literally teaching students how to make a drink correctly. Later on in that meeting I attended, the DAPA placed an empty blue plastic Solo cup on the table and next to it, a Nalgene bottle filled with water. He asked for volunteers to try and pour one drink—12 ounces of beer, 4 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol. The point was to teach us what one drink looks like, so that when we’re at parties, we wouldn’t fill a cup with half rum and half Coke and call that one drink.

Teaching students how to drink responsibly could not be a more different philosophy than George Washington University's. There, parents are notified after a single alcohol violation. Mark Levine, associate dean of students at GW, says this is the most effective way to cut down on student drinking. “GW’s parental-notification policy is based on the belief that parents play an important role in the lives of their student and based on research that shows that students whose parents are involved and informed about their activities have less alcohol-related consequences.”

Parental influence is important, to be sure. But as one of my friends put it when I was explaining the stricter alcohol policies in place at other schools, “If my dad got a call from a college administrator saying that I had gotten in trouble for owning some shot glasses or having a beer in my room with a couple of friends, he would probably laugh.”

Is it possible that the need to enforce the drinking-age laws prevents colleges from successfully teaching students under 21 how to drink responsibly? John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College, says yes. “The source of the problem isn’t the enforcement of the law. The source of the problem is the law itself." McCardell is the founder of the nonprofit Choose Responsibility, which argues that the drinking age should be lowered to 18. McCardell also started the Amethyst Initiative during the summer of 2008, a statement that has been signed by 135 college chancellors and presidents that asserts it is time to reopen the public debate about the drinking age and whether the development of a “binge drinking” culture might be an unintended consequence of the drinking age.

Malcolm Gladwell sounds a similar note, arguing that culture is far more important than law in dealing with underage drinking. In a recent article for The New Yorker, he observed, “When confronted with the rowdy youth in the bar, we are happy to raise his drinking age, to tax his beer, to punish him if he drives under the influence, and to push him into treatment if his habit becomes an addiction. But we are reluctant to provide him with a positive and constructive example of how to drink. The consequences of that failure are considerable because, in the end, culture is a more powerful tool in dealing with drinking than medicine, economics, or the law.”

Even at universities that focus on harm-reduction, many under-21 undergraduates do not feel comfortable publicly discussing their alcohol use with those who run these programs so long as drinking under the age of 21 remains against the law. And the universities themselves may be reluctant to do more in the way of harm-reduction for fear that by acknowledging that their students are drinking, they will be considered responsible for condoning it and held liable for its consequences.

In the end, no policy is going to stop college students from drinking, sometimes to excess. But as McCardell says, “If we believe that young adults possess the maturity and the judgment to serve on juries and sign contracts, then we ought to trust them with the ability to buy and consume beer. Not all of them will do so responsibly, but why do we continue to discriminate against a whole category of citizens who are in all other respects adults on the basis of age?”

Originally from Los Angeles, Isabel Kaplan is a student at Harvard University. Her first novel, Hancock Park, was published this summer by HarperCollins.