At Harvard's final clubs, long traditions are coming face to face with new realities. The illustration is from a 1943 Delphic Club Christmas-dinner poster. HARVARD UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES
On March 28, 1998, after a week of intense spring-break rowing practices, the crew team celebrated. Later, three members of the men's heavyweight boat, by then severely intoxicated, went to the roof of the A.D. Club and began throwing rocks to the street below. A Harvard police officer who happened by on Massachusetts Avenue heard the sound of breaking glass and saw that rocks had damaged cars parked nearby. "When the three observed my presence," he says, "they crouched down behind the brick façade, trying to conceal themselves." Eventually, a ladder truck from the Cambridge fire department had to be called so that police could enter the locked building from the roof.
The three malefactors--who told the Crimson they acted without understanding the consequences--were barred by the Administrative Board, the College's disciplinary body, from further rowing that spring. They were also suspended for the next academic year and required to reapply for admission. Two of them said they felt their punishment was unduly harsh.
Only one of the three rowers is a member of the A.D. Club, which no longer allows nonmembers on the premises except at weekly luncheons and other traditional events. The new closed-door policy was enacted by the club's graduate board in January as the result of general concerns over the club's legal liability.
Alcohol abuse and its many consequences have received increasing attention from college administrators in the 1990s. The law is one reason. The Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1986, which tied federal funding to collegiate enforcement of the legal drinking age, had a sobering effect on many college campuses, including Harvard's. Officially, there has been no change in the College's alcohol policy, but the rules of application and enforcement are different. Kegs in Harvard Yard? Beer-toting freshmen milling under the elms at fall-term, all-class socials? Forget it.
Another reason for the sea change is a concern for the consequences of alcohol abuse that might be characterized as one part medical and one part legal. The death of MIT freshman Scott Krueger in the fall of 1997, the result of an alcohol-induced coma after a fraternity party, led to heightened awareness of the dangers of overconsumption. The ensuing criminal investigation of the fraternity, which was indicted on a manslaughter charge, demonstrated the willingness of law enforcement officials to take legal action. (The Suffolk County district attorney's office named the fraternity itself, rather than its officers, the responsible party; dissolution of the fraternity ended the case without penalties.)
In the case of the rock-throwing rowers, the circumstances included two of the contexts in which alcohol is frequently consumed at Harvard: among athletes, and in final clubs (although the three students in this case told the Crimson they had not been drinking there).
Alcohol was apparently also a factor in the College's decision to cancel the men's rugby team matches for the rest of the year after "inappropriate behavior" following an October loss to Norwich University. During a minor accident outside the Malkin Athletic Center, a player exited one of two returning vans and urinated in public.
How much heavy drinking really goes on at the College? According to a nationwide study conducted by Henry Wechsler, Ph.D. '57, and colleagues--which defines binge drinking as five or more drinks (12-ounce cans of beer, 1.25-ounce shots, or their equivalent) at a sitting for men and four or more consecutive drinks for women--41 percent of Harvard students classified themselves as binge drinkers, as compared to the national average of 47 percent for other large private colleges (see "Aftermath of a Drug Bust," September-October 1996, page 72). Much of the behavior apparently begins in college: only 15 percent of Harvard students say they were binge drinkers in high school. Twenty-five percent of the Harvard students who drink report having an alcohol-related episode in which they forgot where they were or what they did.
College officials are taking action, not all of it punitive, to try to change undergraduate behavior. A spring party sponsored by the Undergraduate Council that was to have had eight kegs of free beer served from noon to 5 p.m. will now serve the beer in cans, limited to two per undergraduate 21 or older, and only during lunch (noon to 3) in a fenced-off area.
Final clubs, the private, wholly independent, all-male undergraduate social institutions, remain a part of Harvard life where College officials have no direct control and so far have had little impact. Repeated attempts to marginalize the clubs (see "The Final Club Scene," May-June 1997, page 63) for abuse of alcohol, and for failing to admit women, have thinned neither the ranks of their membership nor of their guests.
But administrators increasingly feel that a serious accident at a final club is just waiting to happen. Last fall, writing in the Harvard Independent, dean of the College Harry R. Lewis, a former Harvard undergraduate himself, noted that "evidence abounds that alcohol laws are flouted at the clubs. It is only the end of October, and already six underage students have come to our attention for misbehavior or injury and have told us that they had been drinking at a final club at the time of the incident or earlier in the evening." He warned that "the world has changed a good deal since many of the graduate officers [of final clubs] were students here, and the potential responsibility of the clubs' owners under Massachusetts' host liability laws is quite staggering....A club's liability for such incidents could well devolve personally on the club's alumni officers, and jeopardize their financial security and that of their wives and their entire families."
Club alumni have little influence on the process of admitting new members, so the composition of a club's membership can change over time. Following the closure of a campus football fraternity in the early 1990s, for example, the D.U. Club increasingly became the club of choice for Crimson players. By 1995, according to the Crimson, it had become known as the place for taking pre-frosh football recruits to show them a good time. One alumnus of the D.U. Club, which was shut down following the beating of a recruit that same year, feels that the club he knew had essentially been "hijacked" by a varsity team. Following that incident, the graduate board of the D.U. created a moderately strict set of new guidelines concerning the consumption of alcohol and the guest policy. When the undergraduates refused to accept those changes, the trustees shut the club down. The recent action of the A.D. graduate board seemed to preempt the possibility of a like fate befalling that club. At press time, the Delphic and Owl Clubs were reportedly considering similar restrictions.