Powers ’15: Ineffective policing

Opinions Columnist

Earlier this week, members of the Brown community received an email from Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, executive vice president for planning and policy, and Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services, detailing planned changes in campus policies regarding the provision of alcohol. This semester, no official events — in particular those sponsored by Greek and program houses — may have alcohol service within residence halls. Any events involving alcohol must now take place in specifically approved campus spaces and must have “appropriate security and safety measures,” according to the email. These changes follow a series of alleged incidents that occurred during the fall semester that raised concern about the safety of fraternity houses and the University’s commitment to preventing sexual assault.

The vast majority of parties — including those where the alleged incidents mentioned in the email took place — are not University-sponsored. Rather, they are completely student-run and student-financed, sometimes with the help of alums. So I find myself skeptical that more stringent regulation of registered events is anything more than a symbolic gesture. If anything, the University is primarily concerned with liability management. The real issue then seems to be the enforcement of existing policies, rather than the policies themselves.

It might seem natural to suggest that the University should more effectively police drinking at unregistered parties and make sure that GHB and other date-rape drugs do not enter students’ drinks. However, as I have argued previously, drug prohibition is demonstrably inefficient and often leads — even if unintentionally — to negative outcomes. Drugging others is certainly reprehensible, but attempting to outlaw all student drinking would neglect the real problem and unfairly penalize the entire student body.

I take issue with the principles behind controlling student drinking. Regulation of alcohol consumption fosters a culture in which the abdication of personal responsibility for communal and personal safety becomes the norm. Nearly every Brown student is a legal adult and can make the informed choice to engage in risky behavior such as drinking. The fact that intoxication can be risky due to the maliciousness of others is an unfortunate reality. Preventing students from drinking on campus does not address this maliciousness.

To be perfectly clear, occurrences of sexual assault speak to the moral character of no one but the perpetrators. But it is important here to not conflate moral and causal responsibility, dismissing the above point as victim shaming. The claim isn’t that drinking in excess is evil so much as unwise. Advocating sensible drinking practices is making an empirical statement of fact, not a moral judgment. Prudential advice is not a condemnation of survivors of sexual assault.

When the University wanted to combat student muggings and assaults, it didn’t ban travel after dark, but rather provided increased means of safe transportation. Similarly, it would seem that the response to the incidents of last semester should not aim to curb all student drinking, but rather to provide desirable environments for such activities where safety can be the primary concern. It does not surprise me that both mentioned alleged incidents occurred at unregistered parties outside the purview of Department of Public Safety officers. Unfortunately, due to the University’s actions, drinking and predatory behavior are now even more likely to occur at such parties, or even off campus where the University cannot possibly hope to monitor them.

So what should the University do? As far as I can tell, there isn’t any obvious missing silver bullet. The bystander intervention workshops mentioned in the email along with increased transparency help to create a culture in which sexual assault is not passively accepted but actively opposed. In a similar vein, the University of Virginia has instituted a policy mandating that fraternities provide several “sober and lucid” members to monitor parties and create a safe environment. While this policy might be effective, I question the practice of holding entire groups responsible for the actions of a small, non-representative minority.

Personally, I would support increased penalties for perpetrators. There should be no tolerance for or quarter given to those found guilty of sexual assault. However, it is critically important to remember that serious allegations always require serious evidence, and our standards of justice should not diminish under increasing pressure to find solutions to our problems.

Andrew Powers ’15 can be reached at andrew_powers@brown.edu.