Taking Sides: Should Brown offer substance-free dorms?

By and
Opinions Columnists
Friday, February 8, 2013

Fuerbacher ’14: Yes

College dorms now come in many flavors: cultural, affinity-based, religious and even gender-neutral. Given the plethora of organizations and campus life options one may access in college, it is logical to offer substance-free housing to students who do not wish to be surrounded by consumers of alcohol, drugs or other substances. This is not a sweeping condemnation of those who partake in such activities. But Brown — in its quest to accommodate people of varied backgrounds and tastes — is wise to offer the designated sanctuary of substance-free housing.

For people who do not drink, smoke or experiment with other potentially harmful substances, being surrounded by those who do engage in these behaviors can stir feelings of discomfort. This is especially true in the case of the underage alcohol consumption that commonly occurs in dorms and goes unpoliced. Although all underclassman dorms should theoretically be substance-free due to the overwhelmingly under-21 population, it would be foolish to believe such regulations are unwaveringly respected. Thus, students — particularly those who might be apprehensive of the college “dorm scene” and who fear the negative ramifications of substance use — have sound reasons to desire housing where there exists a clear, mutual understanding among floormates that drugs and alcohol are not to be consumed. Furthermore, this would likely ease the transition to college life for those who harbor such reservations. Helping students acclimate to college life is an objective thousands of residential life programs hope to achieve. For the sake of consistency, substance-free housing should be considered a welcome option to students at Brown.

One might argue this genre of accommodations bears unwarranted confusion and extra costs. These contentions are untenable, for Brown is suffering no undue burden in terms of supplying designated substance-free housing. The University is merely utilizing existing facilities at little to no additional cost, while meeting demand from students who prefer this alternative dormitory atmosphere.

Some might believe this style of housing connotes a certain degree of naivete or a need for unnecessary shelter against peers who indulge in alcohol consumption, be it at moderate levels or for drunken rages. But the central logic of furnishing substance-free housing is not to insulate oneself completely from the world of drugs and alcohol. Rather, it is to supply interested students with an environment in which they feel at home and secure. Additionally, such segmented housing would let students who do consume alcohol or other substances feel liberated in their choices without offending non-participating neighbors.

Substance-free housing burdens the University with no significant upheavals in budget allocations or residential planning. In college, not everyone wants to be in a dormitory environment where drinking is widely accepted, and Brown should continue to provide accommodations for such a contingent of students.


Elizabeth Fuerbacher ’14 believes dorms should be a source of comfort rather than of discontent. She can be reached at


Eppler ’13: No

Substance-free dorms create an environment of impunity for substance-related misconduct and do a poor job preparing students for the challenges of independent post-college life. The University should abolish them and return participants to the standard residence halls.

It is relatively implausible that most students seek substance-free housing because they object to the presence of a Narragansett can or a dime bag behind the closed doors of a neighbor’s room. Instead, many students likely avail themselves of the substance-free option because they object to the behaviors that those substances can elicit when they’re consumed by inconsiderate college students.

It is certainly reasonable to object to vomit-filled hallways, broken exit signs and boisterous noise at all hours of the weeknight. In fact, it’s likely many students who reside in standard housing object to these behaviors as well. But the solution to the problems induced by the misuse of psychoactive substances is not to segregate objecting students from the rest of the community. Many of the inappropriate, inconsiderate and immature substance-induced behaviors are prohibited under the University code of conduct. The University should enforce these rules, not because it’s wrong to indulge in psychoactive substances but because it’s wrong to be an asshole to your peers. By providing substance-free housing that isolates aggrieved students from substance-induced misconduct, the University creates a culture of impunity for the few students who terrorize their peers with their drug or alcohol-induced misbehavior.

Substance-free dorms also contradict the very purpose of a residential college. Presumably, a major advantage of a residential campus like Brown over a commuter or online university is that it provides a sort of transition from the supervised residential life of childhood to the fully independent residential life of adulthood, with aspects that are both paternalistic and independent. Substance-free housing leans too far to the paternalistic end of the spectrum.

Part of independent adult life is learning to respond to neighbors’ undesirable behaviors. If one moves into an apartment building to find that the neighbors are drunken louts, he can’t just pack up and move to a “substance-free apartment” or even a “substance-free city.” If such things even exist, it is likely financially unfeasible to do so on short notice. Instead, people must address such a problem by talking to neighbors, a landlord or even the police. Brown students who are aggrieved by the substance-induced misconduct of their peers should learn to do the same as part of this transition to adulthood. By allowing the substance-free option, Brown’s residential program fails to prepare students for adult independent life.


For Ian Eppler ’13, housing is not substance-free. He can be reached at


Fuerbacher’s Rebuttal:

Eppler contends substance-free housing is an idealistic quest to insulate students from potential conflicts of interest arising from intoxication. While it is important to resolve disagreements rather than avoid them, it is not immature or naive to offer residential quarters where “stimulating” substances are unwelcome. The social aspect of college is indeed important — and accommodating people with diverse tastes and approaches to personal behavior is a goal many universities deem important. Substance-free housing is no different matter, and students should be trusted in their convictions to choose these residential programs should they desire this atmosphere.

Dedicating a couple of dormitory floors to a space where consuming alcohol is unwelcome is not “paternalistic,” as my opponent contends. I can understand Eppler’s point that college is a time during which we grow personally and learn to interact with peers whose behavior and values vary widely. But joining substance-free housing is a sign of conviction and courage that signals a person’s attitude toward this matter. Given college students’ propensity to indulge in substances that might not be healthy, electing to live in designated housing that clashes with the the acceptance of substance consumption is an action requiring great independence of spirit.

I agree the University should enforce rules regarding misconduct. But it would be too idealistic to assume all grievances tied to excessive alcohol consumption are effectively resolved. Furthermore, some students might actually prefer the substance-free environment because of its perceived tranquility rather than because of a strong personal aversion to alcohol. Hence, this option would appeal to a contingent of students beyond those strictly opposed to alcohol.

Colleges across the country offer many flavors of housing via affinity programs and residential restrictions. Some people from more conservative backgrounds might prefer single-sex floors. Likewise, those who do not want to be surrounded by alcohol or other substances — regardless of the degree to which they are consumed — deserve similar options. This concept is neither unworldly nor intrusive. It is a reasonable avenue Brown should maintain.


Eppler’s Rebuttal:

Fuerbacher argues Brown should offer substance-free dorms to mitigate the “feelings of discomfort” that substance use may incite in those who choose not to partake. This reasoning has troubling implications. Part of living in a pluralistic community is that we tolerate what other members of the community choose to do behind closed doors, contingent on the fact that those behaviors do not harm others. When substance use is truly private and not harmful to others, concerned students have no right to object.

We would recoil at the prospect of providing LGBTQ-free housing for students who suffer from “feelings of discomfort” at the prospect of sharing a hall with a gay student, and we would recoil at the prospect of providing Muslim-free housing for students who suffer from “feelings at discomfort” at the prospect of sharing a hall with a Muslim student. Why should we indulge those who suffer from “feelings of discomfort” towards other students who make choices or hold identities they disfavor?

Fuerbacher is absolutely correct when she addresses the ubiquity of alcohol-induced misconduct and the desire of many students to avoid the negative ramifications of this behavior. Unlike the impulse to regulate the private, non-harmful actions of peers, this is an appropriate impulse, which is exactly why the University shouldn’t address it by segregating the most aggrieved students into substance-free housing.

As I said in my opening statement, the University has swept the problem of alcohol-induced misconduct under the rug by offering substance-free housing. Substance-free housing provides an outlet for the most aggrieved students to escape the harms of alcohol misuse in exchange for some social isolation. Meanwhile, the rest of us silently suffer the harms of constant exposure to those who misuse alcohol and disrespect others in the process, and the University fails to address this problem. The University should close substance-free dorms and enforce its alcohol-related rules, making a safer and more comfortable community for everyone.


  1. Brown MUST INSIST on all dorms being substance free, goddamn it!

  2. Considering that current substance-free housing seems to consist mainly of “this door to that door,” or “this stairway to that stairway” on a longer hallway (ala Keeney) what’s the point? You’re still surrounded by non-sub free housing literally next door.

    Like many things at Brown, it’s just a feel-good measure without any practical value.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *