The End of Personal Responsibility

The police lights
added an unfamiliar, electrifying ambiance to the North Quad scene on Saturday. It’s
exciting. It’s something we’ve never seen before. We stand around and drink in
the middle of the quad regularly. It’s fun. But threats of arrest? That’s
thrilling.

It’s impossible to describe what
happened on that night to someone who doesn’t understand what a North Quad
party at Claremont McKenna College is like. Imagine a hundred students standing in the concrete path
between Appleby and Green Halls, dozens more on the balconies or in the
motel-style rooms with their doors open. It’s a cordial environment, and by
cordial I mean most of the party is drunk. Yeah, it’s kinda fratty, but still
welcoming. Poorly chosen dance music blares from one of the rooms around the corner,
but the roar of chatter coming from smiling, flushed faces is louder. Most
importantly, it’s organic. There’s no Facebook invite. There’s no sponsoring
club. Students just gather. It is socializing at its most bare and unpretentious,
face-to-face, in the yellowy light of the quad.

It would be fair to say that this kind of gathering
is unique. It’s unique precisely because it’s so profoundly illegal: there’s no
campus security checkpoint, no plastic-covered chain-link fences to
hide the behavior of the students, no singular party to hold responsible. Instead, it’s a
bunch of 19-year-olds drinking beer in public, openly flaunting the rules that
everyone else is held to. Few colleges give their students free rein to do
things like this, and now there’s one fewer.

These gatherings have happened at
CMC for decades. It’s as close to tradition as we get. That’s why it was so
surprising when CMC Dean of Students Mary Spellman called 20 of Claremont’s
finest to drive their cruisers through the quad, floodlights on, with an
elbow-to-elbow line of law enforcement following. It was a sad and funny confrontation
between an exasperated dean and some college students who refused to put down
their cans of Coors Light and go elsewhere.

Reactions ranged from mild
bewilderment to drunken defiance. The debauchery ended up migrating to the CMC senior apartments, but the event left an impression on those who witnessed it.

There were plenty of reasons why
the partiers should have cleared out before the cops moved in. The new party
guidelines were sent to the student body in an email weeks ago, and there are
plenty of other places these students could have gone to do the same thing. But
it still seemed like an egregious breach of tradition to have an administrator
call the cops on her students for something so tame.

I feel ridiculous defending the
right of underaged, trust-funded college students to drink wherever they want, but it seems equally as ridiculous to defend the excessive and vindictive actions
of a dean who’s so out of touch with the student body with whom she is expected to work.

A lax drinking policy is part of CMC’s
institutional DNA. Interpreted shallowly, we’re a school full of ambitious,
inebriated jocks. But there’s more to it than that. The drinking policy is a
product of our libertarian streak. It’s a rejection of paternalism. It’s the
product of an open, honest and realistic relationship between students and
administration.

The wet-campus policy was adopted
when, in the days of Claremont Men’s College, two students died in a horrific
car collision. They were drunk. They drove from campus to find a bar where they
could drink because they couldn’t do it here. The impetus for the policy,
initially, was to reduce that liability. It was safer, the administration thought, to grant
students the expectation of personal responsibility in a safe environment, than
to enforce strict rules that would push them to drive elsewhere.

But now it’s 2015. Camera phones
are everywhere, and institutions are under heavy scrutiny from litigious
outsiders and parents. The policy is untenable. Legal and reputational risks
have trumped the doctrine of personal responsibility. 

Saturday night’s festivities were
objectively ridiculous. But they were also safe. The party got shut down
because everything about it was illegal, but why is that illegal? Cordial,
outdoor gatherings don’t inspire binge drinking the way a frat party does.
These parties don’t create the rapey situations found in the dark basements of dance
clubs either, and they also don’t tempt students to drink and drive. It all seems
very misguided to me.

Days later, the deans clarified that this is going
to be a crusade. On Tuesday, Vice President for Student Affairs Jefferson Huang wagged his finger at the entire student body in
a scathing email. Despite this recent mass condemnation, even more troubling are the rumors that the administration
is searching student Facebook profiles and events in order to retroactively admonish
hosts of unregistered events. 

I don’t know what my opinion is on where the administration should go from here,
but it’s pretty clear that CMC is at a junction. It’s not just a
question of what’s going to happen next Saturday night; it’s a question of
institutional priorities. CMC’s students and
administrators must balance leisure and safety to find a new set of
expectations that are workable for the future. My only hope is that personal
responsibility remains part of the conversation.

Sam Pitcavage CM ’15 is a government and economics major, athlete and dining hall enthusiast from Beaverton, Ore.

 

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