I read this morning an excerpt from Crispus Knight’s book, “Three for Ship: A Swan Song to Dartmouth Beer Pong,” a memoir of how Knight got into Dartmouth College and then promptly drank himself out of it. Washing out in this manner isn’t unique to Knight; I saw people do it at my own alma mater, where a robust drinking culture fueled by an even more robust fraternity system (there were 16 national fraternities for a male student body of not even 1,000 students; 85% of whom went Greek). But in Knight’s article, he notes how the heavy drinking culture and the rituals that go with it are so deeply ingrained into the fraternity system there, and how the fraternity system is so deeply ingrained into the Dartmouth experience, that a kid like him really had no chance at a place like Dartmouth. His chances of failure were 100%. He just didn’t know it yet.
Now, Knight was, by his own admission, a broken individual primed to fail before he ever got to college. He takes full responsibility for his own downfall, and blames it not even a little bit on his school, which surely speaks well for his sense of personal accountability. Apparently, Knight’s kryptonite was beer pong, and the particular variants at Dartmouth that fascinated him so much that he dedicated himself to them. He got so good at the game that he became a temporary school legend. He also became a drunk with no college education, at least for a while. (Knight ultimately did return to Dartmouth some years later, and he did earn a degree.)
I do not know of any colleges held responsible for their students’ failure to negotiate the sometimes treacherous task of living away from home for the first time, dealing with unprecedented academic requirements, and figuring out how to integrate into the social scene without being swallowed whole by it. Personally, this is not an area where schools even should be held legally liable (though in today’s environment, I suppose it’s only a matter of time until they are, if they have not been already).
But there is a substantial legal liability schools face from students who injure or kill themselves or others, or who damage property, while under the influence of alcohol—whether they are under the influence on school grounds, or under the influence thanks to libations procured through the school in some way, shape or fashion. I cannot imagine a single college or university in the land that does not have a risk management plan in place for this. When I went to school, I got to see two of them up close and personal, though, and it showed that for every risk, there are plenty of ways to manage it.
The fraternity houses at my school were a wreck. Many were falling apart and digusting, but the fraternities simply did not have the funds to renovate them. So in came the school with an offer too good to refuse: the school would pick up the tab for rebuilding the fraternity houses, and in return, the houses would become school housing, subject to school rules and regulations. The school was realistic enough to know what went on at fraternity houses, so it crafted rules that were meant to reduce risk without encouraging the students to rebel against them. I remember two clearly. First, all parties had to be confined to the basement, which had been retrofitted into party rooms, with drains on the floor and such. Not a bad idea. Second, all houses were to hire a “house mother,” a woman to be approved by the school who would live in the house in a amall apartment. Her job was to make sure the house wasn’t being destroyed and that the students were behaving. Third-party compliance auditing, essentially. This was also a good idea. We soon came to dislike our house mother, an ex-prison guard who owned an entire pack of annoying teacup poodles, but that’s less an indictment of the house mother concept than it is of our own hiring practices.
These things worked out fairly well, because the threat of university disciplinary action did a lot to keep students in line, especially at houses known for savage hazing practices, or where unusually out-of-hand shenanigans were known to arise. This is the kind of risk management I like: innovative, flexible, effective.
The other risk management strategy I saw was from my fraternity itself, which also had its national headquarters right in town. Having National in town was a blessing and a curse. When we wanted to carry out formal ceremonies, such as initiations, we could do it at National, which lent a sense of gravity to the situation. Whenever any chapter from out of town was there to visit National headquarters, they invariably stopped by our house to say hello, whether we wanted to entertain them or not.
National was also a watchdog. The fraternity had a strict no-hazing policy, as well as a formal “risk reduction” policy which all chapter officers were expected to enforce. The year I was Pledge Marshall, I attended a risk reduction training seminar held by National, and I got to learn all kinds of interesting things, like how the fraternity had started its own captive to cover its liability insurance because fraternities had such a hard time finding it. But I also got to know the risk reduction policy well enough to know that there was no way on Earth that my fellow brothers would follow it to the letter. No way. Zero. None. I could not imagine any brothers who would.
The trick, then, was to figure out how to get the spirit of the policy across without getting the brothers to reject it out of hand. It was a lot like the school’s own risk management challenge. On our part, the leadership of the chapter handled it on a personal level, taking accountability and enforcing the rules under a “I know it sucks, but these are the rules” kind of attitude. Eventually, people came around for the most part, though to be honest, we still violated the risk reduction policy’s rules regarding alcohol on the premises. In fact, we violated it a lot.
Some years after I graduated—even after the last freshmen I knew graduated, I think—my chapter was caught in some kind of flagrant violation, and National came right in and pulled the chapter’s charter down from the wall. That had happened once before, some years before I attended school, and it was always seen as an especially dark bit of history. I think that for all of the eye-rolling over the risk reduction policy, we all knew National could and would yank the charter if it felt the need, so we tried to conduct ourselves accordingly. That the chapter let it happen a second time was a real disappointment, and it showed that any risk management policy is only as good as the people carrying it out. Otherwise, it’s just a binder sitting on somebody’s shelf gathering dust and helping nothing.
My own kids will be attending college before too much longer. I’d like to think that the schools they attend will have a decent enough sense of risk management to let the kids have their fun, but not so much that the place becomes a cirrhosis factory. But much more importantly, I want to make sure that when they get there, my kids will have enough risk management awareness of their own to keep from going over any cliffs. One of the big points of going away for college is teaching your kids that they have to look out for themselves. You can provide a framework that might make things safer, but ultimately the decision to manage their risk is up to them to make. I won’t really know how my kids will do until they matriculate, but until then, I’ll be laying the groundwork.