Drinking among College of Charleston undergraduates is nothing new. Because CofC does not have enough student housing for all of its 10,500-plus students to live on campus, college revelry in Charleston often spills into neighborhoods where students and families must co-exist. As the school population has grown, the College has periodically been called upon to show that it is addressing the issue of controlling inebriated students who may disrupt their non-collegiate neighbors. President Glenn McConnell's recent statement, suspending alcohol-related social activities for fraternities and sororities, is the latest salvo in this ongoing public relations battle.
In theory, President McConnell is simply restating what is already the law. The legal age of possession of alcohol in South Carolina is 21 years of age. Assuming that most college freshmen enter their undergraduate years at age 18, most freshmen, sophomores, and juniors are already below the legal age for possession or consumption of alcohol. Of course, as we all know, this rarely stops anyone from imbibing. College students have been drinking excessively and behaving badly since before the days of Animal House, and there is no sign of that activity stopping, despite collegiate policies mandating otherwise.
In fact, it can be argued that the recent push for college administrations to come down hard on excessive student drinking has little to do with actually preventing students from drinking. A series of high profile incidents involving binge drinking at sorority and fraternity functions across the nation have resulted in student deaths due to extreme inebriation or alcohol poisoning. Not only do these high profile deaths give the colleges at which they occur a bad image, but they also open them up to liability for wrongful death lawsuits. By declaring a policy in which fraternities and sororities would be punished for hosting events at which alcohol is served, a college can partially insulate itself from future lawsuits by being able to show they were not negligent in allowing such behavior to go unchecked.
While President McConnell's recent statement is laudable and certainly will help to address the issue of collegiate binge drinking along with the ills that come with it, it is a very small step in actually addressing the problem. Few colleges actually punish students for underage drinking, and have very little ability to do so meaningfully on their own. While a college can discourage minors from drinking and possessing alcohol, few take the drastic step of turning those students over to municipal or state law enforcement, where such infractions can result in a criminal record. Colleges tend to handle these problems in house, and instead go after the "big fish" such as fraternity and sorority functions which are frequently the hubs of underage drinking activity. Such action shows that the colleges are doing something to address the problem without addressing the problem head on, and will partially appease incensed neighbors who would otherwise complain to the city, creating a public relations headache.
Alcohol is ubiquitous on college campuses, and if it is not obtained through sorority and fraternity parties, it will be easily found through other means. The threat of a fraternity or sorority getting thrown off of a campus may foreclose one avenue of alcohol access but will do little to minimize the problem of drinking by undergraduates. While protecting the college from liability is important, the real challenge of changing student behaviors and attitudes towards alcohol should be the ultimate goal. This is unlikely to occur because of McConnell's recent statement, but a public relations boost which helps relations with city neighbors and can help defend against potential lawsuits is arguably better than saying nothing at all.