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I talked last week with a student about what it’s like to be a freshman on a campus where older students (and sports teams) drive the social scene. In residence halls and in town, alcohol is both the common denominator and — if you are underage — a scarce resource. The result for many students is a weird feeling of alienation and unrequited desire. They come to Middlebury with the hope of finding a well-rounded social life, and instead find themselves holed up in suites drinking in small groups, or trolling college-sponsored events for that one great event, which appeals to their interests and attracts a good cross section of students. But good parties are hard to find.

Now at this point, our quick tour of Middlebury social life could go in several directions. We could observe that social life is more likely to suck for freshmen than any other group on campus, and conclude (cheerfully) that things do get better in the sophomore year. We could track the unfortunate effects of the state liquor laws, a discussion that would allow us to revisit three much-debated topics: 1) the guest list policy; 2) the liquor inspector; 3) off-campus parties. Or, we could challenge the premise that alcohol plays an important role in Middlebury social life, and highlight all the activities on campus that have nothing to do with drinking.

But none of these tangents goes to the heart of the problem that emerged from my conversation last week. How can students develop a social life on this campus that feels inclusive, spontaneous, and “real”? What can we — as administrators, faculty, and staff — do to improve the social scene, and when should we get out of the way? Alcohol is a critical piece of this puzzle, because it gives shape to the social scene even when it is absent. For instance, some students won’t attend a party that doesn’t include alcohol, which obviously reduces the chance they might socialize with someone who doesn’t drink. For res life staff and Public Safety officers — the folks charged with keeping the lid on things when the sun goes down on Old Chapel — alcohol has mostly negative capabilities, since it seems to accelerate, if not cause, much of the problematic behavior on campus. In fact, it’s a truism among student life professionals that you can’t solve the alcohol problem; you can only manage it.

We need to turn this truism on its head, and develop positive approaches to the social use of alcohol at Middlebury. A closely-knit community like ours loses something when responsible drinking disappears from public spaces. When most social drinking takes places in a Hall A or LaForce suite — when social life goes private — the civic landscape shrinks, and the campus suffers. Some colleges have found ways to sustain this landscape by instituting policies like Pomona’s “Red Cup Rule,” which allows students to carry beers across campus so long as their behavior is not problematic. Here at Middlebury, we’ve struggled to create this kind of environment because the state laws regulating the use of alcohol are quite strict. We can do better.

There are no easy answers to the questions posed above, but I encourage all students to think creatively about how to improve social life on this campus and bring their ideas forward.

Next post: a progress report on what we hope to do with the downtown space vacated by Eat Good Food.

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