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Most U.S. residential colleges and universities have some sort of spring ritual to mark the end of the semester, prior to the start of final exams. Colleges large and small have wrestled with the issue of drinking and outsiders coming in to contribute to alcohol abuse and, in some cases, violence.
A seminal study on college drinking, conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, surveyed 50,000 college students on 120 campuses from 1993 to 2001, and found that schools with the fewest problems had comprehensive state laws on underage drinking as well as strong enforcement procedures in place, fewer establishments selling alcohol near campus and laws limiting high-volume sales events, such as happy hours. In other words, the culture and environment on and off campus in terms of availability and access were significant factors in the amount of college drinking.
UConn is not a dry campus, although making it completely dry has been considered. The Student Conduct Code presently allows alcohol, with a permit, in private places, such as dorm rooms but prohibits it in all public areas such as dorm lounges, study areas and the like. In 2003, a university committee rejected banning alcohol on campus because of fears that such an action would lead to even more off-campus partying, especially by underage students. The committee chairman even went so far as to say that “students are arriving at UConn with well-established drinking patterns and a feeling that they have a right to drink. A ban would probably not solve the problem.’’
Other New England land-grant universities similar in size and composition to UConn have also been wrestling with the issue of off-campus partying. In 2000, officials at the University of New Hampshire in Durham enacted a moratorium on what had been a campus-wide Spring Fling at the end of the school year. The problems had included parties at off-campus fraternity houses and apartment complexes, which led to arrests for alcohol and drug abuse as well as occasional violence.
Then, after a decade without any campus-sponsored events, two years ago officials created May Day, a campus-wide carnival in which the community is encouraged to participate.
According to MaryAnne Lustgraaf, director of the campus hub Memorial Union Building, there has been a steady decline in arrests. The most significant reason, she says, is an agreement by the Durham Landlord Association to impose strict regulations on partying on their properties, including fines for abuses, limiting the number of people who can congregate in or around a unit and requiring that parents of students enter into contracts (along with their offspring) to abide by the regulations. Some landlords did not cooperate, and off-campus parties can still pose problems, mainly from nonstudents “who wander the streets of Durham looking for a party,” Lustgraaf says.
At the University of Massachusetts, similar measures, including a $300 fine for a first offense, have led to fewer problems, although exceptions certainly occur. “On certain weekends, all hands are on deck,” says Stephanie O’Keeffe, chair of the Campus and Community Coalition, and even then there are still alcohol- and nuisance-related arrests in off-campus housing areas. Last September, crowds leaving a concert at Mullins Center on campus threw rocks, bottles and cans at police in riot gear in North Amherst neighborhoods. In Amherst, “it is definitely an issue with outsiders and we are trying to deal with this,” O’Keeffe says.
“For me,” says Saddlemire, “the question still remains: ‘What is the draw?’ There is no music, no entertainment. It has developed into a culture—it has become ‘an event.’ People want to say they’ve been to Spring Weekend,” especially freshmen and sophomores, he says, referring to surveys that indicate that by the time they’ve reached the legal drinking age, students lose interest.
And so UConn officials play a waiting game, hoping the combination of the moratorium and Easter limits attendance, outdoor partying, and in general cuts down on the widespread mayhem that has become Spring Weekend.
“We’re not assuming the moratorium will stop them,” Saddlemire says, referring especially to outside partiers. “But with three lives lost to violence, can we step back and have a celebration without having to feel there is danger? The goal is to get where we can have an end-of-the-year event that is student centered and does not draw so many people from outside.” By banning so many events and establishing strict visitor rules on campus this year, “we hope to do as much as we can to make outsiders feel it’s more of a hassle than it’s worth.”