The University of Pennsylvania Has a Drinking Problem

With Penn cracking down on student drinking, the closing of the 41st and Market state store may be more than mere coincidence.

University of Pennsylvania alcohol policies restrict student access to booze

My dad got his Ph.D. at Penn back in the ’60s, when he already had a wife and family. Which makes it sort of strange that we kids grew up knowing all of Penn’s drinking songs, but none of Temple’s, where Dad had been an undergrad (on the GI Bill). He would sing us to sleep at night by strumming the ukulele and soulfully crooning: Hurrah! Hurrah, Pennsylvania! Hurrah for the red and the blue!

Perhaps he thought this would someday give us a leg up in getting admitted to the Ivy League. It worked, I guess; my sister went to Penn. Now my daughter is a grad student there. When she started last fall, she called to tell me about the first “mixer” (they still call them “mixers”!) she’d attended. She and her fellow students at the School of Social Policy and Practice (99 percent female, by Marcy’s report) were invited by the graduate students of Penn Engineering (99 percent male) for drinks and snacks. The engineers aren’t stupid. Those studying to be social workers are, generally, big-hearted women who care about underdogs. Nonetheless, Marcy told me, without the open bar, the evening would have been a bust.

She isn’t much of a drinker, but lately she’s taken an interest in wine. “I found out I like riesling,” she’ll tell me, or “My new fave is sauvignon blanc.” At least, she used to tell me, when there was a state store at Penn where she could buy wine to experiment with. But in January, the Penn state store at 41st and Market—“sort of a scary place,” she’d said—abruptly closed. There was no warning, and Marcy didn’t even realize it until she saw an article in the Daily Pennsylvanian. “Well, hell,” she grumbled, “where am I supposed to buy wine now?”

The online version of the Daily Pennsylvanian article, no doubt thanks to some engineering student, featured an interactive map of area state stores. There’s one at 49th and Baltimore, about two miles from Marcy’s apartment. There’s one at 19th and Chestnut, also two miles distant. And there’s one at 24th and South, likewise two miles away. “I am not walking four miles in the dead of winter to buy a bottle of wine!” Marcy, who doesn’t have a car, declared. “Can you come drive me, please?”

So after work one night, before I headed to the suburbs, I took her to the liquor store at 24th and South—the one I frequented when I first moved to the city, in the ’70s. The area has changed. So has the liquor store. “They’re so nice in there!” Marcy marveled, hauling her bottles into the car where I waited. “These Penn frat guys were in line, and they were laughing and saying, ‘The LCB lost a lot of business when our state store closed!’ And the clerk said, ‘Nah, the business just moved.’”

“When I used to shop here,” I told her, “they kept all the bottles in the back, behind a counter. You couldn’t see them. You had to tell the clerk what you wanted.”

“Why did they do that?”

“Because liquor is sinful.”

She snorted. “I bought a pinot grigio to try.” Then she turned thoughtful. “Some people are saying Penn wanted the state store closed, to cut down on student drinking. You don’t think they’d do that, do you?”
WHEN MY DAD went to football games at Penn and the throngs at Franklin Field sang “Drink a Highball,” they’d raise flasks at the final line: “Here’s a toast to dear old Penn!” When my son and I went to a Penn game a few years back, the school thoughtfully provided toast—actual toasted bread—for us to hurl onto the field instead. You can’t drink at Penn football games anymore. You can barely drink at Penn. If your undergraduate party-planning consisted of buying half-gallons of vodka, you’ll be surprised by what you had to do at Penn this year. A partial list:

  • Complete and submit the On-Campus Alcohol Event Registration Form.
  • Fill out a Competency Plan that details, among other things, how you’ll distribute alcohol, what foods and nonalcoholic drinks you’ll serve, and how you’ll manage bathroom flow and intoxicated guests.
  • Obtain prior approval from the Event Security Committee if your shindig will have 400 or more attendees, include an outdoor area or feature a live band.
  • Hire approved professional doormen and security guards.
  • Hire bartenders from the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives’ Approved Bartender List (at $25 an hour).
  • Not serve hard liquor.
  • Purchase only enough beer and wine to provide each attendee with four drinks.

Needless to say, the student body pretty much hates this arrangement, for which they have trial lawyers to thank. Talk has been circulating on-campus about revisions to the alcohol policy since the most recent version went into effect in 2005, and the Undergraduate­ Assembly—the student government—and the Intrafraternity Council started circulating a survey of drinking habits in the fall of 2010, in hopes of showing the administration that the current rules are ineffective. That autumn, alcohol-related student hospital transports increased 25 percent over the previous year, and drinking-related incidents during new-student orientation jumped 37 percent. Students claim the onerous party-registration process simply moves the action off-campus, where there’s no supervision at all.

Or wasn’t. Last September, the DP reported that the Division of Public Safety was taking a “proactive” approach to off-campus parties by “reaching out to students before parties occur.” Those hosting off-campus get-togethers were surprised to find administrators contacting them in advance, and figured their party plans were being trolled on Facebook. Fraternities and sororities began creating Facebook pseudonyms, to keep Penn from tracking parties back to them.

To further muddy the waters, a student op-ed in the DP last fall charged that the Undergraduate Assembly was hazing freshman members and providing minors with alcohol. The op-ed quoted an email from current UA president Tyler Ernst about his hazing plans for the frosh: “I was just thinking we could get them ‘hospitalize-me’ drunk and then turn them over to their parents the next morning.” An investigation ensued, and in January the UA, which was in the process of proposing reforms to the school’s alcohol policy to the administration, was found guilty of violating said alcohol policy.

I reached out to Mr. Ernst to ask him how the alcohol-policy review was going. Though he initially agreed to talk with me, he subsequently changed his mind and referred me to the Office of Communications. Alas, the Office of Communications had already declined to allow me to interview Julie Lyzinksi Nettleton, the director of the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives, about the policy and review. I asked if there was anybody at Penn who could talk to me about booze. (It is the city’s largest private employer, with 16,500 or so workers, not counting the hospital.) The Office of Communications said no. News Officer Jeanne Leong emailed me:

“It’s a busy time for folks who work in student life.”

I bet it is.
A WEEK AFTER Leong’s email, my daughter forwarded me her invitation from the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives in the Division of the Vice Provost for University Life to participate in Penn’s 13th Annual Alcohol, Other Drug and Wellness Survey. (Whew!) It was anonymous, the invite noted, and you could win Spring Fling tickets if you took part. “I wish they’d just reopen the damned state store,” Marcy said.

I’d never heard of a state store closing. The two in the hometown I moved away from 40 years ago are still right where I left them. So I called the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and asked spokeswoman Stacey Witalec what happened to the one at 41st and Market. She cited problems with the landlord and physical concerns with the store as the reasons it had been shuttered, and said it wasn’t a decision the LCB had wanted to make. It wasn’t one I’d wanted the LCB to make, either, I told her, since I was now stuck driving my daughter to 24th and South every week or so. She said cheerfully, “Tell her she’ll be really happy with the new store when it opens!”

“There’s going to be a new store? Where?”

Stacey said she didn’t know yet, but it would be one of the new Premium Collection stores. Had I ever been to a Premium Collection store? I allowed as how I didn’t think I had.

Stacey told me the LCB had worked with the New York City firm of Landor Associates to “rebrand” the state stores. Eventually, all the stores will be completely redone, from floor to ceiling. There will be information stations at central checkout islands. All the shelving will be redone.

“What about the lighting?” I wanted to know. There’s something particularly gruesome about state-store lighting.

“It’s green,” Stacey said, and I started to respond: Exactly! The lighting is green! But then she added, “It’s all environmentally friendly LED lighting now. You really should visit a Premium Collection store.”

Instead, I visited the website of Landor Associates, “a strategic brand consulting and design firm.” Among the clients it lists are Land Rover, Citroën, the NFL, Barclay’s Bank, Xbox, the City of Hong Kong, Rolex, Moët & Chandon and the San Diego Zoo. No mention of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. I couldn’t help wondering why the LCB hired a ritzy strategic brand consulting and design firm when there’s no other fucking place to buy a bottle of hooch in the entire state.
IF PENN DID conspire in the closing of that liquor store, it’s understandable. Colleges can’t win when it comes to student drinking these days. When I was an undergrad, we marched to demand that the administration stay the hell out of our business. Since then, judicial rulings and helicopter parents have driven colleges back into the role of in loco parentis, with increasingly heavy-handed overseer duties. What the courts and deans and Mom and Dad can’t curb is the desire of the college student to par-tay.

We may even be encouraging it. We work so hard these days to eliminate risk from our children’s lives. Driven by the fear born of 9/11, by milk-carton reminders about stranger danger, by product recalls and warnings about tainted food, we strap kids into baby seats, swaddle them in bike helmets, organize their playtime into regimented sessions of soccer and SAT tutoring. When they head off to college, they’ve never been in charge of anything, let alone themselves. Suddenly, they’re free to get shit-faced and balance on balcony railings. So they do.

In February, I spoke with a Penn student named Alex Ball. He’s a senior, majoring in the biological basis of behavior. He grew up in Maryland. When he came to Penn, he was unfamiliar with the state store system. “I’d heard it was draconian and backward,” Alex told me, “but my recent dealings have enlightened me even more.”

He’d been dealing with the LCB because he’d started a business called Penn Delivers. You could email or text him, and he’d bring you a bottle of wine or gin. (“Mourning the untimely demise of 41st Street Wine & Spirits? Cast off your sackcloth! Dry your eyes! Because now Penn Delivers!”) “It’s an idea that was born out of necessity,” he told me. “Penn students have a hard time finding alcohol since the state store closed.”

When we spoke, Alex was just coming off his first weekend of deliveries. “I made eight,” he told me. “Mostly party staples—rum, vodka, some wine.” It’s not just liquor, he added: “I picked up two cigarette packs at a convenience store. I’ll bring whatever you need.”

Alex’s business plan was simple: He charged a flat $5, plus $2 per item. He got to the state store via SEPTA: “It’s the most efficient method. I don’t have a car.” Did he worry about toting booze on the bus? “Not at all.”

He’d also just had his first conversation with an LCB lawyer about what he was doing. “It’s not expressly illegal,” he noted. “There are gray areas in between delivery and distribution and retail. My understanding is that resale is different from distribution,­ which requires a liquor license”—an expense he couldn’t possibly afford.

“We’re working it out,” he said sanguinely. “I know the service can come out on top.”

Alex described himself as “a career entrepreneur.” He already has a business transferring vinyl records to CDs or MP3s. He saw himself as filling a void: “The fact is, college students are going to exercise what they consider their right to drink. I don’t want to run afoul of the regulations, but within the legal boundaries, I want to facilitate that.”

In fact, he had big plans: “I’d love to expand. It’s highly lucrative. If we can get through the legal issues, it’s the perfect opportunity for me. I’ll do some advertising, start with other campuses in University City and then outsource it.”

“Franchises?” I asked.

“Yeah, franchises,” he said.

The next time Marcy called for a ride to the state store, I mentioned Penn Delivers. “I’m not paying an extra $7 for a bottle of wine!” she said indignantly.

Less than a month later, Alex learned he’d have to buy a “transport for hire” license from the LCB. He’s no longer delivering alcohol, and has phased out his cigs-and-chips operation, too. Meantime, the LCB decided on a site for the displaced Penn liquor store. It will be housed in what’s now Risqué Video, an adult-video store at 43rd and Chestnut. It makes sense. Who rents porn DVDs anymore?

There’s no timetable yet for the new store’s opening. When I spoke with the LCB’s Stacey Witalec, she said, “We hope to finalize within six months.”

“Oh! That’s not so bad.”

“That’s just finalizing the location—the real estate issues,” she clarified. “Six months until construction begins. If things go well.”

Marcy’s in a two-year master’s program. I’m going to suggest she head out of state for her Ph.D.

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