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.

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.