By Sarah Rosenblum
Imagine if Union provided kegs at freshman orientation. Imagine walking through Dutch and seeing students and professors casually sharing pitchers of beer after class. Imagine if there were beer trucks at Springfest and unlimited amounts of champagne for students andtheir families at graduation. Sounds like a dream? It was the reality for Union students who were lucky enough to be born only 23 years before most of us…
Before the New York drinking age changed from 18 to 19 in 1983, and 19 to 21 in 1985, Union freshman entered college with the same legal rights as the senior class and they were able to get drinks at the Ratskeller and Dutch Hollow Pub, located in the basement of Reamer.
The Dutch Hollow Pub was renovated to look like the bar on the popular TV show Cheers. It was a place for students to unwind after class with their friends. Some professors even held office hours in this pub, and it was another environment for students and faculty to interact beyond the classroom. No one thought twice about ordering a beer at two in the afternoon. Drinking was casual and did not dominate the social activities on campus.
This created a more mature and social drinking culture since students were not being policed by the point system. Since drinking was not “forbidden” there was less of an allure to want to get wasted on the weekends. Drinking was also more of a social experience, since it was happening in popular campus hot spots, instead of behind closed doors in Davidson and College Park.
Professor Suzie Benack came to Union in 1981 and she reminisces about the Dutch Hollow Pub: “Faculty would go to read the paper, they would meet with students, grade tests, go in groups, and would get pitchers of beer. There were no times when it was designated that you couldn’t drink during the week. This mindset that faculty and students shouldn’t drink together was not an issue back then.”
Professor Alan Taylor started working at Union in 1975. He remembers that “the freshman orientation picnic at the Girling Center on Aqueduct Road in the early-to mid 80’s, when the drinking age was 18. The College provided kegs and the beer trucks were all there. No one thought too much about it.” He also recalls fraternities occasionally having cocktail parties for faculty.
When the campus no longer provided alcohol for students, the fraternities became the primary place for students to drink on campus, creating a social scene that was dominated by Greek life. Alcohol was free for students who attended these invite-only parties.
The campus essentially tolerated the mindset that it was okay to break alcohol law at the fraternities, since the college wasn’t paying for it or directly distributing it.
Benack says, “During this period, people started complaining about Greek domination and faculty and administrators started becoming more concerned with the social scene on campus. There was concern about the increasing amount of drinking that was going on and the things that went with it; anti-intellectualism, sexism, destruction of campus property.”
A survey report conducted in 1994-1995 found that while most students were happy with the academic life at Union, a huge percentage were not happy with the social life. The students who reported to be most happy were white males Greeks. Independents, women, and students of color were dissatisfied with the social climate during this period.
This motivated the campus community to create an alternative social environment where a diverse range of students could interact and socialize in a mature drinking environment. Benack was one of the leading forces behind the Minervas and she says the original group saw the Minervas as a more “adult drinking culture.” They envisioned a place for students to have a book club over a glass wine, to watch a sports game and have a beer, or have cocktail parties on the weekends.
However, with the law being more strictly enforced as other colleges faced law suits over drinking induced deaths, Union had to become more cautious about enforcing the law and the Minerva’s can only serve alcohol if it is being served with an actual meal. This unfortunately has not created the laid back drinking culture that the initial group hoped for. While it is a nice alternative to fraternity parties, it is not the more widely attended option.
“We aren’t helping students mature by taking this attitude and we are losing credibility by trying to prevent something that we know is going to happen. To act as if we are trying to enforce a law that no one believes can possibly be enforced separates us from students. We wont have any serious conversations about the things that really matter until something changes”, says Benack.
Taylor says, “I personally would like to see the drinking age set at 18. That way, we could all focus on the problem of lack of respect—for academics, for women, and for property—that is associated with drinking (but not a characteristic of most who drink) as opposed to spending all of our energy singling out that ill-fated student who should legally have a wrist band but alas does not.”
Many Union students agree that a lowered drinking age would be beneficial for the campus community. Alethea Schepperly ’12 thinks that students would be safer if they didn’t have to journey off campus to drink. “If the drinking age was 18 this would lower the drinking and driving statistics since students would not have to leave campus and get in a car to seek out off campus bars. College students should be able to drink in a safe environment, in order to prevent them from risking their lives by getting in a car to drink elsewhere.”
My term abroad to Florence was my first experience with a truly mature and safe drinking environment. For once, drinking was encouraged and not forbidden. For the first time, I actually savored and sipped my wine slowly, taking in all of the flavors and enjoying it as a cultural and academic experience. The Italians are on to something; their approach to alcohol instead left everyone with an awakened palate.