The last thing Abby* remembered was a vodka lemonade.
Even though she was safe in her dorm room, Abby struggled to remember the details of the previous night. She grew more and more scared.
She remembered going to an off-campus apartment party near Burger King with her boyfriend. She remembered having two beers, then going up to the bar to get her third drink of the night, the vodka lemonade. She remembered a man hovering behind the bar. He seemed out of place. He poured her a drink. Abby knew she took a few sips of that vodka lemonade. After that, though, her mind was completely blank.
Abby’s boyfriend, who was asleep on her futon, woke up a few minutes later and flled her in: After she ordered her vodka lemonade, Abby began acting out of character. She started slurring her words and falling all over herself, and eventually got so bad that her boyfriend had to carry her back to her dorm on south campus. Her boyfriend was pretty worried: He knew she hadn’t planned on drinking that much and she was only on her third drink of the night at the time. He also knew how much was too much for Abby. This shouldn’t have been it.
During the walk back, Abby deteriorated to the point where she thought she was back in her hometown – not at Northwestern University in Evanston – and didn’t even recognize her own boyfriend. At this point, Abby’s boyfriend called an ambulance. But when the police and EMTs arrived, she wouldn’t accept medical service. Finally, after the emergency responders left, her boyfriend managed to get her home.
The following day, she called the host of the party and learned that nobody was assigned to pour drinks. This knowledge, combined with her boyfriend’s earlier account, led Abby to conclude that she had been roofed or otherwise drugged by the out-of-place man at the bar. It was the only logical explanation. She hadn’t thrown up and didn’t have the throbbing headache that typically accompanied a hangover.
Abby worried that her parents would fnd out she had been drinking and that she might get in trouble with the University. Later that week, those fears came true – an email from an administrator landed in her inbox asking her to meet and explain why an ambulance had been called for her. When Abby met with administrators, they believed her story. But, citing University policy, they still asked her to redo AlcoholEdu since she had been drinking underage at the time she was drugged.
“To be told, ‘well, we would like you to redo AlcoholEDU because you obviously don’t know how to protect yourself or prevent this from happening’ was problematic to me,” Abby says. “I felt I should’ve been treated more as the victim of someone else’s actions and not made to jump through new hoops.”
Abby’s case was one of more than 900 alleged alcohol violations reported by Northwestern during the 2014-2015 academic year. Since then, the University has launched a pilot program where student groups can register events with alcohol and introduced an amnesty policy aimed at encouraging safer and healthier drinking. But student leaders like ASG president Nehaarika Mulukutla say that administrators haven’t done enough. The results of a study she recommended this summer suggest that declines in on-campus drinking have been replaced with more drinking off campus. But as alcohol continues to fow to these less regulated spaces, students are pushing administrators to do more to keep students out of harm’s way.
Last spring, 30 or so students gathered in Harris L07 for Northwestern’s frst alcohol town hall. Armed with bright pamphlets outlining the goals and mission of Northwestern’s Community Alcohol Coalition (CAC), the students raised their hands, waiting to be called on by Mulukutla to interrogate Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL) director Travis Martin. As Martin answered one question, another hand popped up in a whack-a-mole fashion.
Mulukutla and Martin came into the meeting armed with two goals: explain the University’s new event registration policy and address student concerns about the policy. Both were members in CAC and had advocated for reforms to mold NU’s previous alcohol policy into one better-suited for students and administrators.
This goal was complicated, however, by several factors. The frst was that this town hall took place around three months after Northwestern’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) was accused of using date rape drugs and sexually assaulting women on campus. As a result, passions ran high as administrators and students
“Relegating drinking to a male-dominated space, and having people feel like the only way they can participate in this culture or have that experience is essentially just at the hands of male members of a Greek system,” Mulukutla says, “is a huge part of just the general safety and feeling of comfort and wellness and health of consumption.”
Another complicating factor was that many students didn’t really understand Northwestern’s alcohol policy – a reality compounded by Mulukutla and her vice president, Weinberg senior Rosalie Gambrah, incorrectly calling Northwestern a dry campus throughout their campaign.
Mulukulta and Gambrah’s rhetoric refects a common student misconception: More than one in three students still express interest in making Northwestern a “wet campus” even though the school’s alcohol policy allows students over 21 to possess and consume alcohol in residence halls. When asked to clarify these earlier remarks, Mulukutla explained that she and Gambrah used that language in a more culture-based sense. She claims that the University’s other alcohol policies remain so harsh that the school may as well be a dry campus, and that these factors push students to drink off-campus.
“People don’t want to be drinking in a place that is punitive and restrictive,” Mulukutla says. “They don’t feel comfortable having these experiences in places like their own residence halls.”
Perhaps that was the most complicating factor of all. The town hall – called to explain the University’s new alcohol event registration policy for fraternities and sororities – may not have even addressed off-campus drinking, the most urgent alcohol-related issue at Northwestern.
Soon after Mulukutla and Gambrah took offce this spring, they asked the Institute for Student Business Education to (ISBE) work with Northwestern’s Interfraternity Council to study trends in student drinking. The study indicated that at the same time that alcohol incidents reported at fraternities and sororities have decreased, off-campus incidents have increased at a nearly identical rate. Today, students are as likely to consume alcohol in off-campus spaces as Greek-affliated ones.
For Abby, the lack of regulation at off-campus parties was a major risk factor. She was almost certain that the man who drugged her was not a Northwestern student, and because of this, the University wasn’t able to punish him in any way.
“[The University] was kind of like, ‘Well in that case, there’s not a ton we can do. You didn’t call the police, you didn’t report this to the police, there’s no way to prove that there was roofes in your system,’” Abby says, “which is why I kind of think the emphasis was put on me learning to drink safer instead of improving the drinking environment.”
These results led ISBE to conclude that current alcohol policy is not making student drinking safer, but merely relegating it to off-campus spaces where there is “signifcantly less regulation and riskier drinking habits.”
Mulukutla and other students drafted a proposal over the summer to present to the CAC this fall. They wanted the University to revise its policy to better acknowledge and address off-campus drinking, by potentially expanding the event registration policy, now open to fraternities and sororities, to off-campus residences. Discussions over elements of this proposal and ISBE’s data are ongoing, but even in the early stages students have found the University’s reception lukewarm.
Director of Student Conduct Lucas Christain says that administrators appreciated the students’ effort to draft the proposal and collect data. But he argues that students may have misinterpreted some information. When interviewed, however, Christain did not indicate specifc inacuraccies, though he doubted the comparisons made by students to peer institutions, like Stanford, Cornell, Vanderbilt and Notre Dame.
ASG Chief of Staff Lars Benson suggested that administrators may have been hesitant to accept this data because it would require the University to take on greater responsibility in addressing off-campus drinking.
“The University, I think, is frequently very suspicious of data that’s gathered by students, and they’re very reluctant to accept data that is not cultivated by their own institutions,” Benson says, “which is diffcult, because you end up in the situation where the University, I believe, tends to only look where it wants to look and tends to only look for the answers it wants to fnd.”
Weinberg junior Neha Gupta, ISBE’s Director of Analytics, says ISBE’s sample of 242 students was large and varied enough to make their survey representative. ISBE also gathered a hefty amount of aggregate data to compare the effects of NU’s alcohol policies to those at peer institutions.
“I think it is tough, because surveys are not perfect,” Gupta says. “We can’t perfectly make surveys that don’t have those biases inherently in surveys, but ... it does seem pretty evident that the off-campus [area of alcohol policy] needed a little bit more attention.”
At Northwestern, alcohol hasn’t always been the subject of such controversy. In fact, Norris University Center actually had a bar for nearly a decade in the ‘80s and ‘90s. When it opened in October 1982, Norris offcial Greg Blaesing told The Daily Northwestern that he hoped the new social hub would be a “mecca for ‘social interaction and responsible drinking.’” For a few years, students enjoyed music and comedy performances at night while sipping cocktails, including a fan-favorite called “The Screaming Orgasm.”
The party came to a halt, however, when The Bar allegedly served a 19-year-old woman in April 1991 who later that night was involved in a serious car crash. In January of the next year, Norris Director Bruce Kaiser announced The Bar would close for 10 days to combat “excessive drinking and the use of fake IDs.” The Bar never re-opened, and Kaiser told The Daily in 1992 that “it would have been easier to close the damn thing years ago.”
Nearly 30 years after the days of Screaming Orgasms, administrators and students once again fnd themselves in a tough spot. Students want change, and administrators are willing to talk – but they argue these changes will take time to discuss and implement.
“Nobody here is shut off in making changes to things,” Christain says. “I think it’s just about doing that in a really well-informed way, and that’s not always as simple as saying, ‘Here’s a problem and here’s the solution.’”
But while students and administrators talk, dangers persist. Sometimes, it comes in the form of someone drugging a drink at an off-campus party, as with Abby. Often, it means accepting a drink from a stranger far from campus because students feel like they don’t have a safe place to enjoy alcohol on campus.
Martin says the University is moving toward enacting a new event registration policy for fraternity and sorority events based on what Mulukutla and Martin presented at the town hall last year. The University piloted the program during fall quarter, and Martin says he anticipates it becoming an offcial policy. However, the policy would only apply to events sponsored by Greek organizations – an unaffliated student hosting an apartment party would not be able to register.
Mulukutla and other students proposed extending the registration policy to all off-campus events. Under the proposed plan, students would need to fll out a risk management plan and have a certain number of sober monitors present in order to host off-campus events with alcohol. However, the University has rejected this proposal because it infringes on the jurisdiction of the city of Evanston.
This disagreement over event registration risks obscuring more systemic problems around alcohol. Data from an Alcohol Impact Report last year found that more than 30 percent of Northwestern students are heavy or problematic drinkers – a rate much higher than the national average. More than half of students also believe that AlcoholEdu, the online program used to teach students about safer and healthier drinking habits, is ineffective. Even newer practices, like the amnesty program, have conspicuous drawbacks – the current policy requires that the University notify parents about an alcohol-related incident, even when students comply and act responsibly.
Despite shelving the off-campus registration policy, Mulukutla says it is still crucial to fnd ways to curtail dangerous and unregulated off-campus drinking. She plans on moving forward with a three-peg program: Creating more spaces for non-Greek, non-White students to consume alcohol by allowing buildings like the Women’s Center and Black House to host events with alcohol; clarifying current policies so students better understand where they can legally consume alcohol and the consquences when they participate in underage drinking; and encouraging RAs to promote a safer, healthier drinking culture.
These recommendations will not directly affect the University’s off-campus alcohol policy, but Mulukutla hopes they will lead to cultural change. Neither, she says, are the recommendations a fnal solution. That said, Christain emphasized that the University is open to creating new policies, though he says it might take longer than some students would like.
“I think students should be able to be in college and have fun, and to do that in ways that are safe,” Christain says. “I don’t think anyone on our campus should be saying ‘Alcohol is the worst thing’ because it’s the matter of how we help people have healthy relationships with it.”But Benson argues that unless things change dramatically, the alcohol policy will continue to refect a state of denial.
“I think that sometimes there is a tendency in the administration to be overly cautious to the point of complete inaction,” Benson says, “to the point where you’re completely ignoring a problem.”