Stuck between city and students, College is hopelessly neutral

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November 17, 2008

11:49 PM

There weren’t many material results from last week’s talks on the three-person housing rule. A proposal to change the law was sent to the Planning Commission, giving the city another few months to drag its feet and come up with new excuses for treating students like second-rate citizens. There were some interesting developments, however. Consider the following quotes from Friday’s Flat Hat:

“Several City Council members criticized the College administration’s absence from earlier conversations in the community regarding three-person housing.”

“Every neighborhood has experienced this: Students shouting and cursing. Drunks vomiting and urinating at all hours. What’s the College’s response? The ‘Drunk Van.’… The College turns a blind eye [to these problems].” — Williamsburg Vice-Mayor and College of William and Mary Economics Professor Clyde Haulman.

Haulman actually makes a good point in the midst of his shameful pandering: Where has the College been during all this? Why has it stayed silent on the three-person housing debate? It is obviously a player, so why isn’t it at the table?

The answer is simple: The College has created the problem and has little incentive to provide a solution.
To understand what I mean, we need to revisit some history. In the fall of 2003, the College made drastic changes to its alcohol policy following an alleged sexual assault incident at a fraternity complex that involved an underage female who was not a student. Felony charges were filed against a male student, and although the charges were eventually dropped, the College understandably took the incident very seriously.
Facing scrutiny and a potential public relations nightmare, the College responded by imposing harsh restrictions on campus social events. As Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Mark Constantine told me during my freshman year, the idea was “to put more teeth into the [alcohol] policy.” Enforcement was stepped up, social events became more difficult to host as guest list policies changed and the administration grew more and more suspicious of fraternities.

Fraternities were presented with a clear option. They could abide by the new rules, decrease their social activities, hurt their opportunities to attract new members during rush and essentially risk their houses and their charters each time they decided to register an event with alcohol. Or, they could move their social events somewhere else.

And where do you suppose those parties were moved? Off-campus houses.

It’s no secret that many off-campus house parties, particularly the larger ones that garner so much criticism from city residents, are in a sense Greek-affiliated. Each year, certain off-campus properties develop reputations as being the house where Fraternity X or Sorority Y throws parties. While these parties are generally small compared to what one might experience at larger universities or party schools in America, they arouse hatred from city residents because, sure, people get drunk, make noise and do stupid things.

This is not to say that it is only Greeks who throw off-campus parties, nor is it only these organizations that have been hurt by the College’s alcohol policy. But the fraternity complex could serve as a vibrant social environment (yes, even in the Units) where the William and Mary Police Department could keep a close eye on things and make sure that nobody gets hurt, as they did before the policy was changed.

Instead, the College has outsourced its social life to the city of Williamsburg: Its police, its residents and its landlords. When Student Assembly members and other students go to City Council meetings, they don’t represent the College officially. They are simply viewed as concerned students. And concerned students, aside from the prospect of getting a student elected to City Council, don’t have much muscle when it comes to community affairs. The College is silent on the three-person housing issue because it is caught in the middle of a crossfire between students and city residents — a conflict the College saw coming and did its part to instigate.

Haulman said that negative externalities happen when large numbers of students live around the College. I’m not going to debate externalities with an economics professor, but he might talk with the folks from the original Alcohol Task Force if he wants a cause-and-effect analysis of why some city residents — and apparently even himself — think that students are to blame for off-campus social events.

And, as a last quick note, the “Drunk Bus,” as Haulman so eloquently puts it, was not the “College’s response.” It was the students’s response: A response to an alcohol policy that put their peers in danger each weekend by making drunk driving, crime and even sexual assault more likely.

The College has had no response, and it’s not hard to figure out why.

Alex Ely is a senior at the College.

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