It’s two in the afternoon on a typical Saturday at Vanderbilt University. The D1 SEC Vandy/Kentucky game is coming to a close, and Vandy’s heading for another loss. It isn’t a big deal though—no one seems to even know. That’s because the entertainment is outside of the stadium, directly outside, in the front yards of the houses lining frat row.
The tailgates, most of which started at six in the morning, are raging on with little sign of slowing down, except for the seniors who have indulged their last Vandy tailgate to such an extent that they are passed out across couches, yards, and floors. The early morning barbecues and dancing are now accompanied by various forms of debauchery. A couch in the yard of Sigma Chi has been inverted and the feathers now decorate the front lawn along with beer cans and solo cups. A giant inflatable Santa Claus in Phi Delt’s (dry house) yard is attacked by a group of ATOs who untie it from the ground and drag it across twenty-fourth avenue to their lawn. As this happens, some SAEs start eyeing the fun, and decide to shotgun some beers in the lawn and charge across the street to steal the Santa from the ATOs. Captive in SAE’s lawn, Santa is “humped into submission” by a pack of drunken fraternity brothers. ZBT, two houses over, sees this happening and decides to join in, charging the lawn with pocket knives drawn. They pop and slice Santa into a deflated pile of plastic. The SAEs then dispose of the remains in their backyard (god knows what else is back there).
Despite the cross fraternity interaction, there are no hostilities. Everyone laughs and then moves on in their pursuit of more fun. One brother, adrenaline pumping, gauges interest from the others on the lawn in shotgunning another beer and running over to Sigma Nu (four houses down) to tackle one of their newly added Christmas trees lining the path leading to their door. The other brothers politely decline and continue their effort to hit an empty beer can over the street, into ATO’s yard, with a six iron. They were ultimately unsuccessful.
Standing in the yard watching all of this happen, all of the guys dressed in button downs and ties dancing with girls in sun dresses on the front porches of every house on the row, cups in hand, hundreds of people out in every direction, I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated. This was the college people reminisce about in the office for years after graduation.
To be clear, it wasn’t the drinking itself that I was envious of. Per capita there was probably less drinking than what you’d find in a dorm, fraternity, or off-campus party at Northwestern. That’s because it was primarily beer (Vanderbilt has rules against hard liquor) and it wasn’t rushed or hidden. There were cop cars driving by but they didn’t have any problems. There also was no time constraint since the parties were permitted and therefore had no chance of being broken up. This, in turn, meant people didn’t need to get as loaded as they could as quickly as they could.
What I found captivating was a certain synthesis of youthful energy, freedom, and responsibility. These kids were having fun—stupid fun, dancing fun, drinking fun—and they were allowed to, or at least defacto allowed to. Because the school can’t officially condone underage drinking, it has set up a system of enforcement that allows it to take place in a reasonable manner.
Vanderbilt is not the only school that has done this. “Open Door Policies” at schools like Swathmore and Claremont Mckenna allow for defacto school-sponsored drinking. Schools like Williams and Dartmouth simply don’t bother students and let them self-regulate.
A reasonable person may ask if this is safe for the students. Vanderbilt has not had an alcohol-related death in at least four years. I tried searching every possible combination of “Vanderbilt, student death, and drinking,” but got no results at all so I cannot confirm past then. This of course is not the result when the same search is done for Northwestern.
What makes Vandy special is a certain ratio of fun to academic quality. Their ratio blows Northwestern out of the water. This is probably the case for Dartmouth, Stanford, and UVA as well. These schools want college to be about more than killing yourself over four classes a quarter (Stanford and Dartmouth, also on the quarter system, only do 3 a quarter). They understand that growth and maturity in college are as much dependent on social interaction as they are on academics.
A lot of what I saw at Vandy was the archetypal Animal House stupidity that all high school students imagine college to be like. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. By letting students be students out in the open, instead of hidden away, everyone is safer and better off. It also builds a feeling of community among all students. Instead of social outings being small, fragmented and secretive, they are a shared experience.
The takeaway is that even though Northwestern fails miserably at acknowledging the realities of life as an 18-21 year old, it doesn’t have to. President Schapiro will most likely fix a lot of this, but he has so much on his plate we shouldn’t expect changes anytime soon. To accelerate the process it’s about time we start shuffling up the student life office and getting a new Vice President of Student Affairs. Otherwise I’m transferring to Vanderbilt.