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Buzz Kill: Is Tufts Out of Control or Overly Controlled?

News & Features | November 13, 2012

Most everyone knows that Tufts isn’t exactly a party school. We have a reputation for being serious and academically focused; we’re more likely to be nerds than frat stars. And it’s not just word of mouth: college books and ranking websites generally support this stereotype of Tufts as a non-party school. For instance, College Prowler rates Tufts nightlife a B- and Tufts Greek life a C. In the same vein, TheU.com features posts on Tufts that say things like, “For the serious student, not the party animal,” and “Tufts: Awesome… but not a party school.” One poster writes, “The advice I’d give… if you want a school where there’s always a party, this is not the place. On weekends, it is fairly easy to find things to keep yourself entertained but on a Tuesday for example, we’re working our asses off. You can definitely find people who party all the time, but most people do not fall into that category.” So, we work hard, and we play not quite so hard.

Why, then, has the Tufts administration been cracking down more and more on Tufts partying? In recent years, numerous efforts have been made to curtail excessive alcohol consumption and control events that tend to be big for drinking. The administration’s actions reflect distress about student safety and responsibility, but why exactly is the administration so concerned? The image that they seem to have of us is one where we’re out of control partiers, endangering ourselves on a regular basis with excessive alcohol use. This image does not jibe with the social image we have of ourselves. As one student explains, “During the week, [school] is a job for most people. On weekends we relax and have fun, but we’re going to college for college.” More than that, the administration’s image doesn’t really fit with anyone’s perception of Tufts—from locals whose biggest complaint is noise at 1 a.m. to national news sources questioning our strict administrative policies.

In talking with those who are separate from, but closely tied to, student partying, it becomes clear that the community surrounding Tufts generally views us positively. Anne Miller, a familiar face for many students at Hillsides Wine and Spirits, explained that the neighborhood sees students as usually harmless. “I just know, this is what you do in college,” she explains. She’s been working at Hillsides for 21 years, so she’s seen many generations of Tufts students come and go. With each generation, she says, “[the partying] is less and less and less. I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years… You used to be able to drink at Spring Fling. That, and now not having NQR [the Naked Quad Run]—you see a difference.”

Miller said that she does hear complaints from customers about students, but has never heard or seen anything that was shocking or troubling. “When people say, ‘Jesus, if these kids get one more keg…’ I hear it from everybody.” She said she’s heard complaints about students peeing on lawns or throwing trash on lawns, and the most common issue, noise. She used to live on Bellevue Street, with 7 out of 11 houses rented by Tufts students and explained that things were usually under control and fairly quiet. But, “the only problem was [when it was warm], people [were] playing ’ruit ’til three or four in the morning, outside. Just being loud and obnoxious.” She had to tell students to go inside, to respect people who wake up early for work—and the students were responsive to her requests and would try to go inside around midnight, she said. This is a telling fact, and one in stark contrast with the behavior of students in response to the police coalitions at past NQRs. At NQR, students were argumentative and disobedient to TUPD, but here they’re described as respectful and responsible enough to cut down on noise when asked. Perhaps the dichotomy is a product of students’ general resentment for TUPD trying to shut down a beloved Tufts tradition early in the night.

The complaint about students’ noise level is a typical one for students, Tufts University Police Department (TUPD), or landlords to hear about. One landlord in the area, who has rented to only Tufts students for over twenty years, said that when cops get called, “it’s usually for too many people, not belligerence. You know, do people go home or linger in the streets?” He said that he’s “never seen the destruction, the fist fights, none of that.” Only once has he felt a student was truly disrespectful, and he explains that in general, “with [neighbors] calling the police, there’s lots of exaggeration involved. If a neighbor really wants to make trouble for you, that’ll happen…but if I hear a complaint I’ll go check things out, and students are usually polite and receptive.” He’s had very good relationships with most of his tenants, and at this point, when it comes to reports of partying, he’s “started to believe the students [in their version of events] over the neighbors.”

Both he and Miller noted that Tufts partying has decreased over the past twenty years, attributing this to steps taken by the administration and increase in workload. Neither of them see the party atmosphere at Tufts as anything aggressive or dangerous. Miller says she loves the students and her job, and the student landlord said that the community views Tufts well, as it is “good at cohabitating.” Local news sources agree with this view on Tufts—generally positive. It is virtually impossible to find articles on community members complaining about the university, whereas there are numerous pieces like “Tufts hosts Community Day,” “Tufts honors Japan with awareness efforts,” and even “Tufts students save squirrel” published in local news sites Medford Patch and Somerville Patch. Tufts is reported on by local sources in a positive light. In some ways, our neighbors and greater community know us better than our administration does. The people who live their lives next to us don’t see a problem with our partying habits, because they don’t see us as police reports or isolated incidents.

However, there also are local articles on the recent ban of NQR and the 2009 Spring Fling “Mass Casualty Incident,” which occurred after the administration’s ban on drinking at the event. It’s likely no coincidence that NQR and Spring Fling are two of the events cited by Miller as big partying days, since at our school big partying days are rare enough to warrant mention. Tufts’ partying tends to make local headlines only when there is a change in university policy.

This trend isn’t limited to local news, as Tufts has come into the national spotlight regarding its policy changes a few times in recent years. In 2009, it made national headlines when the administration prohibited sexual activity with a roommate in the room, literally putting into words something that most people see as common sense. CNN, the Huffington Post, US News, and World Report published stories on Tufts’ new rule, and Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno, SNL, and Conan O’Brien all featured jokes about it on their late night shows. Then, last spring, Tufts once again made headlines after members of the men’s crew team were suspended for their “Check out our cox” Spring Fling t-shirts. There was a good amount of backlash against the suspension. Sources from Barstool Sports to the Boston Globe weighed in on the issue. Though these news stories weren’t directly related to Tufts students’ partying or alcohol consumption, they were both instances of Tufts being nationally mocked or derided for what many saw as unnecessary policies related to students’ social lives. The nation, judging from reactions to these incidents, appears to view Tufts as an over-policed school—not one with too much partying.

So while the local community may see us as a nuisance at times, they don’t see us as belligerent or irresponsible neighbors. And the national view of Tufts is somewhat mocking—far from seeing students as irresponsible or unsafe. Where does our administration’s viewpoint fit into all of this? Strangely, it doesn’t seem to mesh at all.

The Tufts administration has implemented stricter alcohol policies since 2009, with a new Alcohol Task Force as well as the aforementioned ban on drinking at Spring Fling, the cancellation of NQR, and the temporary automatic placement on Probation 1 for violating any alcohol policy. Miller said that, in the past 10 or 20 years, she’s noticed a downturn in the amount of partying at Tufts and attributes this change to the new policies. The administration cited concern for students’ safety as their reasoning for each of these actions. Former president Lawrence Bacow wrote an op-ed in the Daily in support of the cancellation of NQR as one of his last actions just before leaving Tufts—probably waiting because his overall popularity with students would have suffered if he’d acted earlier. Bacow made a particularly compelling argument about the dangers of NQR, asking “whether a student has to die” before the university would cancel the event.

There’s no doubt that NQR was a night when many Tufts students got much drunker than normal. For most, it takes quite a bit of liquor to run in the buff in public. Miller discussed NQR, Spring Fling, and Homecoming as three of the only times that she sees students really drunk. “Those are the only times,” she says, “that I cut people off. I tell them, you want to come back in three or four hours fine, but go home and take a nap.” She added, though, that students almost always heed her advice: “They’re usually understanding, you know… they say, yeah you’re right, I should take a break, you’re right.”

This sort of rationality is what both Miller and landlords say Tufts students tend to exhibit. Disregarding NQR, Spring Fling, and Homecoming, there’s not much basis for the image the administration has of us, as students who are out of control and consume alcohol excessively. Some students may binge drink, but this statement could apply to almost any university in the United States. In looking at the college ranking systems’ low ratings of our social atmosphere, the locals unfazed by our behavior, and the national view of Tufts as tame rather than wild, the administration’s continuing crackdowns on students’ partying seems incongruent. In the case of the Spring Fling alcohol ban, administrative action backfired when the event was declared a “mass casualty incident” and 30 students were hospitalized. If the administration wasn’t bent on such strict alcohol policies overall, would there be less binge drinking on days like Spring Fling or Homecoming? The answer is unclear, but the question is still one worth asking ourselves.

When it comes to viewing Tufts’ social life, it’s important to remember the context: Tufts is a university and university students tend to drink, though we do so on a smaller scale than many other schools. The administration doesn’t appear to have the faith in its students that it should. When antagonistic cops try to shut down activities our NQR, we don’t respond well or particularly rationally; when our administration tells us we can’t legally drink at our Spring Fling, we rebel and binge before the event starts. But, when our friendly neighborhood liquor store worker tells us we’re too drunk, we listen, and when our landlords or neighbors call us and ask us to keep it down, we listen. The administration knows we’re smart and mature people—they chose us to be here. Now, instead of choosing to enact stricter alcohol policies, perhaps they should look at how Tufts’ social life is perceived by others. Tufts isn’t a “party school,” but it can—and should—still be a school that can have parties.