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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC’s problem with binge drinking is a recent one

UNC’s alcohol policies have drastically changed in the past 50 years. UNC recently started a binge drinking task force. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC-CH

UNC’s alcohol policies have drastically changed in the past 50 years. UNC recently started a binge drinking task force. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC-CH

For alumna Judy Bistany South, the worst consequence of drinking in the late 1960s was getting banned from University Lake.

South’s memories of partying at UNC are a far cry from some of the stories UNC students tell today.

“We went out with a group of people and we were drinking beer and the warden came and he said, ‘You must leave and never come back,’” said South, who graduated from UNC in 1970.

During South’s time at UNC, students would down cans of beer in the fields and just about anywhere other than University Lake in Chapel Hill.

“I don’t remember any restrictions whatsoever, but I was young and stupid,” she said.

Even though she and her friends enjoyed drinking socially at fraternity houses and bars like the Shack and the Tavern, South said the alcohol culture in the late 1960s wasn’t so centered on drinking to get outrageously drunk.

But throughout the years, UNC has grappled with more and more cases of binge drinking, defined as excessive alcohol consumption in a short period of time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked binge drinking to health issues, including injuries and alcohol poisoning.

One recent study found that 30 percent of UNC students reported that they had engaged in binge drinking in the past month. Other studies have linked alcohol consumption to violent crimes, including sexual assault.

The University launched a working group in late February to address a broad spectrum of drinking behaviors, particularly binge drinking.

In 2014, there were a total of 929 cases in the UNC emergency department in which ethanol or “alcohol” was the chief complaint.

At a working group meeting Tuesday, Dean Blackburn, director of Student Wellness, said there are now 30 to 35 students in a collegiate alcohol recovery program.

“(The task force) is the outgrowth of recognizing the emergence of this really dangerous drinking culture,” said Dean of Students Jonathan Sauls.

“It’s not an atypical experience over an extended weekend at Chapel Hill for there to be a student who is transported to UNC Hospitals or (for there to be) at least an apprehension of alcohol poisoning.”

Still, addressing alcohol abuse on campus has been a point of contention for decades, and the new task force is by no means the first measure the University has taken to curb alcohol abuse.

Alcohol has long been synonymous with the college experience. And as legislation, tragedies and social habits related to alcohol have changed, so has the University.

The 1960s: kegs, good times

In the 1960s, the UNC system had not yet delegated to university chancellors the task of setting alcohol laws.

“I would go on campus and take candid shots of people on the lawn — whether it be the men by the men’s dorms or women by women’s dorms — and you would almost invariably see bottles of beer,” said Charly Mann, who attended UNC in the 1960s and has spent most of his life in Chapel Hill.

In 1968, there was talk that UNC would alter its policies on drugs and alcohol, which would mean extending University jurisdiction in drug cases to include offenses committed anywhere. But the greatest change to alcohol policy would come in the 1970s.

Despite the University’s lack of restrictions, partying culture was not so focused on getting drunk, Mann said.

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“I spent a lot of time at fraternity houses, and there would certainly be big kegs and people having a good time,” he said.

“But I can’t remember seeing anyone outrageously drunk until the late ’80s.”

Mann said toward the end of the decade, with the advent of the birth control pill and a more liberal attitude toward sex, alcohol consumption shot up.

“When people began having sex more in the late ’60s, alcohol became even more prevalent — it was the loosening-up drug,” he said.

“But it wasn’t like the date rape thing when they would get women really polluted.”

The 1970s: beer in the Union

In November 1971, the executive committee for the Consolidated University Board of Trustees voted to permit chancellors of six UNC-system campuses to determine when and where liquor could be consumed on campuses, which was the greatest reversal in University alcohol policies up that point, according to an article published in The Daily Tar Heel.

But at UNC, Chancellor N. Ferebee Taylor didn’t provide any specific written rules concerning consumption of alcoholic beverages on campus, states a Daily Tar Heel article published on October 4, 1979.

“(Taylor) made the decision that brown bagging beer and wine could be consumed in the Union and its extensions,” said William Strickland, an associate vice chancellor, in the 1979 article.

The Ehringhaus field was the only legal outdoor space where alcohol could be consumed, as it was considered an extension of Union space.

Residence halls were allowed to spend money on alcohol for floor parties. Serving minors became a point of contention, as residence halls neglected to check IDs.

But Susan Hardy, who graduated from UNC in 1976, said alcohol was not the drug of choice.

“It was more people smoking pot than drinking alcohol,” Hardy said.

“I can remember people talking about going over to Forest Theatre to smoke pot at high noon. I wasn’t involved in sororities or fraternities, so I wasn’t involved in that.”

The 1980s: the big 21

UNC officials cited the University’s atmosphere as the greatest cause of drinking on campus, stated a Daily Tar Heel article from November 1982.

“There is not an event here that does not promote alcohol,” said Lucie Minuto, health educator for the Health Education Service, in the 1982 article. “The athlete of the month is promoted by a beer company, Chapel Thrill is conducive to drinking and the alumni throw beer and beach music parties.”

Each sorority house had its own rules about alcohol, with only one rule — prohibiting alcoholic beverages at rush parties prior to bid days — applicable to all houses.

In 1986, the minimum drinking age in North Carolina was raised to 21 after the passage of a national law.

“At that point in time you would have parties and your student activity fees went to kegs,” said, Jean-Marie VunCannon, a UNC resident adviser at the time. “Dorms would have parties and that was factored into your budget. That was a strange thing.”

Alcohol became the biggest drug problem on UNC-system campuses, according to Vin McIntyre, former chairman of the UNC Student Affairs task force on drug education, according to The Daily Tar Heel in 1987.

The change in drinking age was a pivotal moment in alcohol history, said Michael Hevel, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Arkansas.

“Students drink secretly and drink large amounts of alcohol outside ... and they drink hard liquor because of the effects,” Hevel said.

“There are some troubling similarities between what happened after Prohibition and what happened when we changed the (minimum drinking) age from 18 to 21.”

VunCannon agreed there was a lot of drunkenness.

“I can remember being at football games, and it was lots of guys (who were drinking), and I got thrown up on once,” she said. “That was a fun story.”

Alcohol consumption was also not linked to rape during the 1980s, VunCannon said.

“I had drunk residents for sure, but the whole rape thing related to alcohol — that was not anything I was aware of,” she said. “That just wasn’t a part of our culture then.”

The 1990s: crackdown

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp said accidents and tragedies led to the most significant alcohol policy changes of the 1990s, which were adjusted to dictate where and how alcohol could be served.

“I remember there was a student who fell down the elevator shaft in the Granville Towers, and I remember a student fell off a balcony,” he said.

“There was a series of accidents and things that led to a task force that led to a rewriting of the policy at that time.”

In the 1990s, the University cracked down on alcohol consumption, said CL Lassiter, who attended UNC from 1968 to 1972 and then worked at the University for 32 years in varying roles.

Alcohol was banned at University events, unless the host received special permission, he said.

In May 1996, five students died in a Phi Gamma Delta Fraternity house fire. Four of these students had high blood alcohol content levels, The Daily Tar Heel reported. The incident led campus leaders to renew their search for answers to what they referred to as UNC’s alcohol problem.

The alcohol culture itself was extremely open, Crisp said.

“There was hardly an event that involved faculty, staff and graduate students that didn’t have drinking involved,” Crisp said. “We had kegs as part of (law school) orientation. There was no sense of responsibility about it.

“It was more open and rampant, yet it wasn’t as focused on binge drinking.”

The 2000s: slippery sips

In 2005, Chapel Hill residents began engaging in a fight against underage drinking, according to an April 2005 Daily Tar Heel article.

Some Chapel Hill Town Council members supported a statewide beer keg registration policy that would require merchants to track keg purchases and thus permit law enforcement officials to prosecute merchants who supplied alcohol to minors.

College presidents expressed support for a lowered drinking age. A 2008 petition, which Duke University president Richard Brodhead signed, argued underage drinking and binge drinking are linked.

Crisp said the idea that the two are linked is complex.

“I don’t think for underage drinkers, there’s a patent on binge drinking,” he said. “I don’t believe a change in the drinking age would significantly impact binge drinking.”

Drinking in excess seems to be a problem at more elite colleges and universities, said Hevel, the education professor.

“If you took all of the state flagship universities and compared them to regional or comprehensive universities, like Coastal Carolina University, I would say the drinking rate would be higher at the flagship universities (like UNC) than the non-flagship universities,” he said.

Sauls said pregaming has increased during his tenure in the Office of Student Affairs, and the number of students who are facing serious health consequences has increased, at least anecdotally, recently.

The alcohol culture has shifted away from beer and drinking for fun to hard liquor and binge drinking. South said in her days at UNC, guzzling beer was not so commonplace.

“I think that when they changed the drinking age to 21, it changed the dynamic,” she said. “It made it a big thing, whereas it wasn’t a big thing before. You weren’t trying to drink as much as you could before you got caught.”