The departing student body president at Claremont McKenna College has warned the college administration that social policy changes, such as less frequent parties and more security fencing at events, have actually made the campus less safe and have driven students away to private binge drinking.
In an unusual open letter, bypassing past practices of private negotiations, Associated Students of CMC (ASCMC) President Aditya Pai CM '13 told campus officials that their new practices have significantly altered CMC's social scene for the worse.
Pai voiced his concerns in an open letter to the community, specifically to Vice President of Student Affairs Jefferson Huang and Dean of Students Mary Spellman on March 6.
“I think that the nature of school-wide events has changed,” Pai said. “There’s a lot more security, there’s a lot more fencing. Events are a lot less inclusive than they used to be within the 5Cs, and as a result, that has fragmented our social scene and made our community less cohesive than it used to be.”
Pai requested that an open dialogue about the social scene begin, allowing both the students and administration to voice concerns. Specifically, he asked for prompt implementation of a Social Scene Task Force that could discuss social priorities and policies before the end of this year in order to include input from current seniors who have experienced the change in social scene. This task force would resemble the Alcohol Task Force, which discussed alcohol policies and usage at CMC and was formed by Huang in 2009.
Pai said he understands the implications of the letter.
“It’s a dramatic move. It’s typically not the best way to approach these issues. CMC has an administration that is very receptive of student concerns, and the best way to approach these issues is typically to bring it up privately with administrators and with other students and work through them. But in this case, students felt that the Dean of Students just wasn’t listening to us, and that it was time to articulate the position publicly and have a discussion as a community.”
Pai said that the college should seek to strike a balance between taking social precautions and allowing students to participate in a vibrant social scene.
“I think the college’s intentions have been right; students want to be safe, and we have to think about the risk that we assume as a college,” Pai said. “I think that in practice, the policies that have been put in place have been misguided, and they haven’t accomplished the intended results. In fact, they’ve made students less safe.”
Pai said that as the social culture at CMC has declined since his first year (2009-2010), the alcohol culture has intensified. According to Pai, increased fencing and security at parties has contributed further to the popularity of high-risk drinking on campus.
“Alcohol plays a much larger part in student life than it did when I was a freshman, and I think that that’s a direct result of the diminishing of the social culture,” Pai said.
CMC’s social scene has long been considered by students to be an irreplaceable aspect of the school’s culture.
“The social aspects of CMC held a wide band in the spectrum of my liberal arts education. The ‘scene’ taught me how to network, negotiate, think quick, and—yes—enjoy life,” Max Gokhman CM ’06 wrote in an e-mail to TSL.
“CMC social gatherings aren't an excuse to decompress through debauchery like in most other colleges. Rather, they are another medium through which to develop oneself,” Gokhman wrote. “To an outsider this probably sounds like a wistful, rose-colored retrospective, but I know almost every alum who reads this will agree that without its social pillar CMC's Parthenon would crumble.”
In the memo, Pai highlighted what he sees as a dichotomy forming between the interests of the students and administration regarding the social scene.
“The fall 2012 semester marked a significant decline in the quality of our social scene, and was part of a larger decline since 2009,” Pai wrote in the memo. “Several factors have caused it. ASCMC has not always executed wet and dry events with the quality and frequency CMC students deserve. Students themselves have too often failed to treat our campus with respect. But most importantly, Dean of Students has gradually but dramatically transformed the social scene in the past few years.”
Pai wrote that the administration has attempted to reform what has been called the Monday-Thursday workweek and to reduce the emphasis placed on Thursday night events.
“[Dean of Students] has argued that Thursday parties cause loud disturbances in the community, make the campus less attractive to Friday visitors, and leave students less prepared for Friday classes,” wrote Pai in the memo. “Meanwhile, the College has substantially increased the amount of Friday classes since 2009.”
At the beginning of the fall of 2012, the CMC administration limited the number of 5C “Thursday Night Clubs” (TNC) to once a month and required more security, a larger location, and less alcohol.
“The administration’s policies have also changed TNC from a casual social event into a much less appealing dance party,” Pai wrote. “Through excessive security and fencing, the administration has transformed TNC from a casual, inclusive event to a less appealing, more exclusive party. Many students now feel they have to be drunk to enjoy themselves.”
Sam Pitcavage CM ’15 said he thinks that TNC is an integral part of the CMC social culture but agrees with Pai in saying that it has declined.
“Two things about TNC: a) They’re the same every week, frequented by the same people. And b) they’re becoming smaller and less fun,” Pitcavage said. “It’s definitely affected by choices the administration has made and the students planning.”
Pitcavage thinks that the transformation of TNC into a more exclusive event negatively impacts the social culture.
“People will often say that our social scene is inclusive, and I agree with that,” Pitcavage said. “If you talk to your friends that go to large institutions, your Saturday night is about what frat party you’re going to, what Greek function you’re going to. I think having the North Quad atmosphere here is so unique in that regard.”
Many students also defend the “work hard, play hard” attitude at CMC.
“I visited Cornell when I was looking at schools, and there was just not as much stress relief,” Ali Siddiqui CM ’15 said. “Here, we still have challenging courses, but we’re able to have fun.”
The CMC administration has declined to comment other than an open response to Pai’s memo, published by Huang on March 7.
In his response, Huang stressed the importance that the Office of the Dean of Students places on safety.
“It probably goes unnoticed to most students, but there are real harms and significant disruptions that our students experience from events that are not well planned or when individuals lose control of themselves,” Huang wrote in his letter.
Huang wrote that the administration will move forward to open up discourse between members of the CMC community when the college returns from Spring Break.
Pai said that student response has been overwhelmingly positive, ranging from personal e-mails showing support for a student-created petition asking for community dialogue regarding the social life at CMC. The petition, hosted on Change.org and promoted primarily through Facebook, received over 500 supporters within a matter of hours. Students also constructed a "beeramid" on North Quad on March 8 to show support although Campus Safety promptly broke up the demonstration.
“The notable thing about the support was that it was from people across the spectrum in terms of residential preferences, alcohol use, and social life,” Pai said. “It wasn’t just from a particular segment of the student body. My sense is that people felt that this was representative of all students, no matter what their preferences were.”
Mohammad “Moe” Abdul-Rahim CM '15—the Student Life Chair who heads the Student Life Council, a group that organizes substance-free events at CMC—said, “A really important part of CMC is how close we are to the deans and how small of a community it is, which allows us to have discussions like this, so that’s why I think it’s really important to have one. It’s really important to get a lot of different students’ opinions out there, from people who party a lot, from people who don’t party a lot, introverts, extroverts, etc.”
However, Abdul-Rahim said that substance-free events are often forgotten when discussing CMC’s social culture and that cutting funding for dry events in favor of parties will be counterproductive in improving dry event attendance and quality.
Some students expressed frustration with the student body’s response in general. Kelsey Brown CM '13, who works as a Resident Adviser on campus, said that students need a clearer understanding of the goals of the Dean of Students.
“On any given Saturday night, a lot of things happen that most students aren’t aware of, so it’s hard for them to understand,” Brown said. “The Deans of Students are really focusing on safety, not just alcohol poisoning [but also] issues like sexual assault. There are a lot of safety problems, and the student body doesn’t understand the extent to which parties can be unsafe.”
Brown, like many students, also stressed the benefits of discussing the policies openly and gaining insight from all perspectives, stating, “It’s the Dean of Students, not the Dean against the students.”
Other students also felt that there are other facts to keep in mind.
“I think people at CMC take for granted that the law is that you can’t drink if you’re not 21,” Julia Cole CM ’14 said.
Jincy Varughese CM ’16 expressed less enthusiasm regarding the issue.
“It’s kind of disappointing that this has been getting so much attention when there are other important causes,” Varughese said. “The petition on Change.org got hundreds of signatures in three days while people just walk away from other clubs.”
However, Pitcavage defended the importance of the cause.
“I think that there’s a tendency to reduce this memo and this dialogue to something less significant, about how we’re just spoiled brats and we want every freedom and to drink,” Pitcavage said. “But I think it’s a more important question than just that. I think that even students who don’t go out and who don’t party and students that go to the other colleges should be interested in this discussion. The value of a degree you receive from CMC or any of the 5C institutions is directly related to the quality of students that attend this college. And the quality of students is affected by our social culture, and I think that’s one of our biggest assets in attracting better students to these colleges.”
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