PALO ALTO — Alarmed by what it said was an increasing rate of alcohol-induced emergencies, Stanford University has banned alcohol from events held in the school's freshman dorms.
The move has drawn criticism from some students and alumni, who fear an end to the university's traditionally hands-off approach to student life. But substance abuse experts applauded the policy as a small step that could cause ripples of change in the drinking culture on campus.
"We were growing increasingly concerned with the incidence of alcohol abuse among our newest students, the freshmen, particularly during the first quarter of the school year," said Julie Lythcott-Haims, Stanford's assistant vice provost and dean of freshmen and transfer students.
"There were hospital trips, people passing out in the dorms and lots of vomiting. This is alcohol experimentation gone overboard."
Freshmen often arrive on campus unaccustomed to the level of independence that college life affords, she said.
"Things not permitted by their parents are often the first things they might turn to when they're in college," Lythcott-Haims said. "It's no secret to anybody that some college students think drinking is a key aspect of the college experience."
Stanford is not the only private university with a new focus on curbing underage drinking.
Last fall, administrators at Harvard University banned beer kegs from tailgate parties at the Harvard-Yale football game. Many student groups reportedly responded by purchasing several hundred cans of beer in place of the kegs.
The incoming dean of Harvard College, Benedict H. Gross, told the campus newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, this month that curtailing underage and irresponsible drinking will be among his top priorities in the new job.
Alcohol is prohibited at Harvard Yard, where freshmen are housed. Repeat violators of that policy face potential discipline and referrals for alcohol counseling.
And colleges have good reason to be concerned about the prevalence of illegal or reckless alcohol consumption in their midst.
Three years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology paid a $6-million settlement to the family of Scott Krueger, a freshman who died of alcohol poisoning in 1997. The school has since instituted a slew of policy changes, including screening incoming freshmen for signs of alcohol abuse.
Stanford administrators said they are cracking down in part to protect themselves from costly liability cases, and in part to protect a group of students seldom heard from on the issue: nondrinkers and those who drink moderately and responsibly. Those students often find themselves unable to avoid the fallout from their inebriated peers, the administrators said.
In surveys Stanford has conducted, about a quarter of students said they don't drink at all, and a majority said they are mild to moderate drinkers, Lythcott-Haims said.
"We are not only looking out for the people who abuse alcohol," she said. "We're looking out for the others who are tired of living in dorms where the smell and appearance of vomit is a weekly headache, where common areas are trashed by partying that is out of control. That's really a silent voice here. But I say with certainty that voice exists."
A three-year investigation commissioned by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that drinking by college students ages 18 to 24 contributes to an estimated 1,400 student deaths, 500,000 injuries, and 70,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape each year.
And it's not just the drinkers who suffer. More than 600,000 students annually are assaulted by other students who have been drinking, according to the Task Force on College Drinking, which concluded the study last fall.
Colleges and universities "have an obligation to protect their students, and they have a financial risk that they incur if they don't do that," said Ralph W. Hingson, a professor of social and behavioral sciences at Boston University's School of Public Health, who was a lead researcher on the task force.
Excessive alcohol use is most prevalent at colleges and universities where fraternities and sororities dominate the social life on campus, where sports teams have a prominent role, and at schools located in the Northeast, the task force reported.
Compared with other campuses in California, Stanford has relatively permissive policies when it comes to alcohol consumption. The campus prohibited the use of dorm funds to buy alcohol a few years ago.
Under the new rules, parties in the freshman dorm lounges and hallways also must be booze-free. But other dorms, in which freshmen live among upperclassmen, are not affected.
To some, the rule has the potential to drive drinking underground and undermine the trust that enables freshmen to seek help when someone has had too much to drink