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February 5, 2006
Goodbye, Animal House:
drinking has to stop, say colleges
Celebrated in film in Animal House and in person by George W Bush, the drink-fuelled excesses of life in fraternity houses have long been regarded as a rite of passage for young American men.
In his days at Yale, the drinking prowess and social skills of the future leader of the Western world helped him to become a president for the first time when he was elected to head Delta Kappa Epsilon, a frat house renowned for its raucousness.
However, college authorities are cracking down on the traditional American ritual of campus drinking binges after a series of alcohol-related deaths, accidents and fights.
They are introducing tough curbs on drinking as the results of such alcoholic over-indulgence by inexperienced young drinkers are often no joke. At Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina, officials last week suspended the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity after two students ended up in comas with alcohol poisoning after a weekend party.
When spring term began on Tuesday, students at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) in the genteel New England town of Amherst were greeted with a raft of restrictions on alcohol consumption in its halls of residence. The university has been alarmed by the popularity of drinking games as it tries to shake off the stigma of a 2003 riot by several hundred drunken students who turned over cars, lit fires and threw bottles at police after a baseball game.
"Alcohol abuse is an enduring problem," said UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski. "It turns up in different ways and drinking games seem to have taken on a greater prevalence in recent years."
The new rules prohibit gatherings of more than 10 students in a room where alcohol is present and ban all drinking games - particularly the popular "beer pong" in which players attempt to knock over each other's cups with table tennis balls and losers must knock back drinks as a penalty.
The wild world of fraternities was lampooned in the 1978 film Animal House with its toga parties, road trips and food fights. The chant "We can do anything we want. We're college students" was the war cry of a drunk and disorderly bunch led by Bluto Blutarsky (played by the late John Belushi). Such antics were also a feature of campus life for Mr. Bush, according to fellow Yale alumni, one of whom claimed that the future president "majored in beer drinking". Mr. Bush is now teetotal.
However, the private setting and secretive culture in which such drinking thrives can also make it lethal when it goes wrong.
In one notorious case, the family of Daniel Reardon reached an undisclosed settlement with the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity after suing it over his son's death after a drinking ritual. Other fraternity members had put the unconscious 19-year-old University of Maryland student in a closed room and said they would look after him, but called an ambulance only when he stopped breathing.
When Lynn Gordon Bailey, an 18-year-old University of Colorado freshman, died from an alcohol overdose in late 2004, it prompted the state legislature to give immunity to anybody drinking illegally who calls the emergency services to help a drunken friend. He was found in the Chi Psi fraternity house with obscene sexual comments scrawled across his face after a party.
National fraternity leaders have now stepped in and urged students to call for help if a drinking sessions spirals out of control. "One of the biggest problems out there is students are afraid to call for help," said Geoff Brown, who runs alcohol-education projects for the North America Interfraternity Conference. "Our groups are taking a more pro-active posture these days."
Mr. Bush turned teetotal at 40. But it may well have been his memories of his hell-raising student days that prompted him to reveal last year that he was enjoying reading I Am Charlotte Simmons, by the best-selling American author Tom Wolfe. The novel is the racy chronicle of a country girl at an Ivy League university, where excessive drinking and frequent sexual encounters are a way of life.
Wolfe, one of the sharpest literary observers of contemporary America, clearly doubts that the new restrictions will curb campus drinking. "I pass along one historical note," he told the Sunday Telegraph in an e-mail. "It was WORSE in the US in the 19th century."
Binge drinking is rife throughout many British universities whose bars and student unions continue to offer low-price alcoholic drinks.
Excessive drinking is also glamorized by several student societies, including Oxford University's Piers Gaveston Society, which is notorious for its secret, debauched parties.
Jamal El-Shayyal, a member of the National Union of Students executive committee, supported the introduction of similar drinking restrictions at British universities.
"Introducing some kind of alcohol threshold would be a very positive move," he said.
"The binge drinking culture, especially among students, is getting out of hand and some kind of limitations would be a good way to address that."