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Valentine's Day Imbroglio: A Romantic Evening Raises Serious Issues about the Faculty and Alcohol

Anders Hove

A few weeks ago, the Cambridge Chronicle revealed that Cambridge police officers have been violating parking laws and getting away with it by placing their ticket books or other police-related affects in plain view on the dashboards of their vehicles. I think it's fair to assume that anyone who has received a parking ticket in Cambridge, or perhaps anywhere, is disgusted by such a flagrant flouting of the laws by the very officials hired to enforce them.

Columnist George F. Will used to be fond of pointing out that the public often seems to despise its own political institutions because officials engage in such abuse, often legally. Congress used to exempt itself from a variety of laws, from speeding violations while en route to work, to more important laws, such as labor regulations. There is really no excuse for such exemptions, and as such they represented another form of abuse.

The Valentine's Day party held in the MIT Faculty Club two week's ago represents another such instance of abuse. Billed as the Sweetheart's Dinner Dance, the event would have been a run-of-the-mill romantic shindig, except for just one thing: Students under the age of 21 showed up and, according to one student present, several students were not carded, and one under-age student may have been served alcohol.

Who is responsible? The event was run by Aramark, and those who attended each had to pay $40 for admission. Once an attendee forked over the admissions fee, alcohol was optional. If the allegations are true, Aramark would be responsible for selling alcohol to an under-age individual, something that happens all the time in bars, restaurants, and liquor stores across the country. As such it represents a violation of the law, but not a form of official abuse.

But consider for a moment the following: MIT groups are not supposed to spend money on alcohol for events where people under the age of 21 will be present, nor is alcohol supposed to be present at such events without special permission. Even before these rules were adopted by the faculty last fall, most student groups were not allowed to advertise that alcohol would be served at an event, whether or not people under the age of 21 were present. And students have always had to register open events where alcohol will be present, whether or not admission is charged.

The Sweetheart's Dinner Dance, in contrast, specifically advertised its "champagne reception" on the back page of this newspaper. The Sweetheart's Dinner Dance, which was held in the MIT Faculty Club, did not require any registration with MIT, because Aramark is a licensed liquor provider. Nor did Aramark seek any special permission to hold an event where alcohol would be served in the presence of students under the age of 21.

Last fall, when the new rules about spending MIT funds on alcohol were drawn up, it was made perfectly clear that those rules would be very broadly and liberally interpreted. The examples given at the faculty meeting included the case where a professor invites students to her house: She should not serve alcohol if students under 21 were present, because they may have been purchased with "MIT funds," nor should she take students to a restaurant and order alcohol for herself.

The Faculty Club event does not explicitly fall under the MIT policy, and there's the rub. The Faculty Club thus becomes a zone where MIT policies on alcohol do not apply: Faculty may hold a dance there, serve alcohol, advertise it in a student newspaper stating explicitly that alcohol will be served, and students under the age of 21 may attend. All of this is okay because it takes place under the name of Aramark instead of MIT.

Under different circumstances, I would be the first to rise to the defense of the Valentine's Day dance. I believe the MIT policy against serving alcohol at events where those under 21 will be present is counterproductive because it prevents under-age students from learning about drinking from responsible drinkers. It also stands as a practical barrier between under age undergraduates and faculty, and between graduate students and under-age undergraduates, all of whom should socialize much more often in my view.

Allowing the Faculty Club to make exceptions to MIT's policy does nothing to bring students and faculty together, however. Indeed, it sends a loud and clear message that students and faculty are to be held to different rules and different standards of conduct. When a student violates alcohol policies, according to Tech Talk, he or she "will be issued a citation by Campus Police and receive sanctions geared to the nature and frequency of the offense." Possible sanctions include monetary fines, community service, suspension from housing, suspension from MIT, and expulsion.

That MIT administrators like Dean for Student Life Margaret R. Bates consider the Valentine's Day event "not serious" is a reflection of how far the world of students is separated from the world of faculty and administrators.

Following the Valentine's Day controversy, we are told that violations will be evaluated on a case by case basis. This is only to say that no objective standard or policy has yet been devised for their approval. Presumably events in the Faculty Club are "not serious," and will thus be allowed to go forward, as will Sloan Cultural Functions (long made an exception to the ban on parties at Walker), and other favored events, while student groups will be denied the privilege.

In contrast to democratic communities, the MIT community has no recourse against unequal rules or uneven enforcement of rules. The only barrier against abuse is the integrity and humility of the powers-that-be. If MIT's officials do not possess these qualities, than we cannot expect any of the faculty's policies to be applied fairly.