September 1964 was the beginning of my four-year journey at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. And a wonderful journey that was.
I don't recall much of Frosh Week but I do remember being in the auditorium, below the chapel, where the Dean of Men, Father George Kehoe said, "Look to your right and left. Only one of you will graduate." Hundreds of us did make it to graduation day.
If Father Kehoe spoke about alcohol, I don't remember. Perhaps he didn't bother as the legal drinking age was 21 and most frosh were only 18 and just out of high school. As well, booze was illegal on campus (even for those 21). Plus, there was no pub on campus or in town. Thus, boozing it up wasn't easy nor openly acceptable. My floor was booze free in my freshman year.
A blind eye was given to some discreet drinking, but overtly challenging rules had consequences. Early in my freshman year two upper classmen got caught sneaking beer into residence. They were kicked off campus - had to find digs in town. Later more upper classmen were expelled for a year for drunkenness and lewd behaviour - not on campus - but in New Glasgow, 40 miles away.
Maybe the administration's strictness had to do with a freshman's death in a residence incident in the previous year. Whether alcohol had anything do with it, I don't know.
Males and females shared classes, but male residences and dining hall were on lower campus while upper campus had similar facilities for females (Mount St. Bernard). Males were housed by class year; freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Timed lighting (washrooms exempted) for residences followed accordingly; 11:30 p.m., 12 midnight, and 12:30 a.m. Just like camp! Only seniors had all-night lights privileges.
For freshmen, lights out meant shenanigans galore. And perhaps their lead in a massive campus water fight, followed by a massive all male snowball fight on the football field were the straws that broke the back of single-class residences and timed lights outs. The following year everything changed, with mixed classes male residences and all-night lights for everyone. Those changes calmed residence life down quite a lot.
Perhaps if Father Kehoe could have said to us (as neuroscientists now believe) that in our years at St. F.X. we would do stupid things (over consumption of deadly hard liquor) because your prefrontal cortex, "that helps you inhibit impulses and to plan and organize your behavior to reach a goal" will not be fully developed until we were 25. But he didn't say any such thing.
My four years living on campus was like living in a fabulous small town that was relatively calm, exciting, friendly, non-violent, and carefree, but drinking did go on. Binge drinking and its hangers on did happen. I know, been there, done that.
However, those students who followed us had their prefrontal cortex challenged even more with the legal age dropping to 19 along with an explosion of pubs, on, or near campuses. Plus, there they had to deal with free-for-all drinking in residences and the drug culture. Lucky us, we escaped that onslaught!
Nowadays, campus life is even more topsy-turvey, with both sexes not just sharing the same residence, but the same floor. That type of living arrangement along with the booze and drugs means young people without any meaningful control can easily get themselves in situations they might long wish to forget.
Yet in spite of it all there are signs of change - a back to the future - spurred on in many cases by binge drinking and rowdy behaviour in residence. A few years back St. F.X. clamped down on two residences that established reputations for binge drinking.
Sadly, last September binge drinking took the life of a 19-year-old at Acadia University. Imagine having to make that call to his parents! Queen's University had two students die from binge drinking the previous year. Acadia's incident sparked a report by Nova Scotia's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Robert Strang (report easily found online). Dr. Strang's report looked at what various universities across Canada were doing to combat binge drinking.
This September Acadia begun changes based on the Strang Report.
And it's not just alcohol use that is heading back to the future.
September past, the Catholic University of America (Washington D.C.), reverted to all-male, all-female residences. Meanwhile, back in Canada, the University of Alberta has implemented students’ wishes, specifically for quiet or alcohol-free floors. One residence has undergone that change (three quiet, two non-alcohol) and more such residences have not been ruled out.
Attending university should be a wonderful academic and socially life changing experience. However, alcohol abuse (never mind drug abuse) occasionally causes death, but more often than not it fosters inappropriate drinking habits and behaviour that can haunt young people for years, if not a lifetime.
It would be good if students (like at University of Alberta) demanded changes in residence life. However, sometimes those in charge have to behave and act like they are in charge, make necessary changes so that immature young people attending their institutions have standards and rules for their own safety and those around them.
Social drinking is a reality of life. Beer alone is one of the greatest beverages created by human beings. But binge drinking isn't good for anyone, young or old. Thus, a little back to the future for young people attending post secondary institutions is just what the good Dr. Strang ordered.
Andy Barker at email@example.com