An Open Letter from Dean Cosgrove


Dear Editor,

I wanted to respond to the Record editorial about the alcohol policy. First, thanks for giving us the benefit of the doubt in this matter and thanks for inviting discussion on this important topic.

I serve ex officio on the Ad Board so I cannot discuss the specifics of any Ad Board matter so I want to make clear that this statement is coming from me in my role as Dean of Students since it seems like a good opportunity to discuss the alcohol policy and its enforcement in some detail.For years, many schools, including Harvard Law School, had lax alcohol policies for students over 21. This created dangerous situations on campuses and created enormous issues of liability for the schools who had insufficient knowledge about what was being served on campus. Over the last decade, schools began to tighten their alcohol policies considerably. At the same time, schools developed special offices on campus to provide education about alcohol and substance abuse issues. These two shifts reflect and interest in fostering wellness and reducing liability.

Four years ago, shortly after I arrived, we began the process of developing an alcohol policy consistent with alcohol policies at other Harvard schools and at our peer law schools. The complete policy can be found at:

Since I know students hate bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy, here is a brief explanation of the rationale behind each key element of the policy:

1. All alcohol must be purchased through Sodexho

A skeptic might believe this is a way to line Sodexho’s pockets but in fact, as we did research, we found that most schools address the need to know how much alcohol is on campus, where it is, and when it will be served by requiring that all orders go through the campus caterer. When Sodexho gets orders, our office is notified and it triggers a series of steps from checking to see whether this event will need a special liquor license, whether bartenders will be needed, whether police will need to be present or on call, or whether the amount of alcohol ordered is appropriate for the size of the event. Again, one might say “why do you care what we do if we’re over 21?” but the fact is that you are drinking alcohol purchased by HLS funds and/or in HLS buildings so if you take out any element of paternalism and simply think like a lawyer, you’ll appreciate the liability we have when you drink here.

2. Only beer and wine can be served at Law School events.

I’m sure it won’t shock you to know that an open full service bar invites a good deal of drinking (and mixing) and as we looked to other schools, we saw again that restricting events to beer and wine helps (doesn’t eliminate, but helps) reduce the chance of drunkenness at events. We experimented with limited drink tickets and a full bar and found it encouraged pre-gaming so making larger quantities of beer and wine made the most sense.

3. For large events, Sodexho bartenders must serve the alcohol.

Before I arrived, we had volunteer student bartenders. We had a lot of bartender no shows which left the frustrated student hosts stuck behind the bar. We found that students were generally uncomfortable cutting off classmates and we were uncomfortable with their potential liability so we went to a significantly more expensive route of requiring Sodexho’s trained and certified bartenders to serve drinks at large events.

The policy was implemented in September 2005 and we adjusted student organization budgets to reflect the increased cost of purchasing beer and wine through Sodexho as well as the cost of the bartenders. We certainly had a few complaints but we also received compliments from students who were happy to have additional funding so they didn’t have to haul beer from New Hampshire or stand at a bar serving at an event they wanted to enjoy. We initially thought we would make a few exceptions each year for events like the International Party but quickly learned that in this case, as in so many others, you used your excellent advocacy skills and made great arguments for why your event also deserved an exception so we retreated to an absolute position with a new understanding of why other school policies were so absolute in the first place.

Each year, at the start of year meeting for student organization presidents and treasurers, we discuss the alcohol policy. The policy is printed in your Handbook of Academic Policies as well as in the student organization officer’s handbook. Additionally, members of our staff (Anne Marie Calareso and Kristen Chipman) meet with all students planning large events and conferences to ensure that students know how to comply with the alcohol policy. We have a few mechanisms for enforcement. First, we charge Sodexho, as the onsite bartender, to monitor any improper alcohol use and enforce the policy. Since Sodexho was raised as a possible bad guy in last week’s editorial, I want to make everyone crystal clear that if there are complaints or concerns about the policy or how it is enforced, it should come to me. This is not Sodexho’s policy and they shouldn’t have to hang for acting at our direction.

If you walked into a bar with a bottle of scotch, it would be the bartender’s/manager’s job to handle that on the spot. Any future onsite caterer would be required to do the exact same thing.In addition to Sodexho, several staff members help to enforce the policy. Members of Facilities, members of the Dean of Students Staff, people who work with the 1L sections, and people who host parties on campus or using HLS funds, all have a hand in enforcing the policy. We understand that we have not caught every violation of the policy but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to monitor each event and that we won’t enforce the policy when we see violations. Those of us who have had to sit on the side of the Pike watching other cars pass at 80mph while we were caught speeding know that it certainly seems unfair but as you know, there are no perfect enforcement mechanisms in a free society. Our office is simultaneously charged with helping to foster fun, minimize bureaucracy, and foster a safe campus environment. It isn’t always an easy balance. We don’t want the policy to be onerous. We want this place to be fun and based on the anecdotal evidence, students really enjoy events here. We believed that the procedures we had in place allowed us to educate people on the policy and address offenses on the spot without being overly oppressive. I want to emphasize that we are open to suggestions about how to better publicize the policy so feel free to email me with thoughts or suggestions and if you find a better policy out there, send me the link. We did a pretty exhaustive survey a few years back but we are always looking to improve. I think you’ll find our policy to be on the more permissive, less bureaucratic side of the spectrum. In the meantime, I expect we will add some paperwork that students planning events will have to complete acknowledging their understanding of the policy and its potential ramifications.

Finally, I would feel negligent in my duties if I failed to mention two important resources for alcohol and drug issues. If you google the subject, you will see that there are tremendous concerns about the level of alcohol and substance abuse in our profession and I hope that if you are ever concerned about yourself or a classmate, you would feel free to use the resources of our office (particularly Cathleen Segal) and UHS as well as these two terrific programs:

The Office of Alcohol & Other Drug Services (AODS) is a resource for Harvard students, faculty and staff offering a wide range of programs and services aimed at reducing the negative consequences associated with heavy, episodic drinking and substance abuse. More info can be found at:

Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers is a lawyer assistance program in Massachusetts (every state has one supported by
Bar dues). LCL is dedicated to helping with the personal and professional issues of lawyers, judges, and law students ranging from depression and anxiety to alcohol and drug abuse. More info can be found at:

Thanks for reading and, again, please feel free to contact me with comments or suggestions.

Ellen Cosgrove

Dean of Students

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