BOSTON — By presenting a united front against alcohol abuse, 24 Boston-area colleges are raising hopes that the pervasive culture of campus drinking can yet be subdued.
The joint approach - marked by a new pact that calls for de-emphasizing alcohol in student life - represents the most ambitious antidrinking assault yet for America's institutions of higher learning. Boston, with more colleges per capita than any other urban area, offers a rich laboratory for testing ways to curb alcohol use.
In tackling the problem of alcohol abuse, college leaders here are spurred by the fresh memory of a student death in 1997, one of a number of binge-drinking tragedies across the nation in recent years.
"[The pact] shows a sense of commitment in dealing with an age-old problem," says Henry Weschler, director of College Alcohol Studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. But "this is simply a statement of intent," he adds. "It's a first step, but only a first step."
Among other things, the 50-point pact calls for encouraging first-year students to live in alcohol-free housing, planning more alcohol-free social events, and banning liquor at rush events for sororities and fraternities. The colleges will also meet regularly with local police, liquor store and nightclub owners, and community groups to crack down on underage drinking.
NONE of the ideas are new, and analysts say consistency will be required if the pact is not to go the way of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Still, supporters say this initiative's unified approach - something that has been sorely lacking - sets it apart.
"Some colleges are trying to ban alcohol entirely, while others ... are trying to become exempt from the federal law so their students can drink freely, and there's everything in between," says Richard Freeland, president of Northeastern University and chair of the task force that planned the initiatives. Now, he says, "you've got 24 highly diverse institutions ... all coming together with a common approach to change the culture of drinking."
The group approach, Professor Weschler says, also prevents individual colleges from being stigmatized as having an alcohol-abuse problem and gives institutions more clout when dealing with liquor stores and other vendors.
The downside to the group approach, Weschler says, is that to attract more participants "you have to go in at the lowest common denominator."
Boston University, for example, did not sign the pact. "We appreciate and support their efforts," says university spokesman Colin Riley. "But we felt it was inappropriate to sign an agreement with less stringent requirements than we're holding our students to."
The initiative, started last spring by the Boston Coalition Against Drugs and Violence, comes a year after several highly publicized alcohol-related deaths, including a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who died after a night of drinking at a fraternity.
"All of us independently realized that we had a very serious problem and that we didn't know how to handle it," says Northeastern's Mr. Freeland. "The tragedies raised everyone's consciousness of the consequences another notch."
Other states, such as Washington and Montana, have programs to curb drinking. But analysts say the Boston effort goes further, by setting out a blueprint for action.
The colleges will inform students and parents of the consequences of underage drinking - ranging from alcoholism and date rape to university and police sanctions. They are also looping in faculty, alumni, and local residents in their efforts.
"This goes far beyond lip service," says Joel Epstein, a lawyer with the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention in Newton, Mass.
But student reaction at Northeastern indicates the challenge for officials. When told about the initiative, several students burst out laughing. "Drinking is an individual choice," says Mariel, a sophomore who declined to give her last name. "The more restrictions you put on it, the more people are going to want to do it."
Ultimately, student attitudes are key to the program's success, and changing them requires strictly enforcing the initiatives, Weschler says. "Students are used to seeing lots of policies, but little enforcement."