In the spring of 2004, Ross Butterworth, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Rhode Island, was hanging out with friends, “puffing a bowl,” in a wooded area behind dorms on the Kingston campus. A pair of South Kingstown police officers approached the group and arrested Butterworth since, he says, “I was the only one they found weed on.” This fall, after being pulled over for speeding on his way to a student party in Charlestown, he was arrested again, for possession of a small amount of marijuana.
In a sense, Butterworth is lucky. If it had been university security that busted him, and not the local police, the Narragansett native might have been kicked out of URI or suspended for a year.
In each of the two instances, Butterworth avoided a trial by pleading no contest and paying a $200 fine, along with fees to cover court and lab costs. “Maybe I lucked out,” he concedes. “They sweep it under the carpet.”
Rhode Island’s premier public college was considered a top party school as recently as the early 1990s. But since adopting a very tough stand — banning alcohol on campus in 1993, evicting eight fraternities, and imposing a strict three-strikes rule for students caught imbibing on campus — URI and its president, Robert L. Carothers, have emerged as national leaders in the fight against student partying.
The university’s stance has also opened a new revenue stream; the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism last year awarded URI $5.6 million to study how its “environmental approach” — encompassing collaborative efforts with neighboring communities, private businesses, and police — could be a standard for other colleges to follow. And under a new policy being instituted this semester, the university is expanding its jurisdiction for student behavior off-campus to include repeated arrests or citations for violations of local, state, or federal laws. (The university had previously reserved the right to discipline students arrested for felony offenses, or for behavior deemed a threat to life or property.)
Not surprisingly, considering how Animal House-style antics have long been considered part of the college experience, many students are chafing under the strains of URI’s new prohibitionism. Some complain that the festivities have merely been transferred off-campus, leading to tensions between students and residents in the towns near URI. Others cite inconsistency in the approach of resident assistants in different dorms. But perhaps the most galling thing is how elite private colleges like Brown University seem to favor a more tolerant approach when it comes to student partying.
At Brown, for instance, there is no rigid protocol for suspending students caught with alcohol or drugs. (After a third offense related to drugs or alcohol, URI students face academic probation or suspension from the university for one year. A violation involving drugs counts for two strikes, while one involving both drugs and alcohol results in a suspension.) At Brown, each violation is taken on a “case by case” basis, although three infractions would be taken “very seriously,” a university official says, and students can be suspended for repeated violations. Tom Angell, a 2004 graduate of URI who serves as the campaign director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy in Washington, DC, sums up the situation this way: “At private, Ivy League schools, students tend to get off easier than at state schools.”