Getting Duke students to dress in their Sunday best and attend a party in droves is a relatively easy thing to do. It requires a university art museum, a popular student jazz ensemble, trays of "mini chicken biscuits with roasted garlic aioli," and a well-stocked cash bar. Oh, and don't forget the company of President Brodhead, other top administrators, and more than a thousand of your closest friends.
On a recent Thursday night, 1,500 of us boarded East-West buses and pulled the "stop" cord at the intersection of Campus Drive and Anderson Street for just that medley of consumables, companions, and atmosphere. Our destination: the Nasher Museum of Art. The occasion: the Nasher Noir party, planned by the Nasher Museum Student Advisory Board. That night, students joined administrators and faculty and staff members to party amidst the eclectic collections of the Nasher Museum.
Nasher Noir had all of the trappings of an art opening in New York, but it took place at the heart of Duke's campus. It was extolled in five articles in The Chronicle over the next several days, one of which was entitled simply "More Noir!" And beyond its unprecedented turnout and rave reviews, Nasher Noir had an important ancillary effect on the Duke community.
For one night, the classy environment of the Nasher Museum displaced off-campus clubs and on-campus housing sections as the hub of Duke social life. The Chronicle's editorial board said the Noir demonstrated "that it is possible to hold events open to undergraduate students without the fear of irresponsible binge drinking and destruction," and, indeed, no one went to the hospital emergency room. (The event included a cash bar and free alcohol for seniors.)
As Duke takes a hard look at itself in the wake of the events of last spring, the characteristics of events like the Noir that make them both popular and positive are especially pertinent. What made Nasher Noir so successful was not any exorbitant amount of planning, money, and publicity that went into it. What made it successful was the fact that it fit the model of many other successful events, including President Brodhead's Homecoming Ball, jazz concerts at the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, and socials hosted by the Pratt School of Engineering, among others. Their main attractions are programming and other features that appeal directly to students; if alcohol is present, its purpose is to supplement the event, not define it.
Unfortunately, the regular events associated with Greek organizations and selective living groups that currently dominate the social scene are quite different: They often revolve around the excessive consumption of cheap alcohol, and attendees imbibe accordingly. It is unreasonable to eliminate these events outright, but many of us, including many fraternity and selective-living group members, want something better. We want our drinking noir.
Consequently, shifting the focus of social events at Duke away from alcohol (while not necessarily ridding them of it) has great potential to improve the student experience and elevate our "campus culture" at the same time. It might involve (among other things):
Creating more venues on campus for student groups to host social events featuring entertainment, food, and (yes) alcohol if so desired, similar to venues that exist off campus. This would improve the diversity of on-campus events by allowing student organizations that do not have housing sections to host events, and provide outlets for legal, responsible drinking on campus. (The Hideaway was closed in 2001, and nothing has taken its place.)
Increasing the number and quality of student-driven arts events, particularly those occurring on nights and weekends. This could be accomplished by augmenting the funds that support student-group programming or by directly funding concerts, speakers, and non-alcohol-centered social events (à la Nasher Noir) that could play a more prominent role in the on-campus social scene.
Engaging Greek and other organizations and providing them with additional resources to diversify their existing events. Making existing social events fit a more positive model does not involve restricting them in any way, only augmenting them to include high-quality programming, decorations, and other elements that will shift their focus away from drinking.
Supporting worthwhile alternative activities that could fill students' free time. Students have suggested to me that we build everything from a mini-golf course in the Duke Gardens to a climbing wall in Wilson Recreation Center. The possibilities are endless, and it is likely that the more time students spend in extracurricular or academic activities, the less time they spend partying.
In Duke terms, these ideas would be fairly inexpensive to implement; the money spent on the new West Campus Plaza, for example, could fund a Nasher Noir every weekend during the school year for the next fifteen years. Such inexpensive provisions should be undertaken simply for their positive effects on the undergraduate experience. They also happen to be some of the most effective ways of promoting a safer student social life and positively influencing the culture of the university.