7 February 2020
Dear Students and Colleagues
With the general commencement of classes at Stellenbosch University (SU) earlier this week, activities on all our campuses are now in full swing again. Welcome to everyone, and best of luck with your learning and teaching for 2020!
A big talking point so far this year has been the temporary alcohol ban in SU student housing. It generated a lot of reaction – both at the University and among the general public; in the media and on social media. The responses have been mixed – from factual reporting to some people welcoming the step and others criticising it.
I would like to use this opportunity to provide greater clarity on the matter. Our ultimate aim is not a prohibition of alcohol on our campuses or in our residences. We want to arrive at clear and practical guidelines for responsible alcohol use at our institution. And I believe we can do so quite quickly if we work together.
Alarm at alcohol and substance abuse on campuses is nothing new – concern has been growing internationally and in South Africa. At our University, this was brought to a head by a number of disturbing incidents last year – particularly in student communities. The matter also came to the fore in talks to combat gender-based violence.
In September, our highest governance structure – the University Council – “strongly condemned gender-based violence" and also “expressed concern at alcohol and substance abuse among students". All stakeholders were specifically requested to “do more to combat this problem".
In October, our top management structure – the Rectorate – “decided to withdraw bar privileges in residences" and “agreed with the decision that the residences implement procedures to regulate the use and non-abuse of alcohol". The Rectorate also “noted that a task team has been constituted to work on the responsible use of alcohol and on a ban on the use of drugs". Resulting from this, there were discussions with students and other stakeholders, in one way or another.
Responsible alcohol use
On 23 January, when I officially welcomed 2020's newcomer first-year students and their parents, I said that “the Division of Student Affairs is engaging in robust conversations with student communities to establish firm regulations for responsible alcohol use at SU", and I made the first public announcement that SU has “banned the sale of alcohol in all student residences".
Why? Because, “If you abuse alcohol and other substances, it will have a negative impact on you and others – that is why we decided to tackle it head-on this year." I also said that “we want to go about alcohol use at SU in a way that is congruent with our value system".
This was followed by an email to all students on 27 January by Dr Choice Makhetha, Senior Director: Student Affairs, in which she confirmed the “temporary abolishment of the consumption and trade of alcohol in SU residences and PSO houses".
This was done to make a strong statement and to indicate the need for decisive action. It is a step to urge stakeholders to become involved in defining acceptable regulations and practices for responsible alcohol consumption on SU campuses.
SU is serious about combating alcohol and substance abuse, and is exploring multiple ways of doing so, such as education programmes, counselling and collective deliberations. The temporary ban focusses the conversation on how we can restart with responsible alcohol use.
The aim is to come up with appropriate amendments to the residence rules that form the guidelines of student communities at SU. This will then follow a formal consultation route, involving official student structures, specifically the Prim Committee and the SRC.
SU is not alone in restricting alcohol in its student residences. None of the other three public universities in the Western Cape allow alcohol to be consumed in residences without permission and licence approval, and this is also the general trend in the rest of the country and internationally.
SU's decision was informed by research about the negative consequences of alcohol abuse, and the gender-based violence which often accompanies it. (See especially Gladwell, Malcolm. 2019. “The Fraternity Party". In Talking to Strangers. New York: Little, Brown and Company.)
Please note that we are not saying that gender-based violence is caused by alcohol abuse; or worse, that being drunk is an excuse for unacceptable behaviour. What we are saying is that alcohol abuse is wrong and that gender-based violence is wrong – both need to stop.
The statement by the SRC earlier this week that it “has no disagreement over the motivations behind the decision" to temporarily ban alcohol in SU student housing should be welcomed. At the same time, student leaders have expressed discomfort about the perceived limited extent of consultation so far. While this concern is acknowledged, we should keep our eyes on the main prize – living and learning communities which are safe and welcoming spaces for all.
Let us not get distracted by the framing of this matter as a contest between “opposing sides". Let us rather focus on what we have in common – firstly, a strong conviction to end alcohol abuse and gender-based violence, and secondly, a firm commitment to find agreement on the best ways of doing so.
Let's work together
Is there common ground? No doubt about it. The University has said “we remain open to a period of engaging conversations" and the SRC has said it will be “pursuing continued engagements" about this matter. All parties are undoubtedly serious about ending alcohol abuse and gender-based violence. Let's work together to make progress.
Prof Arnold Schoonwinkel
Vice-Rector: Learning and Teaching