It happened in the backyard. It does not warrant mentioning. No one talks about it. Historians do not write about it.
So for posterity’s sake pretend. It is 1978. The movie theater on Main Street reflects a relic from a previous era, steps from the legendary hotdog joint and the historic Court Square framed with small town shops. Just down the street beyond the breathtaking church steeples stands the idyllic college campus with its dedicated students and faculty displaying integrity and respect. But in reality, as professors turn out the lights and doors click shut for the weekend, the back campus opens for business. Guys and girls meet in the student center to drink beer while others tap kegs in dorms. James Madison University vibrates with student-defined extra-curricular activities late into the night beneath the ever-watchful presence of the Wilson Hall clock tower.
In the seventies Madison College became a magnet for larger numbers of students as newly hired administrators developed innovative visions for the coed campus. In an effort to create a more balanced campus, the college incorporated an affirmative action admissions policy targeting the increased enrollment of male students. Madison College encapsulated a campus ready to test the boundaries of a small conservative community.
Yet Madison College was not alone in its campus transformation. Scholarship suggests the tumultuous sixties, culminating with the killings at Kent State, prompted a new academic seriousness among college youth. College campuses no longer represented extended playgrounds for collective rallies and radical ideas. Eighteen-year-old kids were drafted and sent to Vietnam. In return, national and state laws suddenly expanded the liberties of youths transitioning to adulthood. The shedding of in loco parentis regulations, that previously plagued campuses, fueled newfound choices by 1970. In addition, Virginia lowered the beer consumption restrictions from age twenty-one to eighteen for a period of about ten years beginning in 1974. Alcohol became the legal drug-of-choice. Suddenly, younger students entered their freshmen year with increased options that came with greater individual responsibilities.
Shifts in law, a new vision for the college, along with the influx of male students provided a favorable environment for the legal introduction of alcohol onto Madison’s college campus. The seal had been broken. Regardless of the continued loosening of alcoholic regulations throughout the 1970s, policies failed to completely satisfy the ever-growing demands of students as they organized and fought for rights to define their own alcoholic consumption rules. As Madison College grew into James Madison University, college administrators and students grappled with an ongoing give-and-take system that afforded alcoholic privilege for self-exploration in a protected environment but remained within the boundaries of state laws. The “experimental” alcohol policy that unfolded led to a heightened awareness and accountability of alcohol consumption on the college campus.
Cover and top image: “Image of Wilson Hall,” Control #Bwil206, JMU Historic Photos Online, Special Collections, Carrier Library, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Va; Charity Derrow, “Introduction Image,” created in Adobe Photoshop Elements, March 13, 2012.