University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh has approved a trial plan for the school to sell beer at its football stadium and other athletic venues beginning this fall — a proposal that has divided the campus community and is opposed by some prominent public health advocates.
The student-initiated plan, to be announced by Loh on Thursday in an open letter to the campus, first must be approved by the Prince George's County liquor board — an endorsement that is hardly guaranteed.
"We told them we didn't think it was a good idea," Charles W. Caldwell III, chairman of the county's Board of License Commissioners, said Wednesday of being briefed recently on the plan. "I don't think they paid any attention to us."
Caldwell said it would be premature to outline the board's reservations and emphasized that the proposal would receive a fair hearing this summer.
"If they are proposing this," he said, "it'll have to have a full hearing and testimony and the full deal."
If the plan is approved, Maryland would join several dozen universities — West Virginia, Minnesota and Syracuse among them — that permit alcohol to be sold to the public at football games.
As submitted to the liquor board, the plan calls for university dining services to begin beer and wine sales at athletic venues, including 54,000-seat Byrd Stadium and the 17,950-seat Xfinity Center.
During the first year, the university said, it would sell beer only and allow people to purchase just one per transaction, under what it called a "provisional" plan. Sales would be cut off three-quarters of the way into games.
"The request is intended to enhance the fan experience in the facilities and is an accommodation for guests attending events," the proposal says.
After the first year, if the sales are deemed a success, the university would add wine sales and a maximum of two beers or glasses of wine per transaction.
The debate split the campus. An online forum attracted about 1,000 responses. According to a draft of Loh's letter, most students weighing in were supportive and "most of the faculty and staff were not." He said alumni and community members were "about evenly divided."
The plan was initiated by members of the Student Government Association to curb the binge drinking associated with college game days. It was endorsed overwhelmingly in March by the Athletic Council, an advisory body composed mostly of faculty members, and then sent to Loh.
"There is no single and simple solution to curb high-risk drinking," Loh said in the draft. "However, I believe that supporting safe and responsible drinking in a controlled environment, together with education and prevention, will enable us to better manage excess consumption, and its attendant harms, on and around our campus. And, it will enhance the fan experience at Terp games."
But the plan generated opposition from public health advocates, including the co-directors of the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems, a state-funded initiative addressing campus alcohol use.
"From the perspective of public health research, this is not a good idea," said co-director David Jernigan, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. "It is a common fantasy that if we just make it more generally available, there will be fewer problems. This fantasy has not been upheld in research."
In an April letter to Loh, state Del. Joseline A. Pena-Melnyk, a Democrat who represents parts of Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, expressed her "strong opposition" to the plan.
"I don't see why it makes sense to go forward temporarily. Why even open that door?" Pena-Melnyk, who chairs a Health and Government Operations subcommittee on public health, said Wednesday. "It's basically not responsible when we are trying to build a university that is a class-act university, that is respected. A lot of parents have been expressing their concerns."
But rising senior Ian Moritz, the undergraduate representative on the Athletic Council, said: "I think the culture will change a little bit for the better. I have a lot of trust in the administration and what this went through to get vetted."
The university said proceeds from the sales would be directed "from athletics to campus-wide student support activities, such as mental health services, responsible drinking initiatives and diversity training."
Football games would present by far the largest market for such sales, but the policy would permit sales of beer — and eventually wine — during other athletic contests.
The student section at Byrd Stadium seats about 10,000. The majority of students attending are below the legal drinking age of 21.
The university proposal said alcohol would not be sold near areas "primarily designated as undergraduate seating sections."
In 2008, the university decided to allow beer and wine sales starting in the 2009 football season in Byrd Stadium's 64 new luxury suites. That policy — similar to policies at many other schools — states that suite sales must be carefully monitored, sales personnel trained and certified, and drink maximums enforced.
"Beer and wine sales are already available to the hundreds of fans in the boxes and mezzanine level at our sports venues," Loh noted in the letter. "This proposal will extend that option to fans seated elsewhere."