No Whine Before Its Time

Quick! Call a lawyer!

Student Jason Sharman is still several years away from achieving that status, but as the president of the University of Colorado at Denver Pre-Law Society, he's already getting a pretty good education in the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Or maybe CU really intended for events like this student group's annual wine-tasting and benefit auction to dry up. Maybe in the process of cleaning up the Boulder campus, CU really meant to throw the baby out with the firewater at university facilities across the state.


Alcohol at CU

Last September, CU issued a new Alcohol Purchase and Provision Administrative Policy Statement. It is not short and simple -- these days, nothing involving CU is. In fact, this policy is so complicated that it inspired a thirteen-page memo detailing Frequently Asked Questions, prepared by the Office of University Controller and updated just this past January.

The FAQ starts out like a cork exploding from a shaken champagne bottle:

"Q1a -- Why does the university need this policy? I really find these new rules ridiculous. It seems like they are an over-reaction to the horrible publicity the university has received as a result of the football recruiting incidents in Boulder."

That's right, let's swill -- er, kill -- the messenger!

For those who've blacked out the recent past, CU's problems with alcohol do not begin and end with the football recruiting scandal, which flowed from a liquor-laden recruiting party on December 7, 2001, after which three women claimed they'd been sexually assaulted that night. Other women later came forward to bolster their charge that the CU athletics department promoted a sexually hostile environment -- resulting in "horrible publicity," an athletic director going down, a chancellor going away, a university president resigning and then, finally, a football coach getting canned.

Oh, wait. That was because Gary Barnett lost a couple of key games last fall, not because of any off-field controversies involving his program.

But CU's alcohol problem can't be pinned entirely on recruiting parties awash in hootch. There was also Gordie Bailey, the freshman who drank himself to death in September 2004 as part of a fraternity stunt.

And about that former athletic director: Dick Tharp's part-ownership of Liquor Mart and the many cozy commercial connections between that alcohol enabler, the athletic department and assorted university and CU Foundation events were prime motivators in interim president (maybe for life) Hank Brown drawing up that new alcohol policy. Or, as the university responds to its own question on the FAQ:

"The reason behind the President's Alcohol Directive and the subsequent ŒAlcohol Purchase and Provision' Administrative Policy Statement extends beyond the football team. Currently, the university is undergoing a special performance audit, and many of the transactions in this audit involve alcohol. The university's auditors are concerned that we do not have adequate policies to govern our use of alcohol. President Brown, in his directive, has provided a structure for the use and funding of alcohol. The Alcohol Purchase and Provision policy provides guidelines and requirements for implementing the directive."

Not very clear ones, however. If Sharman and company just wanted to buy booze and pour it down a research monkey's throat, they could do so using "either a Department Purchase Order or complete the appropriate Requisition to have the PSC issue a Standing Purchase Order or a Purchase Order." But Sharman simply wanted to purchase wine that his club could serve at its Pre-Law Society Wine-Tasting and Benefit Auction. The April 21 event would be the third incarnation of the wine-tasting, and Sharman wanted to make it the best yet. "This is the first year we've had lots of advance notice," he says, and the club filed all the paperwork with the school, then sent out a thousand invitations not just to students, but to professors and lawyers and 350 law firms around town. The club would purchase wine with its own funds from its own account, and then pay itself back by collecting a $20 or $25 admission fee at the entrance to the party in the old Tivoli brewery, now a student union.

And then last week, UCD officials told the club that the university controller had determined the group couldn't buy liquor for its event. Not even if the club guarantees that no underage coed, no football player, no athletic director, slips in the door. Not even if all the guests are as responsible as Sharman. "I'm 32," he says. "I have a wife and child. I have rental properties and own a home. Our vice president has four children." And not even if, as Sharman says, "for the past two years, the school has cited us as a way to do alcohol responsibly."

A wine-tasting without wine wasn't going to work. So future lawyer and current systems engineer Sharman got busy researching university policy, and decided that the wine-tasting qualifies as a "special event," which allows for the purchase of liquor. Under CU's own policy, "a special event is defined as a fundraising gathering of a number of people for an identified organizational unit or university function (e.g., scholarships), where goods and/or services (e.g., dinner) are provided to those attending."

The wine-tasting was certainly intended as a fundraising gathering, and the club definitely qualifies as an organizational unit, since it's been around for three years, has officers, elections, a constitution and a website that advises members on how to take the LSAT, how to apply to law schools and how to plan for what will be a long, rigorous educational road. And the people invited to the wine-tasting have been promised not just responsible tastes of wine, but also hors d'oeuvre, sandwiches, dessert and coffee (Monkey Bean is one of the event's sponsors, and java is Sharman's usual beverage of choice), as well as ample networking opportunities.

Sharman took his research and contacted UCD Office of Student Life director Obe Hawkins, who passed him along to the controller's office. Finally, after a worry-filled week, he met with UCD officials and representatives of the controller's office on Tuesday, and the university agreed that the wine-tasting qualified as a special event. But reading further through other new university accounting rules, it now looked like a special event wouldn't qualify for student funds -- and without that $3,000 to seed the event, Sharman's not sure the fundraiser will raise any funds. And his event isn't the only one that might be affected by this new interpretation -- a fundraising concert the week after the wine-tasting, one that involves no alcohol at all but lots of good intentions, could also be endangered by the policies. "Because all of this is new, no one at CU-Denver seems to have any idea how to deal with the rules," Sharman says. "The great thing is, they're totally willing to work with us -- but is it worth it for us?

"The CU system is trying to put rules in place so that there can be no hint of scandal, no hint of impropriety," he continues. "They're trying to make things formal, as they can be in the business system. But we're students. We need more flexibility,"

Last year's wine-tasting attracted just fifty or sixty people, but Sharman and his board had set their sights much higher this year. "Since I've taken over as president, I realize we need to do more for students, and not so much for the legal community," Sharman says. "At Boulder, they have a law society, and it's no problem getting people to meetings at all."

But at a commuter campus like UCD, things are different. "We have a lot of members who are active," Sharman notes. "They're just not all active at the same time." They're responsible people, older, serious, not the problem group that the university is targeting with its alcohol policies.

But then, they are future lawyers. And given all the legal problems CU has faced over the past few years, maybe the university knows exactly what it's doing.

Cut them off!


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