A group of Rice University undergraduates poured all the alcohol they had on hand into a bathtub one night in 1972, stripped down to their underwear, and threw a party that entered college lore as the Night of Decadence (NOD). “The resulting punch was so potent it removed the varnish,” one participant later recalled. The bacchanal proved such a hit that students at the private university in Houston reprised it the next year, and the year after that. Beginning in 1976, each NOD was given a theme. (“Fall of Rome” and “Caligula” were early choices.) According to an unverified but persistent campus rumor, Playboy magazine once named NOD one of the country’s ten best college parties. 

The tradition has continued through the decades. But at the fiftieth edition of NOD—held on October 28 at Wiess College, one of Rice’s residential colleges—things took a dark turn. Within the first two hours, seven students were transported to area hospitals; more than two dozen required on-site medical treatment for overconsumption of alcohol. Several students got into altercations with campus police officers, including one lingerie-clad woman who ended up in handcuffs. Around midnight, Rice administrators canceled the party and sent everyone home. “At the peak of the night, all of Rice and Houston medical resources at NOD were becoming completely overwhelmed,” explained Wiess chief justice Renzo Espinoza in an email to fellow students. “Any more stress on campus and city resources would have put us in a very bad position.”

This wasn’t the first such debacle at the underwear-only party, or even the worst—eleven students were hospitalized for alcohol poisoning at the 2012 NOD. Thanks to a number of such incidents, alcohol is no longer served at NOD itself. But that hasn’t stopped students from drinking heavily before and en route to the party. According to Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman, “numerous small empty bottles of hard alcohol” were found around Wiess College the next morning. In response to last month’s debauchery, which received national media coverage, the university canceled all campus-wide parties (known at Rice as “publics”) through spring break, put NOD on probation, and reconvened its Alcohol Policy Advisory Committee to consider further restrictions. “The health and safety of our students is the top priority at Rice University,” said Jeff Falk, Rice’s director of news and media relations, in a written statement to Texas Monthly. (Rice president Reginald DesRoches and other top administrators declined interview requests for this story.)

It’s no secret that college students drink, often to excess. To keep students on campus, and discourage them from driving drunk, Rice has long maintained a relatively permissive alcohol policy based around its residential college system. In place of a Greek system, Rice has eleven colleges, each overseen by a professor known as a magister and governed by elected student representatives. Undergraduates are randomly assigned to one of the colleges their freshman year and stay there for their entire time at Rice, living, eating, studying, and partying together. Nearly every weekend, one college or another hosts a campus-wide party featuring booze purchased with university funds.

Rice gives each college an annual budget of around $50,000, which is managed by its student treasurer; according to a recent story in the Rice Thresher, the student newspaper, much of that money is spent on parties. The university’s alcohol policy permits colleges to “use part of their annual per capita monies received to support their activities to fund a college or GSA [Graduate Student Association] event at which alcohol is served (including purchasing alcohol for the event) provided the event is registered with the University and complies with this Policy.” There are also two on-campus pubs, one for undergraduates and one for graduates.

The alcohol policy explicitly prohibits underage students from drinking, but in practice, according to four current undergraduates I interviewed, alcohol is easily available to anyone who wants it. That was certainly the case when I was a Rice undergraduate in the mid-aughts. I spent my freshman year at Boston College, a Catholic university where resident assistants—older students who received free housing in exchange for keeping a watchful eye on the dorms—performed regular room checks looking for contraband. Transferring to Rice my sophomore year was like moving from East Germany to Ibiza. Instead of hiding from my RAs, now I was drinking with them. At Boston College, my roommate and I had to talk a friend’s older brother into buying us a case of Keystone Light; at Rice, my residential college hosted all-age keg parties in the quad. The university felt like a cool parent who let us drink as long as things didn’t get out of control. (They got out of control anyway, of course.)

It wasn’t always this way. Geoff Winningham attended Rice as an undergraduate from 1961 to 1965, and has taught photography there since 1969. Winningham told me he couldn’t recall alcohol being served at any on-campus parties in the sixties. When students wanted to drink, they drove to nearby bars like Kay’s Lounge, on Bissonnet Street, or to an off-campus apartment. “That meant we were driving home drunk, which was certainly risky,” he said. My mother, who graduated in 1972, belonged to one of Rice’s two women’s colleges, which—unlike the men’s colleges—had nightly curfews and strict rules against alcohol and sex. 

Winningham told me that campus culture has changed for the better in some ways. He pointed to surveys suggesting that Rice students are among the happiest in the country. “We’re obviously doing some things very right,” he said. “When I was at Rice, there were quite a few suicides. It was not a very happy place at the time. Now, it’s this happy little island where they have everything they need. But then you hear about things like [NOD].”

By all accounts, Rice’s alcohol policy changed radically over the course of the 1970s. Increasingly concerned about drunk driving, university administrators decided to allow—and even encourage—undergraduates to drink on campus. In 1975, an undergraduate pub opened in the basement of the Rice student center, selling cheap drinks to students 18 and older. (Texas raised the drinking age to 19 in 1979 and to 21 in 1984.) Residential colleges began hosting annual themed parties such as Wiess College’s NOD and Brown College’s Bacchanalia. 

From 1979 to 1984, Winningham served as the magister of Wiess College, living with his family in a modest house adjacent to the student dorms. “That was when Wiess was one of the last remaining all-male colleges, and it modeled itself after the movie Animal House,” he told me. “It was quite an experience trying to be a master [the former term for magister] there, particularly with four young kids.” Winningham recalls visiting several Wiess students in the hospital after they passed out from drinking. “I was very familiar with the protocol for dealing with alcohol,” he said. “You never allowed Houston police on the scene. You either handled it yourself or called campus police.”

As a Rice student, I was instructed to call campus EMS—a volunteer team of fellow undergraduates—if someone overindulged. Given that Rice social life revolved around binge drinking, this happened with some regularity. One of my roommates would often drink until he blacked out; on more than one occasion, I stayed up all night to make sure he didn’t choke on his own vomit. I knew someone who landed in the hospital after drinking so much that he lost control of his bowels. Another student was famous across campus for passing out in the middle of parties. It all seemed like fun at the time, and never appeared to affect anyone’s academic performance. In retrospect, I have come to understand the risks of this behavior.  

“Binge drinking is not uncommon, especially in that age group, as you’re getting out from close parental supervision,” said Michael Weaver, a professor of psychiatry at UTHealth’s McGovern Medical School, in Houston. “Fortunately, most kids will outgrow that as they get older, get into the workforce, and have more adult responsibilities. But it’s something that can have devastating consequences. Once you drink a certain amount, then you’re completely disinhibited and more likely to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise consider. That’s what leads to trouble.” 

Despite the dangers inherent in binge drinking, there is an argument to be made for such a permissive campus culture. Weaver told me that Rice’s approach to alcohol—encouraging students to drink on campus rather than driving to bars—represents a “harm reduction” model. The reasoning behind that approach, he said, is that “it’s better to have some level of control than to have no real supervision or control.”

Many Rice students view that model as beneficial—teenagers are going to drink anyway, they reason, and this way at least it’s somewhat contained. “The alcohol policy keeps people on campus, which is important because Houston is really spread out, it’s driving-centric, and it’s not cheap for students to Uber places,” said Natalie Pellette, a 22-year-old senior from California who serves as general manager of the undergraduate pub. “I’m grateful that my time at Rice has been very campus-oriented.” 

To others, though, the hospitalizations at last month’s NOD show the limits of the harm reduction approach. “You can’t have weekends where seven students are getting transported to the hospital because they drink too much,” said Prayag Gordy, a 22-year-old senior from Maryland. Gordy is the co-editor in chief of the Thresher, which broke the news of NOD’s cancellation. “It’s just an unacceptable liability to Rice. We often forget that Night of Decadence is not just a party at someone’s house. It’s a party that is funded by Rice and held on Rice property.”

University administrators have blamed the NOD disaster on the widespread practice of “pregaming”—binge drinking in dorm rooms before heading to a party. But the university may have inadvertently encouraged pregaming by banning alcohol from NOD several years ago in response to repeated EMS calls. As with many well-intentioned policies, making NOD dry produced unintended consequences. 

“Pregaming is always going to be an issue before these big publics, but especially for this one,” said Riya Misra, a 20-year-old junior from Massachusetts who co-edits the Thresher with Gordy. “Everyone’s in their underwear, and Rice is a small school. These aren’t strangers; these are people you’re going to see the next Monday. That makes some students think, you know, ‘I’d rather not remember this if I don’t have to.’ ” Or as Ben Baker-Katz, a 22-year-old senior from Illinois, told me, “no one wants to go to NOD sober.” Paradoxically, the best way to cut down on alcohol poisoning at NOD might be for the administration to allow students to imbibe there. 

In the coming months, we’ll find out what changes, if any, will be made to Rice’s alcohol policy, and whether there will ever be another Night of Decadence. Concerns about the party date back decades—in 1999, the magisters of five residential colleges signed an open letter expressing concern about alcohol consumption and sexual assault at NOD. “We hope the students of Wiess College will carefully consider if it is a good idea to continue sponsoring the event,” they wrote. Following the hospitalizations at the 2012 NOD, Rice instituted new restrictions on hard alcohol use, including a ban on drinking games involving liquor. At the moment, there appears to be a backlash against the university’s decision to ban publics through spring break. Seniors are particularly upset given that their college experience has been disrupted by COVID-19 restrictions

Baker-Katz, who will graduate in December, told me he sympathizes with the university’s predicament. “I think they’re going to have to either commit to allowing students to drink in public—and actively discourage pregaming—or go all the way and ban alcohol. I’m not in favor of that. But I don’t think taking the middle road will work anymore.”