Like an inexperienced college student unsure about taking that first offered beer at a party, the state's university system is facing a difficult decision about alcohol.

Should it be sold on campuses?

The proposal is coming before the state Board of Regents in December, and it has been a topic discussed by the university system's council of presidents and superintendents, then handed to a task force comprising representatives of the six state universities.

The South Dakota Legislature would have to pass a law allowing such sales.

A central concern: Although selling alcohol on university campuses has the potential to increase revenues for campus activities and scholarships, would the availability of alcohol exacerbate the societal problem of binge drinking among the young?

But the head of the task force studying the proposal said last week that the discussion thus far has been about the serving of alcohol in limited, controlled situations.

"I don't think anyone should assume there should be pubs on campus," said Janelle Toman, the Board of Regents director of communications and chairwoman of the task force. "That's not where task force was going at all. No one (at the task force meeting) spoke about it being generally available on campus, nor do I think that's the direction we would go."

Rather, Toman said, the focus has been more about alcohol sales at events and specific locations such as event centers and stadiums.

The task force, which met last week, is in the fact-finding phase of its work, Toman said.

Members are curious about how campus alcohol sales are handled in other states, what those states' laws say, and what the potential law changes and potential policy changes are, she said.

State law has banned alcohol sales on campuses since at least 1939. The law says no on-sale or off-sale license may be granted to operate on the campus of any state educational institution.

The law defines "campus" as the area immediately surrounding the buildings used for classrooms, administrative offices, athletic facilities and housing.

Representatives of each of the six South Dakota regents schools have been asked to compile information in such areas as the amount of revenues that could result from such sales, what licensing would entail, and where the alcohol would be offered.

Heather Wilson, president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, said she has concerns about the proposal.

"While I would be naive if I said (drinking) didn't exist, it's a caution for me," Wilson said. "As a president, we try to encourage students to make responsible and healthy decisions. We don't want to send mixed messages about that.

"At the same time, consumption by adults is legal, and our students are at the point where they're becoming adults. Knowing how to drink responsibly is part of that. It's not an easy situation."

The idea of promoting alcohol sales and profiting from those sales is the heart of the concern at South Dakota State University, said Doug Wermedal, the SDSU representative on the task force.

With more than 30 years in higher education and experience at five other campuses, he said that concern has persisted for many decades.

"The concern is binge drinking, which is high-risk drinking," Wermedal said. "One way you monitor that is to have trained and experienced persons doing the serving of alcohol."

Trained servers not only would ensure that people are old enough to legally consume alcohol, but also would have the experience to determine if drinkers are at the point that they need to be cut off, Wermedal added.

The vision at SDSU, one that is in favor of the change, is that the sales would be at a wide range of events, including concerts, plays, lectures, art exhibitions and many times in the performing arts center.

There's also more to the desire to have alcohol sales than just revenue, Wermedal added, because the social atmosphere is also a big plus.

"The theater, for example, allows during intermission sales of coffee and tea and snacks, and that seems to add to the enjoyment of the event," he said, adding that alcohol sales could do the same.

Mines doesn't have a big party scene, Wilson said, "But we're also talking about normal young people who have social lives and are learning to become adults."

Discussion will focus on what that means, how to talk about that and deal with that responsibly, Wilson said.

"It's a difficult issue for a university," she said. "We're participating in the discussion and seeing where it goes."

Black Hills State University's representative on the task force is Steve Meeker, vice president of university advancement. He said the school is not advocating for or against the change.

"The feeling overall is going with the flow," he said. "We would be OK if it didn't happen, but if that's what the state decides, that's fine, too."

Meeker also said that the focus has been on sales at events, and that if the change did occur, BHSU would look at selling alcohol at football and softball games.

If that were the case, Meeker said, BHSU would bring in a third-party to handle sales, as would other universities, so that the school wasn't selling the alcohol. He also said he hoped the prices of the alcohol would be high enough to limit consumption.

"We would go about it in a professional way," he said.

Although alcohol sales are not now allowed on campuses, schools do have tailgating policies that allow students to drink before football games.

Mines' and BHSU's tailgating policies are similar: They do not allow alcohol in the stands, but drinking is allowed in tailgating areas in the parking lots of the football stadiums. The two schools worked together to create their policies.

The policies also focus on control. Drinkers whose behavior is inappropriate may be asked to leave.

Mines stadium is unique, Wilson said, because it is drive-in, so tailgating can go on throughout the game. At BHSU tailgating concludes before the games start.

Rebecca Schneider, 23, a senior in biology at BHSU, was enjoying the tailgating on Saturday when Chadron State traveled to Spearfish for an afternoon game.

She said she is “all for” allowing alcohol sales on campus, adding it would be “a great way to raise extra money for the university.” She advocated that any money raised by alcohol sales be devoted to scholarships or grants for students.

The universities are not allowed to sell alcohol during tailgating, but they allow people of legal age to bring their own alcohol and consume it.

Alex Spilman is a senior chemical-engineering student and head of Mines' Rowdy Rocker Initiative, described on a website as "a group focused on creating school pride."

He runs the Mines' tailgating, which includes distributing free burgers and brats for anyone until they run out.

Because a lot of students are younger than 21, he said he wouldn't want to see an environment that welcomes underage drinking. But at home football games when students are on the ramps, he said, they have fun sitting down and having a couple of beers.

"A lot of people from the community like to come out and hang out too," he said.

If sales were to extend beyond just events, he said he doesn't know how much of a market people think there would be on the relatively small Mines campus.

"I think a lot of people would enjoy it if we did," Spilman said. "With the right control, anything can work. It’s setting up the right systems.”

Aaron Sternhagen, a senior chemical-engineering major at Mines, said there definitely would be a market for alcohol sales at football games.

“I don’t understand why we (would) be any different than any other university if we want to be competitive," he said. "Drinking beer and watching football go hand-in-hand. I don’t see why there would be a problem if you are over 21 drinking at a game."

However, he said would be opposed to drinking in campus apartments or in the dormitories.

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Bob Mercer, Richard Anderson and Sean Ryan contributed to this report.

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