Colleges take on drinking age
A call to examine the age-21 threshold has sparked heated debate on campuses.
Would lowering the drinking age make alcohol problems more or less prevalent on campus?Skip to next paragraph
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In a bold challenge to the decades-old status quo, 129 college presidents have signed a statement calling on elected officials "to support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age."
Known as the Amethyst Initiative, it has stirred discussions on campuses and editorial pages across the United States. It's also drawn stinging criticism from groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which defends the age limit as a key factor in reducing traffic fatalities.
"We agree there are terrible problems with binge and underage drinking. We just don't agree on their proposed solution, that being lowering the drinking age," says MADD president Laura Dean-Mooney in a phone interview. In the group's press release in mid-August, she urged parents to "think twice before sending their teens to these colleges or any others that have waved the white flag on underage and binge-drinking policies."
The Amethyst signers say that's an unfair charge. They want to take more responsibility, not less, for changing the culture around drinking, they say. "We stringently enforce the law," says Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. "But what I fear and so many of my colleagues also see is that these drinking behaviors then get driven off campus…. We can't create environments in which healthier drinking behaviors occur and are modeled.... We can't remove the illicit thrill."
John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont, organized the initiative. Eight presidents helped draft the statement this summer, and the group then invited presidents of all four-year colleges and universities to sign on.
Mr. McCardell is also president of Choose Responsibility. The nonprofit advocates removing the 1984 law that withholds 10 percent of a state's federal highway funds if it sets a drinking age lower than 21. He says he'd like to see alternatives considered, such as a license to allow drinking by 18-year-olds who have graduated from high school and have obeyed alcohol laws.
The Amethyst Initiative website states that the signatories advocate a debate but not necessarily a change in the law. But McCardell's dual roles have led some to see little distinction between the two agendas.