College reluctant to join lower drinking age initiative

College administrators are reluctant to join the Amethyst Initiative, a collective of college and university presidents who support “informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age.”

“While I think that our campus would be safer with a lower drinking age, my understanding is that drunk-driving fatalities decreased substantially when the drinking age was raised to 21,” said President Schapiro. “Unless I can be convinced that a lowering of the drinking age would not lead to an increase in alcohol related vehicular deaths, I will not support the Initiative.”

Founded in July by John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury, the Initiative calls on elected officials to weigh the consequences of the current drinking legislation and consider alternatives, noting the prevalence of binge drinking on campuses. “Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students,” according to the Initiative’s web site. It derives its name from a character in Greek mythology whose name means “not intoxicated.”

Peer institutions such as Dartmouth, Middlebury, Mount Holyoke, Pomona and Smith have joined the list of 130 signatories to the Initiative’s statement that says: “Twenty-four years [after Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act], our experience as college and university presidents convinces us that 21 is not working.”

“I support this initiative because it will allow our colleges to engage in real education of our students about responsible use of alcohol, as well as model moderate behavior,” said David Oxtoby, president of Pomona, according to the Initiative’s web site. “At present we are constrained only to talk about abstinence, since anything else is against the law. Treating college students as adults will help them to make more responsible decisions.”

Dean Merrill strongly seconds Schapiro, but is still sympathetic to Oxtoby’s views. “Anybody in higher education understands why the Initiative is there,” she said. “A lower drinking age would ease a lot of the work we do in terms of policing underage drinking, allowing us to focus on the health and community effects of alcohol.”

“However, Merrill noted that high-risk drinking often involves underage drinkers. To address this, her office focuses on a two-pronged disciplinary and educational approach. “I’m not sure if drinking age legislation is where college and universities should be focusing their energy,” she said. “It’s mainly a question for lawmakers, while we ask the continued question of how we stop high-risk drinking, raise awareness and hold open discussions on alcohol.”

Despite administrators’ reluctance to endorse the Initiative, the College is involved in the Consortium on Financing Higher Education’s (COFHE) discourse on college alcohol policy, which “hasn’t really taken off the ground,” according to Merrill. In addition, this summer saw the start of an informal group within the Dean’s Office – including Merrill; Charles Toomajian, associate dean of the College; Doug Schiazza, director of Campus Life; and Ruth Harrison, director of health services – which is examining the presentation of messages about alcohol that come from various constituencies across campus.