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College presidents spark debate on drinking age

The college presidents said they wanted a national debate on the 21-year-old drinking age. They got it.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The college presidents said they wanted a national debate on the 21-year-old drinking age. They got it.

For years, former Middlebury College President John McCardell has been criticizing the law, saying it only encourages binge drinking and pushes alcohol into the shadows.

But then McCardell quietly enlisted about 100 college presidents in a campaign calling for the drinking age to be reconsidered. After The Associated Press reported on the effort this week, the issue erupted into the biggest discussion on the subject in years — in blogs, over e-mail, in newspaper editorials and around office water coolers.

College presidents usually avoid contentious topics because alienating alumni and politicians poses big risks and offers few rewards. So it was big news when so many leaders of the nation's best-known institutions signed on to McCardell's "Amethyst Initiative," named for the Greek gemstone said to ward off intoxication.

Supporters included presidents of private universities such as Duke, Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins, and public schools including Ohio State and the University of Maryland.

"No matter where you stand on this issue, it's impossible to look at what has happened over the last three or four days and say this is a settled question," McCardell said Friday in one of nearly a dozen scheduled media interviews.

"It's also impossible to say the public isn't ready to participate in the debate the presidents are calling for."

Critics led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving got their view across, too, accusing the presidents of seeking to avoid the unpleasant work of cracking down on campus lawbreakers.

MADD marshaled critics, including the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who called changing the law "a terrible idea" that would "jeopardize the lives of more teens."

Amid the backlash, two presidents — Robert Franklin of Morehouse College and Kendall Blanchard of Georgia Southwestern State — withdrew their support.

"We welcome an honest discussion and that begins with a clear discussion of the science," MADD CEO Chuck Hurley said. "We are hopeful that that will be the focus going forward."

More presidents join group
But at least 20 presidents have added their names this week, including the presidents of Montclair State in New Jersey and the University of Massachusetts system, bringing the total to at least 123.

"We're not burying our head and trying to hide behind laws," said Father Paul Locatelli, president of Santa Clara University in California, who meets personally with every student written up for alcohol infractions. "We're trying to say, 'What is the best way to approach this issue?'"

Whether the debate will lead anywhere is unclear. Opinion polls suggest most Americans support enforcing current drinking laws.

In a MADD press release, Rep. James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said he would not consider any effort to repeal or weaken "this lifesaving law."

Efforts in states including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Vermont to relax the drinking age have been rebuffed. A 1984 federal law limits a state's access to federal highway funds if it sets a drinking age lower than 21.

But that law is up for reauthorization next year. McCardell wants it changed so states can decide for themselves the best drinking age, without fear of losing federal money. He hopes the drinking age will become an issue in the fall election campaign.

Newspapers weigh in
A number of newspaper editorials this week criticized the presidents, calling enforcement a better answer.

The Indianapolis Star questioned "whether the style of behavior demonstrated by a university president or a professor at a dinner or reception will be replicated by freshmen let loose at their first Friday night keg party."

"Why permit 18-year-olds to vote but not drink?" asked Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman. "Because they have not shown a disproportionate tendency to abuse the franchise, to the peril of innocent bystanders."

But other editorial pages, including The Houston Chronicle, were more sympathetic — at least to the presidents' call for debate, if not to lowering the drinking age.

While "it's hard to believe that the current drinking age is to blame, it does limit the ways colleges can respond" to problem drinking, wrote The Los Angeles Times.

Against the forces of peer-pressure and marketing, "the only educational message colleges can deliver to students is 'Don't.' It's worth considering ways to teach young people how to drink responsibly — for example, by letting states create limited, provisional rights."

Predictably, student newspapers were also sympathetic, like the Duke Chronicle, which praised President Richard Brodhead for signing on.

"We'd even raise a glass to him — that is, if we could," the Chronicle editors wrote.