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Bacow joins group for debate on drinking age

Published: Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Updated: Wednesday, August 27, 2008 09:08


University President Lawrence Bacow has joined 127 other college presidents and chancellors in signing onto a project encouraging discussion about lowering the national drinking age to 18.

The recently unveiled movement, known as the Amethyst Initiative, calls for more vigorous debate about the stringency of drinking laws, which have failed to effect "significant constructive behavioral change" and have fed a "culture of dangerous, clandestine "binge-drinking," according to the Initiative's online mission statement.

The Amethyst Initiative is a recent offshoot of the nonprofit group Choose Responsibility (CR), which former Middlebury College President John McCardell founded in December 2006 to begin examining the consequences of the current drinking age, said Grace Kronenberg, Choose Responsibility's assistant to the director.

Unlike Choose Responsibility, which is currently focusing its effort on waiving or removing a clause in the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act that withholds 10 percent of federal transportation funding from states that do not set the legal age at 21, the Amethyst Initiative advocates mere discussion rather than explicit legislative action. Its members are exclusively college presidents and chancellors.

Noting a "worsening situation" in reference to alcohol-related fatalities among 18-to-24-year-olds, Kronenberg said the steadily growing support for the Amethyst Initiative among leaders in higher education signals a willingness to try a different approach.

"By signing this statement, they are not raising a white flag," Kronenberg said. "They are stepping up and saying we need to pursue other solutions, because the status quo isn't working."

Bacow wrote in an e-mail to the Daily that efforts to combat binge drinking on campus and enforce the current drinking age "have not been effective," and have potentially caused the unintended side effect of "driving drinking underground, and in the process, may have put more students at risk."

Although he has endorsed the Amethyst Initiative's aim of opening a national debate, Bacow expressed uncertainty about whether lowering the drinking age is the "correct answer."

The initiative has been met with criticism from many politicians, newspapers and organizations, notably the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

David DeIuliis, a spokesperson for the organization, said that his organization is receptive to dialogue about potential new methods of allaying alcohol abuse, but he called lowering the drinking age a "failed experiment."

He noted a correlative spike in motor vehicle fatalities in states that set the legal age below 21 prior to 1984.

"Combating alcohol abuse should begin with proper enforcement of current laws," DeIuliis said.

"The fact of the matter is, [an underage person] somewhere is getting alcohol from someone who is over 21," he said. "I think what needs to happen is we need to find those sources and try to cut them off. I think the key here is to as best as we can reduce youth access to alcohol."

Such criticism has led two college presidents to remove themselves from the list.

One of them, Kendall Blanchard of Georgia South-western State University, told The New York Times that he rescinded his support because detractors had misunderstood the initiative's intentions.

"It was clear to me that they didn't see this as a dialogue; they saw this as some kind of effort on our part to turn our schools into party schools," Blanchard told the Times.

But some say that detractors are missing the point, and that while alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents among young drivers have gone down since 1984, other factors have been at play.

"These include designated driver programs and safer roads and automobiles," Ruth Engs, an Indiana University-Bloomington professor emeritus of applied health said in an e-mail to the Daily. Engs has done substantial research on student drinking.

She also said that the decrease in traffic accidents in the early 1980s was partially offset by lower grades among students and an increase in violence as universities worked to enforce the new age.

Engs said that student attempts to circumvent purchase laws have led to a culture of clandestine binge drinking reminiscent of Prohibition-era "speakeasies."

This type of behavior "is not found in cultures where the drinking age is lower," she said.

University Professor Sol Gittleman, who has watched the drinking age rise to 21 during his tenure at Tufts, said that high alcohol use has remained a constant for college students through changes in the law.

"I think there's a culture of drinking among young people who think they're immortal," Gittleman said. "The capacity of the American college student to get emotionally involved with booze has always been there."

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