News

August 19, 2008

College Presidents Support Public Debate on the Effects of the Drinking Age

They believe it is time for a serious debate among elected representatives about whether public policies are in line with current realities

More than 100 presidents and chancellors of U.S. colleges and universities, including Lafayette president Daniel H. Weiss, have signed a public statement supporting informed and unimpeded debate on the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age.

In an effort, launched in July, called the Amethyst Initiative, the presidents are calling upon elected officials to weigh the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.

“If you ask any college president what is their top five list of things they’re always worried about, alcohol is near the top. The challenges we face in terms of trying to control drinking among young people require that colleges and universities have the ability to work with students on issues of intelligent consumption of alcohol,” Weiss said.

By design, the presidents’ statement (below) does not prescribe a particular policy change but states their belief that 21 is not working as well as the public may think, that its unintended consequences are posing increasing risks to young people, and that it is time for a serious debate among elected representatives about whether current public policies are in line with current realities. The statement:

It’s time to rethink the drinking age

In 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which imposed a penalty of 10% of a state’s federal highway appropriation on any state setting its drinking age lower than 21. Twenty-four years later, our experience as college and university presidents convinces us that�

Twenty-one is not working

A culture of dangerous, clandestine “binge-drinking”—often conducted off-campus—has developed. Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students. Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer. By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.

How many times must we relearn the lessons of prohibition?

We call upon our elected officials:

To support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age.
To consider whether the 10% highway fund “incentive” encourages or inhibits that debate.
To invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.
We pledge ourselves and our institutions to playing a vigorous, constructive role as these critical discussions unfold.

The initiative began with an invitation extended to John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College and founder of Choose Responsibility, a non-profit organization whose aim is to promote informed public debate and support a fresh approach to the problem of reckless and excessive drinking, especially by young people, to speak at a meeting of the Annapolis Group, a group of about 120 liberal arts colleges — including Lafayette — in June 2008. In preparing for that presentation, McCardell contacted several Annapolis presidents to solicit their thoughts about the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age. The group discovered a common desire to reopen public debate over the drinking age and began to frame a statement expressing their views.

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