18 vs. 21: College presidents to discuss drinking age

It may be time to rethink the drinking age.

At least that’s what more than 100 college presidents are saying by signing a statement sponsored by the Amethyst Initiative, a national alcohol awareness group dedicated to sparking a new debate about the minimum drinking age.

College President R. Barbara Gitenstein said she is open to debate on the issue, but as of now has no reason to support changing the legal drinking age from 21 to 18.

“With regard to the discussion currently in the media . I have seen no convincing evidence to support such a change,” she said.

Gitenstein added she will wait for the reports of several other College officials, including the findings of the College’s Alcohol Commission, chaired by Mark Woodford, before commenting on the specific actions of the Initiative.

“We have been having this conversation at (the College) over the last couple of years,” Gitenstein said in an e-mail.

She added, “I think it is absolutely essential that we have intensive discussions about how best to address the abuse of alcohol among young adults, particularly those aged 18-20.”

The Amethyst Initiative

The Amethyst Initiative was launched this past July by Middlebury College President John M. McCardell Jr., the founder of Choose Responsibility.

M. McCardell Jr., the founder of Choose Responsibility, a non-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about alcohol abuse by young adults.

According to its Web site, the Initiative’s mission is to help facilitate a discussion with lawmakers.

The discussion will “invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use,” according to the Web site.

Grace Kronenberg, assistant to the director of Choose Responsibility, blames premature media saturation for the Initiative’s recent opponents.

“It’s quite a large assumption that has been made in the past few weeks that each of these presidents has declared they want to change the drinking age,” she said, in regard to the Amethyst Initiative.

“Our plan was thrown off when it was leaked to the (Associated Press),” she added.

However, the media boom has not come without its advantages.

“We’ve been really pleased to be able to count 26 new members to our initiative since the news broke,” she said.

As of press time, 129 college presidents had signed the statement, including the presidents of Dartmouth College, Duke University and Johns Hopkins University, as well as three schools in New Jersey.

Kronenberg emphasized that while the Initiative respects the viewpoints of those who have attacked its position, the group is displeased by the disrespect shown to many of the college presidents who attached their names to the Initiative’s roster.

“That isn’t respectful debate. We’ve seen presidents bullied into removing their names from the list,” she said.

Kronenberg also explained why she thinks the discussion of changing the minimum legal age to 18 needs to be held as soon as possible.

“We think that 21 isn’t working, and (it has) had a series of unintended consequences, especially on younger people ages 16 to 24,” Kronenberg said.

“We believe that those consequences and the effects of the law have played an integral role in creating a culture that endorses excessive alcohol use. We feel that to address that culture you also need to discuss the drinking age and the effect of a law that says you cannot drink until you are 21,” she added.

The Initiative has come under fire for its viewpoint from several groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the American Medical Association.

Laura Dean-Mooney, MADD’s national president, released an angry statement against the initiative.

“Parents should 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 statement reads.

New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg has also been a vocal critic of the Amethsyt iniative.

According to a statement from the senator on MADD’s Web site, “This small minority of college administrators wants to undo years of success – that defies common sense. We need to do all we can to protect the national drinking age – a law that saves the lives of drivers, passengers and pedestrians across the country each year.”

College Administrators Speak Up

Other officials at the College were quick to admit the need for a discussion but, unlike Gitenstein, declined to comment on the issue of 18 vs. 21.

“I do support suggesting we need communication and discussion,” Joe Hadge, coordinator of the Alcohol and Drug Education Program (ADEP) at the College, said.

“I think their goal is to bring people together and look at how we can discuss better. My concern is that it seems to be presented as an either/or, 18 or 21, and then they take sides,” Hadge said.

“As we know through the history of alcohol, it’s just not that simple of a topic,” he added.

One of the main arguments in favor of lowering the drinking age is it will reduce clandestine and binge drinking.

While campus Police Chief John Collins doubts the College has an unusually large binge drinking problem, he dismissed the idea that lowering the drinking age would help.

“There was binge drinking and drunk driving when it was 18. It’s too complicated of an issue to just say ‘Hey, this is the solution,'” Collins said.

Hadge also cited the drinking issue as far too involved to simply change the age restriction without a detailed discussion, as some have suggested.

“This is a complex, since the beginning of time, since the first time humans stepped on grapes, issue,” he said.

“We have gods named after alcohol. It has a tremendous impact on each and every spectrum from celebration to death,” Hadge said.

Elsewhere in New Jersey

Meanwhile, three New Jersey college presidents have signed their names to the Initiative’s declaration since June.

Drew University President Robert Weisbuch led the charge on June 25.

Presidents from Montclair University and Stevens Institute of Technology followed suit in late August.

While Weisbuch was not available for direct comment, he released a written statement on the school’s homepage regarding the media’s assumption that presidents who linked up with the Initiative were dedicated to lowering the drinking age.

“Recent news stories have reported that a group of college presidents, myself included, want to lower the drinking age to 18. This is not accurate and does not represent my position,” Weisbuch writes.

The statement continues: “Presidents of approximately 100 institutions, large and small, have called for an open dialogue on creating more effective solutions to prepare young adults for the responsible use of alcohol, including a discussion of the effectiveness of the current minimum legal drinking age.”

Minnie Hoe, executive director of communications at Montclair, refused to comment, while Stevens’ President Hal Reveche was unavailable for comment.

The Class of 2012 Weighs In

Some members of the freshman class believe the issue is much more cut and dried.

“In a college environment, everybody is going to be drinking, regardless of 18, 19, 20 or 21,” Pete Alvarez, freshman finance major, said.

“Lowering the drinking age would keep people out of trouble,” he added.

Marcella Katsnelson, freshman biology major, said underage drinking is an act of rebellion which could be stopped by lowering the drinking age.

“People can be stupid, but if it was lowered, they wouldn’t feel the need to be stupid,” she said.

“I think it’s a good idea to lower it to 18. Then you won’t have to rebel,” she said.

Katsnelson added: “People want to do it more because they’re not supposed to.”

Do you think the drinking age should be re-examined? Comment on the story below.