The Amethyst Initiative
August 20, 2008
This week, a group of more than 100 college presidents (called The Amethyst Initiative), released an open letter calling for "an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the twenty-one-year-old drinking age" in America. I am one of the signatories of that letter, and I want to let the Kenyon community know my reasons for this decision. My active support of the initiative stems from my concerns for the safety of our students, for the health of our polity, and for the soundness of our educational values.
First, let me clarify that our statement does not explicitly call for a younger drinking age. Rather, we ask for a public examination of whether the current law is leading to the outcomes we desire for our society. Such an examination would need to consider both the law's intended consequences and its unintended consequences.
The major intention of the law was to reduce the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities for eighteen to twenty-one-year-olds. And, indeed, this number has diminished. Actually, it began to decrease before the law was enacted in 1984. The steady decrease in traffic fatalities since that time, according to many researchers, may have multiple causes. Among these are: mandatory seatbelt laws, dramatically improved "crash-proof" automobile construction, more effective law enforcement (through "zero-tolerance" practices, etc.), and greater awareness on the part of citizens (for example, the common practice of a "designated driver," essentially unknown in the early 1980s). The cause-and-effect relationship between the twenty-one-year-old drinking age and fewer alcohol-related traffic fatalities for eighteen to twenty-one-year-olds has been much touted. But is the causal link so clear? We believe the American public needs a better understanding of how this law is contributing to its intended outcome.
At the same time, we call for an examination of the unintended consequences of the law. On college campuses, we encounter these every day. My primary concern about the current law is the effect it has on the health and safety of our students. I have spent thirty years as a teacher and administrator in higher education. Thus, my beliefs are informed by first-hand observation, and I want to speak specifically to the drinking culture on college campuses today. College students and alcohol have been a volatile combination since the founding of the earliest European universities. Town/gown disputes were spurred by young scholars surging out of pubs in thirteenth-century Oxford. Although alcohol abuse has always been an issue on college campuses, the high-risk behavior we've seen in the past fifteen years is much different from the behavior that took place in earlier periods. Because students under the age of twenty-one are not able to go out and have a beer while dancing or socializing, the practice of "front loading" or "pre-gaming" has arisen. This involves an individual student or a small number of students, sequestered in their rooms, consuming large amounts of hard alcohol quickly, before going out for a social evening. This is a dangerous, indeed potentially deadly, form of substance abuse. We first began to see this kind of binge drinking in the early 1990s. With many others, I believe there is a direct correlation between this phenomenon and the raising of the drinking age across America in the late 1980s. This was certainly not an intended consequence of the law, but it is a state of affairs that we live with today.
Another unintended consequence of the twenty-one-year-old drinking age, I believe, is that we're missing an important educational opportunity. For students who are under the legal drinking age (i.e., the majority of students in college), we've created two extreme choices: total abstinence or illegal drinking. When all drinking under the age of twenty-one is illegal, parents and families do not have the opportunity to introduce, model, and support moderate and responsible drinking behavior. Neither do college educators. Before the drinking age was raised, faculty members and also older students might serve as positive role models for younger students, partaking of alcohol moderately in a social context. Professors and students might enjoy a glass of wine together at a reception. A faculty member might carry on a lively debate with a student over a beer. That's now illegal. Removing social drinking in moderation from the equation takes away what may be a sensible choice for many young people. For our younger students, alcohol has become an alluring "forbidden fruit." Since any consumption of alcohol in a social setting is forbidden for the majority of students, consumption has gone underground and become an end in itself. Current laws create an environment conducive to abuse and discourage our students from learning, at this crucial adolescent age, responsible behaviors concerning alcohol.
In addition to my very serious concerns about how the twenty-one-year-old drinking age is affecting the health and safety of our students, I also worry about the effects of this law on the health of our society. The fact is that this law is very widely broken by our young people. My many conversations with other college presidents persuade me that fake IDs and illegally procured alcohol are prevalent on every campus (including so-called "dry" campuses). Let me be very clear that I, as well as the other presidents who have signed the Amethyst Initiative, do the best that we can to enforce this law on our campuses. We do not condone the breaking of this or any other law. Yet we know that "behind our backs," students are routinely flouting the law. Many of them consider it unreasonable that eighteen should be the age of majority for virtually all aspects of adult behavior in this country except this one. This leads them, erroneously, to feel justified in choosing to disobey or ignore the law. This is not a healthy situation for our young people. Engaging in scoff-law behavior is surely not what we would hope for our students, just as they are taking on the rights and responsibilities of voting citizens. My fellow presidents and I have begun the Amethyst Initiative, in part, to model responsible citizenship. Disobeying or ignoring the law is not an option. Rather, if one believes a law is ineffective or inappropriate, one can join with others to undertake informed political action.
Finally, my fellow presidents and I are calling for a broad public examination of the current law to further the educational values of responsible research, broad dissemination of information, and open debate that are the bedrock of our institutions. There is a massive amount of research on the topics of alcohol consumption and its effects, underage drinking, measures to prevent alcohol abuse, and the like. This research has been carried on for decades, it is international in scope, and it arises from many different fields of knowledge--including anthropology, chemistry, psychology, and sociology. These studies yield a wide range of information and, frankly, draw a number of differing conclusions. Yet, for a variety of reasons, a fairly narrow range of research has reached the American public. We believe that, in an area of such importance to the well-being of our citizens and our society, this wide range of information needs to be more broadly available for public consideration and discussion, to inform our personal, institutional, and political practices.
Kenyon naturally upholds the law with regard to underage drinking, and we have numerous programs in place to discourage drinking by underage students and the abuse of alcohol by any students. Would changing the drinking age solve alcohol abuse on college campuses? No, probably not. Would it help to curb the phenomenon of binge drinking? Very possibly.
In researching his book, Binge: What Your College Student Won't Tell You, author Barrett Seaman interviewed college administrators around the country and found that he "did not meet any presidents or deans who felt that the twenty-one-year age minimum helps their efforts to curb the abuse of alcohol on their campuses. Quite the opposite. They thought the law impeded their efforts, since it takes away the ability to monitor and supervise drinking behavior." This conversation needs to be taking place beyond the offices of college presidents and deans. There are no easy answers. But it's time for all of us to ask the tough questions.
S. Georgia Nugent