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Editor's Note

A Long Overdue Conversation

University Business, Oct 2008

A strange and inspiring thing happened this summer. Higher education grew a backbone. In July a group of 100 college and university presidents calling themselves the Amethyst Initiative came forward with the not-so-surprising news that young people on college campuses drink alcohol before they reach the legal age of 21.

Underage drinking is a serious issue for colleges and universities. It’s also a serious issue in high schools across the country. And high school drinkers don’t stop just because they get to college. As a result, underage drinking leads to dangerous, secret binge-drinking, among other problems.

MADD's admonition had the opposite effect. Even more presidents joined the Amethyst Initiative.

The Amethyst Initiative calls on elected officials “to weigh all 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.”

The news, predictably, drew the ire of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which zeroed in on the suggestion that it is time to “rethink the drinking age.” That became the misleading headline that ran in newspapers around the country: “College presidents want to lower the drinking age to 18.”

Since it was founded nearly 30 years ago, MADD has done wonderful things to educate people about the dangers of drinking and driving, and should be applauded for these efforts. But by reframing the debate, the organization has diverted attention from the real issue to a phony one that “plays in Peoria.”

We should note that nowhere on the Amethyst Initiative website ( does it say that the legal drinking age should be lowered to 18.

But people hear what they want to hear.

MADD issued a statement that encouraged the signers to remove their names from the list, and even hinted that additional pressure might come from state governors in the form of withheld funding.

Somewhat surprisingly, MADD’s admonition had the opposite effect. Even more college presidents joined the Amethyst Initiative. At press time, 130 higher education leaders had signed the Amethyst Initiative Presidential Statement, seeking to begin a national dialog on a very serious issue.

“This is not a simple question,” says signatory Richard Brodhead, president of Duke University (N.C.), “but the current answer is also not an effective solution to the problem.”

True, nearly as many college presidents have spoken out against the group’s proposal—and that’s the way debate is supposed to take place.

But MADD’s response is, to paraphrase: “We’ve done the research. Here it is. End of discussion.”

That’s not good enough.

“As my mother taught me, the sign of either stupidity or stubbornness is to keep doing the same thing in the face of failure,” says Lawrence Schall, president of Oglethorpe University (Ga.). “I know I don’t have the answers, but I also know that the status quo has failed. I signed the Presidential Statement not because I think there is an easy solution out there, but because we need to be talking about solutions.”

Elisabeth Muhlenfeld, president of Sweet Briar College (Va.), is another Amethyst Initiative signatory. Writing in this month’s Independent Outlook column, she notes, “If after a rigorous examination of the existing public policy lawmakers and constituents believe 21 still makes sense, so be it. But we need to put this issue under the microscope.”

Whether you agree with the Amethyst Initiative position or not, this is a conversation that is long overdue. Ignoring the elephant in the room will not make it go away.


Write to Tim Goral at