University chancellors and presidents across US debate drinking age
October 2, 2008
While 130 chancellors and presidents of colleges and universities across America have signed a public statement that declares that the 21 age drinking laws are not working to curb binge drinking, Interim Chancellor Connie Foster has decided not to sign.
Foster made her decision after she consulted with UW-River Falls staff that did not support putting UWRF’s name on the initiative. A new chancellor might want to look at the issue again, but Foster said that for now she sided with the experts.
Since it has surfaced this past summer, the Amethyst Initiative—named after the gemstone that the Greeks thought was the antidote to the negative effects of intoxication—has created a storm of debates in the media surrounding the possibility of lowering the drinking age to 18.
The initiative does not state that it wants to lower the drinking age. Rather, it “supports informed and unimpeded debate,” according to a statement on the initiative’s Web site.
Before signing, Wisconsin’s only acting president listed on the initiative, president of Ripon College David Joyce, consulted with his senior staff.
“The central issue with the 21 law is that it is inconsistent with the other ages of ‘public trust.’ You can get married, go to war, vote and pay taxes for three years before you can legally have a beer,” Ripon’s Director of Media and Public Relations Cody Pinkston said on behalf of the college in an e-mail. “It’s similar in some ways to prohibition – rather than work out a tenable solution to a problem, you make it illegal. All we’re saying is, there must be a better way. Let’s sit down and figure it out.”
Joyce said from his perspective the different age of consent sends a terrible mixed message to young adults today.
“What age do we say, ‘you are an adult?’” Joyce said in a telephone interview. “The logic is there…let’s find a common age and make it work based on research.”
An important issue to note is that a leading critic of the Amethyst Initiative, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, calls into question whether or not the leaders who sign the initiative enforce the 21 age laws on their campuses.
Joyce was quick to state that they were dead wrong and, in fact, Ripon College has stepped up its enforcement of 21 age laws by tightening restrictions.
Alice Reilly-Myklebust, director of student health and counseling services, and Kevin Syverson, health education coordinator, both lent their expert advice to Foster.
Lowering the amount of drinking on campus by consistently enforcing the policies and laws and encouraging parents to talk to their kids before sending them to college is Reilly-Myklebust and Syverson’s main concern.
“If we can bring the [binge drinking] rates down, we can change the norm on campus,” Syverson said.
Reilly-Myklebust said that she believes the Amethyst Initiative is wrong when it says that the current 21 age law is not working.
“Looking at the Amethyst Initiative issue from a health standpoint, by looking at the data, research and best practices, it is clear that the 21-year-old drinking laws have saved lives and that the [21 age] laws do work” Reilly-Mycklebust said.
Wisconsin lowered both the voting age and the drinking age to 18 in March 1972. Under pressure from the influences at the time, Wisconsin then raised the drinking age to 19 in 1984. That same year President Ronald Reagan signed the federal government legislation that would withhold 10 percent of federal highway aids from any state that did not adopt 21 as the national minimum legal drinking age by October 1986. The stated purpose of the federal law was to reduce drunk driving of 18 to 20-year-olds. Wisconsin came into compliance September 1984 and has maintained the 21 age laws.
Dick Trende, director of public safety, called Foster’s decision very wise.
“Unlike University [presidents and chancellors], I’ve worked in the trenches,” he said.
Trende, the former Hudson chief of police, has been a patrol officer since 1972 and saw the effects of lowering the drinking age. In Hudson, he said he noticed more alcohol-induced fighting and crashes between the ages of 18 and 20. Bar closing fights were considerably more frequent when the drinking age was lower, Trende said.
He described a ripple effect that the college chancellors and presidents in agreement with the initiative are not taking into account. The decision to lower the drinking age would not only affect campuses, it would spread to high schools and communities at large. He said he sees education, stringent laws and aggressive enforcement as the deterrents to binge drinking.
“[21 age laws are] a challenge, but it is enforceable,” Trende said.
Japan’s 20-year-old drinking age is close to the United States’ legal drinking age, but Japan’s system is much more relaxed. Although the number has gone down, vending machines filled with alcohol can be used from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., Japan native Mizuki Katsuyama said in an e-mail interview.
The 22-year-old speech communication major has been in the United States for a year and said that she was surprised and slightly bothered how strict America is when it comes to checking IDs – she has to bring her passport into bars.
Other students on campus varied in their reactions to the idea of lowering the drinking age. One student in favor of lowering the drinking age is 21-year-old Heidi Foster.
“When you’re 18 you’re legally an adult, but you still have to wait another three years to drink so [the disparages] make drinking seem more of a big deal,” the communications studies senior said.
Thomas Sluciak, 20, a computer science sophomore, said he can see both sides of the issue, but said he does not think it would be a good idea to lower the drinking age.
“Anybody who underage drinks binge drinks,” Sluciak said. “I think younger people would start drinking because it’s more available.”