The college presidents said they wanted a national debate on the 21-year-old drinking age. They got it.
For years, former Middlebury College President John McCardell has been criticizing the law, saying it only encourages binge drinking and pushes alcohol into the shadows.
But then McCardell quietly enlisted about 100 college presidents in a campaign calling for the drinking age to be reconsidered. After The Associated Press reported on the effort this week, the issue erupted into the biggest discussion on the subject in years — in blogs, over e-mail, in newspaper editorials and around office water coolers.
College presidents usually avoid contentious topics because alienating alumni and politicians poses big risks and offers few rewards. So it was big news when so many leaders of the nation’s best-known institutions signed on to McCardell’s “Amethyst Initiative,” named for the Greek gemstone said to ward off intoxication.
Supporters included presidents of private universities such as Duke, Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins, and public schools including Ohio State and the University of Maryland.
“No matter where you stand on this issue, it’s impossible to look at what has happened over the last three or four days and say this is a settled question,” McCardell said Friday in one of nearly a dozen scheduled media interviews.
“It’s also impossible to say the public isn’t ready to participate in the debate the presidents are calling for.”
Critics led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving got their view across, too, accusing the presidents of seeking to avoid the unpleasant work of cracking down on campus lawbreakers.
MADD marshaled critics, including the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who called changing the law “a terrible idea” that would “jeopardize the lives of more teens.”
Amid the backlash, two presidents — Robert Franklin of Morehouse College and Kendall Blanchard of Georgia Southwestern State — withdrew their support.
“We welcome an honest discussion and that begins with a clear discussion of the science,” MADD CEO Chuck Hurley said. “We are hopeful that that will be the focus going forward.”
More presidents join group
But at least 20 presidents have added their names this week, including the presidents of Montclair State in New Jersey and the University of Massachusetts system, bringing the total to at least 123.
“We’re not burying our head and trying to hide behind laws,” said Father Paul Locatelli, president of Santa Clara University in California, who meets personally with every student written up for alcohol infractions. “We’re trying to say, ‘What is the best way to approach this issue?'”