Presidents at more than 100 American universities, including some very prominent schools, are calling on elected officials to "support an informed and dispassionate debate" concerning the impact of the 21-year-old drinking age. The presidents of three of Oklahoma's largest universities " the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and the University of Central Oklahoma " have not signed the initiative, nor do they support lowering the drinking age.
The Amethyst Initiative was launched in July by John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont. McCardell spoke to several university presidents of the Annapolis Group, a set of approximately 120 liberal arts colleges, and discovered that all of them wanted to re-open a public debate on the drinking age.
McCardell is also the founder of Choose Responsibility, a nonprofit organization open to all citizens interested in debating the legal drinking age. The Amethyst Initiative is only open to college and university presidents and chancellors.
As of Aug. 25, the Web site listed 128 signatories, including the presidents of Dartmouth, Duke, Johns Hopkins and Ohio State universities, along with Morehouse College. No president of an Oklahoma college or university has signed the initiative.
OU President David Boren released this statement: "I do not plan to sign the Amethyst Initiative. Since we adopted our alcohol policy three years ago, alcohol-related offenses have been reduced by almost 50 percent. In addition, if the state government were to take such action, this would cost the state millions of dollars in state highway funding."
Following the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, which effectively raised the legal age from 18 to 21, the federal government enacted legislation to reduce federal highway funds by 10 percent for states that refused to enforce the 21-year-old limit.
McCardell said the highway appropriations penalty needs to be removed.
"The penalty smothers debate," he said. "A few states had initiatives about reopening the debate this past spring, but all of those initiatives died because of this penalty. The Constitution is clear that only the states can set their drinking ages, so this is a states' rights issue."
McCardell has been connected to Middlebury College for 33 years, 13 of those as president. Before becoming president, he met then-Sen. Boren at Middlebury, where Boren was given an honorary degree.
"He's nice, brilliant man, and I had more hope for him than his response," McCardell said. "I tried several times to talk to him, but he didn't return my calls. Eventually, I got a 'Dear John' letter from him. That's been the extent of our discussion about the initiative."
Jay Doyle, press secretary and special assistant to Boren, said OU developed its current alcohol policy following the alcohol poisoning death of Blake Hammontree in 2004. The medical examiner said the freshman's blood alcohol level was more than five times the legal limit.
The Amethyst Initiative contends this sort of binge drinking is an unintended consequence of the drinking age. A statement on the Web site under the heading "Twenty-one is not working" reads: "A culture of dangerous, clandestine binge drinking " often conducted off-campus " has developed. Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students."
OU's numbers indicate otherwise.
"We have seen very positive cultural shifts as a result of our policy, including a decrease in off-campus alcohol violations attributed to students since the policy's inception," he said, adding that, according to OU's Office of Judicial Services, minor-in-possession citations decreased 23.1 percent, public-intoxication citations decreased 59.1 percent, and driving-under-the-influence citations decreased 76.8 percent over a two-year period from 2005 to 2007.
McCardell said policies like OU's may sometimes be effective, but the issue is really about state and parental rights.
"The current law prevents parents from introducing their children to alcohol and teaching them to drink responsibly," McCardell said. "And the law has the other effect of preventing states from being what they were designed to be: little laboratories of progressivism."
OSU, UCO PRESIDENTS
Oklahoma administrators are not entering the debate. The presidents of OSU and UCO also have declined to sign the initiative. Gary Shutt, director of communications for OSU, said, "President (V. Burns) Hargis was not aware of the initiative, but we have no intention of pursuing the lowering of the drinking age."
Said McCardell, "President Hargis should open his mail. He'd be aware of the initiative and the national debate if he did."
W. Roger Webb, president of UCO, said he thinks "any proposal to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18 is a bad idea."
However, he did indicate his support for at least one part of the initiative.
"I think it's great that university and college presidents are talking about alcohol-related issues and their impact on students," Webb said. "I support the part of the initiative that invites new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol."
"Even if our side doesn't win," McCardell said, "I'm utopian enough to believe that better public policy will emerge from the debate." "Greg Horton