President Chopp Joins in Drinking Age Discussion

Geoff Guenther

There is a growing movement spearheaded by 129 college presidents and chancellors, including President of the University and Professor of Philosophy and Religion Rebecca Chopp, to engage in a conversation about the current legal drinking age as part of a broad-based discussion.

“I and most college deans and presidents are concerned with how we establish socially responsible alcohol use on our campuses,” President Chopp said. “I am concerned with problems of binge drinking and the overuse of alcohol. Many of us have been saying that it would be great to have a national conversation about these problems.”

Joining that conversation is an increasing number of administrators from many of America’s most prestigious colleges, many of which have signed onto the Amethyst Initiative. This statement, created by President Emeritus of Middlebury College John McCardell, Jr., posits that, “the 21-year-old drinking age is not working, and, specifically, … has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking on [college] campuses.”

Named for the ancient Greek belief that amethysts could prevent drunkenness, the Amethyst Initiative calls for “an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age” and “new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.”

Technically, no federal law mandates a person be 21 to drink. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act, passed by Congress in 1984, leaves the decision up to states but stipulates that any state that makes the legal drinking age lower than 21 will lose 10 percent of their annual federal highway funding. That act is about to expire and, as President Chopp said, now is an appropriate time to begin a serious nation-wide conversation about the subject.

“What is the best way to foster socially responsible drinking?” Chopp asked, suggesting that, “The best way to foster binge drinking is to engage in prohibition, which is what we have now.”

The Amethyst Initiative states that “[a] culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking’-often conducted off-campus-has developed” as a result of the 21-year-old legal drinking age. This behavior is a principal concern for college presidents, including Chopp.

“When you see what I see,” she said, referring to overuse of alcohol on campus, “you realize that we need to step back and talk about this. Binge drinking is a serious concern.”

Chopp lamented what she refers to as the “fundamental inconsistency” of current alcohol legislation.

“It really does bother me that we can send our students off to war and have them sign legal contracts and vote, but they can’t have a beer,” Chopp said.

Choose Responsibility, an organization founded by the creator of the Amethyst Initiative, has received criticism from many groups, including the Governors Highway Safety Administration and the American Medical Association. The most vocal of these groups, though, has been Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

“After I signed on to the Initiative,” Chopp said, “I had about a thousand emails from members of [MADD]. I think they immediately and radically misinterpreted it as saying that we want all college students to drink. That is not true.”

The Amethyst Initiative is not simply about lowering the legal drinking age, as Chopp explained. The goal is simply to find ways to encourage students who do choose to drink to do so responsibly. “Lowering the legal drinking age may help achieve that goal,” Chopp said. “That is what the conversation should be about.”

“Look at other countries,” she said, referring to the fact that most other countries allow their citizens to consume alcohol well before age 21. “This is not to say that college students will always be responsible, but I think there is enough evidence on the international scene to say that college-age students can responsibly handle drinking.”

Choose Responsibility has put forward one possible remedy to the current legislation. Only those students who have turned 18 years old, have graduated from high school, have passed a mandatory (and realistic) alcohol education program and have never broken the state’s drinking laws would be given a license to purchase and drink alcohol. Any alcohol-related infraction would result in that license’s being revoked. This proposition has sparked debate, particularly on college campuses across the nation.

One point upon which the debate hinges is the effect that a lower drinking age would have on alcohol overuse. Some say that the 21-year-old drinking age forces college-age students to drink behind closed doors, making alcohol overuse much more likely. Others argue that young people will overuse alcohol no matter the legality of such behavior. Statistics seem to be split between supporting one side and the other. Chopp pointed out that studies relating DUI-related accidents to the drinking age are pretty evenly split between reinforcing and refuting the current drinking age. She stressed that DUI incidents are another serious concern at Colgate.

“I’m not sure we’re going to be able to settle this based on the various reports of the impact of the current drinking age, as those reports seem to disagree with one another,” Chopp said. As current national drinking age legislation is scheduled to expire next year, President Chopp hopes to see this subject discussed and debated on Colgate’s campus and beyond.