Dee Dee Anderson
Heads of some of the nation’s best-known colleges say the time has come to talk about whether the age-21 drinking law is preventing alcohol abuse among young people or making the problem worse.
Officials at UTC and Tennessee Wesleyan College, while acknowledging that they’ve dealt with alcohol problems among their students, have their own ideas about how to handle the situation.
About 100 university and college presidents, including Vice Chancellor Joel L. Cunningham of Sewanee: University of the South in Tennessee, have joined the so-called “Amethyst Initiative,” a movement condemning “abstinence only” alcohol prevention programs and calling for a public debate to reconsider current drinking law.
DeeDee Anderson, dean of students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which did not sign the initiative, said that despite the school’s “dry” campus policy for alcohol it is affected by the same issues as any other campus, and officials support more research into binge-drinking patterns.
“It is the role of the university to do research and to provide preventative programming to try to figure out what is the best way to prevent students from drinking excessively,” she said.
Tri-state area colleges and universities that signed the Amethyst Initiative:
* Sewanee: University of the South, Sewanee, Tenn.
* Rhodes College, Memphis
* Clark University, Atlanta
* Oglethorpe University, Atlanta
* Morehouse College, Atlanta
* Spelman College, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Source: Amethyst Initiative
Tennessee Wesleyan, in Athens, Tenn., has faced the issue of student drinking within the last few days. Over the weekend, 16 of its students were arrested after being caught drinking at an off-campus party.
Dr. Steve Condon, president of the college, said the students’ decision-making process, not the law, was to blame for the incident.
“I personally respect the law, and as an institution (we) respect the law. And I don’t think changing it to the age of 18, 15, 19, 20 is the answer,” he said. “I think the answer is continuing to work with the students in every aspect that (can) make them a better citizen in life.”
But Mr. Cunningham, who helped draft the “Amethyst Initiative” statement, said he doesn’t necessarily want the drinking age lowered, he just wants to talk about the idea.
“Our position is not that the drinking age should be changed, but that the question should be explored,” he said. “There certainly are problems in the use of alcohol in our society, and one of the factors in the use of alcohol is the age-21 drinking law.”
A university administrator for more than 30 years, Mr. Cunningham said universities could do a better job of educating students about alcohol if the law permitted it.
One potential alternative to the current law could be mandatory alcohol education and licensing to encourage more responsible alcohol use among young people, Mr. Cunningham said. Serving alcohol in moderate amounts in the presence of faculty and staff members is another scenario that could help change the culture of alcohol use in young adults, he said.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving strongly opposes the movement, calling it “misguided” and “deliberately misleading” about the effectiveness of the age-21 law, according to a statement released Tuesday. The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act tied highway funding to drinking age limits, threatening to withhold 10 percent of a state’s federal highway funds if it set its drinking age lower than 21.
Laura Dial, executive director of MADD Tennessee, said the current law not only prevents car crashes but also helps reduce other alcohol-related incidents such as alcohol poisoning and drowning.
“Additionally, a big issue is that our brains do not stop developing until we’re in our early to mid-20s,” she said. “And the effect (of alcohol) on a developing brain is very significant.”
Ms. Dial also addressed what she called “the European myth” that drinking is less of a problem in European countries, where drinking ages typically are lower and alcohol use tends to be a more integral part of the cultures. She said European countries have higher rates of underage binge drinking than the United States.
“I think that people who believe that lowering the age will somehow magically make this not happen are misguided,” Ms. Dial said. “Do you really think fraternity parties will stop?”
Andrea Miller, 21, a junior at UTC, said personal choice has more to do with drinking habits than laws or social norms. She lived on campus during her first two years and said she and her friends went out to eat, went to the movies and hung out — activities that didn’t involve alcohol.
“I was one of the kids in school who listened to ‘Don’t do drugs, don’t drink until you’re 21,’” she said, shrugging. “I sound very lame, I know, but it’s just not me. It’s not my personality.”
Other UTC students said changing the law could eliminate the allure that might come with the rebellious attitude of drinking before you’re legally allowed.
“It’s not like being 21 stops anything,” said UTC freshman Joshua Frost, 18, who said he knew of 14- and 15-year-olds who drank alcohol. “When it’s easier (to obtain), you have less desire for it.”
Tennessee Wesleyan’s Dr. Condon, on the other hand, rejected the notion that the law merely encourages lawbreaking.
“That’s like saying the current law of driving 70 encourages you to drive 80,” he said. “I believe the legal age of 21 was a reasonable and rational age to permit such drinking because of maturity, because they would think the body, the mind, the person is more capable of making those decisions then at that age.”