129 college presidents back discussion over nation's drinking age

University of Michigan -- On any given night in Ann Arbor, thousands of college students cram into dorm rooms, bars, and house parties for the hallowed campus diversion of recreational drinking.

Though adults must be 21 to drink alcohol throughout the United States, binge drinking remains rampant on college campuses. With a key government policy related to the drinking age up for renewal next year, more than 100 college presidents have signed onto a new petition urging lawmakers to reconsider the country's alcohol laws.

Twenty-five years ago, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which drove every U.S. state to raise the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.

John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont and the petition's creator, said the nation's drinking laws simply don't work.

"When you have a law that says you may not consume alcohol until you turn 21, and when just about everyone affected by that law is violating it routinely, we have to ask ourselves, 'Are we truly a nation of lawbreakers or is this just a bad law?' " McCardell said.

Though that law did not create a national age requirement, it mandated result in a 10-percent reduction in highway transportation funding for states where the legal drinking age is lower than 21.

The 1984 act comes up for reauthorization in 2009, meaning lawmakers will decide whether to do away with the financial incentive and give states the chance to make their own law without the threat of losing federal funding.

The petition, sent to every U.S. college and university president in June, has been signed by 129 top college officials, including the leaders of Ohio State University, Duke University, Dartmouth University and Johns Hopkins University.

University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman declined to add her signature to the list.

During her stint as president of the University of Iowa, Coleman was a founding member of the Presidents Leadership Group, an organization that seeks to raise awareness about drug and alcohol problems on college campuses. During the group's first year, Coleman co-authored "Be Vocal, Be Visible, Be Visionary: Recommendations for College and University Presidents on Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention" -- a guide to prevent student alcohol and drug abuse.

"Just because her name isn't incorporated on the petition doesn't mean it is not an issue the University takes seriously," University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said in a written statement.

"The University is committed to addressing alcohol issues, including the associated legal issues, and we engage students in this dialogue as they arrive on campus every year."

McCardell said he hopes the initiative will spur discussion in Congress to bring about policies that reflect today's social and cultural norms.

The petition is called the Amethyst Initiative, after the gem believed in Greek mythology to ward off intoxication.

Even at smaller schools like Butler University in Indianapolis, where, according to Marc Allan, the school's associate director of public relations, there "isn't really a binge drinking problem on campus," the petition is being taken seriously. Allan said the the university’s president, Bobby Fong, still considered the petition a priority for Butler's roughly 4,400 students.

"Dr. Fong thinks that if students were allowed to, for example, have a drink with a professor and talk about the day's events, it would be more likely that students would learn to drink properly and in moderation," Allan said.

Supporters of the higher drinking age cite statistics showing that the change contributed to a decrease in the number of drunk-driving deaths nationwide. Last year, 12,998 people nationwide were killed in alcohol-related driving accidents.

Those who back the proposal believe the current drinking law is unfair, because 18-year-olds are considered legal adults in all other ways, like voting, taxation and military service.

LSA sophomore Elle Mastenbrook said she thinks the drinking age should be lowered to 18.

"I have friends who are 21 who say they don't drink as much as they did because there isn't the thrill," she said. "They don't drink to get drunk. It's safer."

Engineering sophomore Emily Matula said lowering the drinking age isn't enough, but it's a step in the right direction.

"You can't just lower it, you have to maybe start programs to educate people about drinking responsibly," she said.

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