College presidents back drinking-age debate

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

From a political-correctness point of view, it probably would have been safer not to sign a petition challenging the drinking age.

But the presidents of Ohio State University, Columbus College of Art & Design and Kenyon College have joined leaders of about 100 other schools nationwide in saying current laws actually encourage binge drinking on campus.

They want legislators to reconsider the law.

"The vast majority of college presidents feel that the 21-year-old drinking age has not been very beneficial with regards to young people drinking," Kenyon President S. Georgia Nugent said. The older drinking age has led to students "front loading," or binge drinking, before they head out on the town, and "that's where the real danger comes in," she said.

The Amethyst Initiative statement signed by college and university presidents does not explicitly call for a younger drinking age. Rather, it seeks "an informed and dispassionate debate" over the issue, and the federal highway law that made 21 the de facto national drinking age by denying money to any state that bucked the trend.

CCAD President Denny Griffith nearly threw the letter out when he received it. But then he saw that the supporters included Nugent and several other college presidents he respects.

Things that are forbidden have the greatest intrigue, so why not debate what should be done, he said.

"It's a conversation worth having," Griffith said.

Several Ohio State students said they think breaking the law is part of the allure for underage drinkers.

Marketing major Kristy Stern, 20, of Sydney, said the drinking age should be 19, when most college students are freshmen.

"Underage drinkers think they're rebelling against the law," Stern said. "When you're 21, it's not as exciting anymore."

Jen Grajo, 20, a human-development major from Youngstown, said she doesn't drink but knows many students sneak alcohol into dorms to drink heavily.

Lowering the drinking age "could help in a way," she said. But "look at high school, too. Kids drink already. If you lower the age, would that move it down to even younger kids?"

Greg Snedel, 26, an OSU dentistry student from Cleveland, said he saw lots of binge drinking as a Miami University undergraduate in Oxford. Yet, he supports lowering the age.

"It's an uncontrolled environment when you binge drink, versus a bar that has responsibilities about whether you drink too much," Snedel said.

But Mothers Against Drunk Driving says that lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes and urges parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.

"It's very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses," said Laura Dean-Mooney, MADD's national president.

Joining with MADD is Nationwide, which released a survey last month indicating 72 percent of adults think lowering the drinking age would make alcohol more accessible to minors, and nearly half think it would increase binge drinking among teens.

Research has found that more than 40 percent of college students reported at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence. One study has estimated more than 500,000 full-time students at four-year colleges suffer injuries each year related in some way to drinking, and about 1,700 die in such accidents.

John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, started the Amethyst Initiative organization.

OSU's undergraduate student president, Peter Koltak, says he hopes students are involved in any discussions about the topic.

"Drinking is a large part of any college campus," said Koltak, a 20-year-old journalism and international-studies major from Upper Arlington. "I think it is worth talking about whether criminal-justice funds are better spent on this issue or on theft and other crimes."

Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee signed the group's petition, but university spokesman Jim Lynch said he is not necessarily calling for the drinking age to be lowered.

"He strongly believes a thorough review of public policy in relation to responsible drinking is needed," Lynch said.

Some other college administrators disagree that lowering the drinking age would help. In Florida, University of Miami

President Donna Shalala, who served as secretary of Health and Human Services under President Clinton, declined to sign.

"I remember college campuses when we had 18-year-old drinking ages, and I honestly believe we've made some progress," Shalala said. "To just shift it back down to the high schools makes no sense at all."