In an interview yesterday, University President Mary Sue Coleman explained for the first time her decision not to join the Amethyst Initiative, a petition signed by 129 college and university presidents to start a new debate about lowering the national drinking age from 21 to 18.
Coleman said the group’s organizers contacted her when the initiative was first created and it was an “easy” decision not to sign it.
“I certainly respect people who want to stimulate a discussion and I think that’s what the Amethyst Initiative was all about,” Coleman said. “What I disagree with is the notion that lowering the drinking age is going to somehow alleviate the problem.”
In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which cut federal highway appropriations by 10 percent to states with drinking ages under 21. All 50 states followed the act, mainly targeted at reducing drunk driving deaths.
With the act up for renewal next year, many University leaders have come forward asking lawmakers to rethink the nation’s alcohol laws.
Presidents from colleges including Duke University, Dartmouth College, Ohio State University and Syracuse University added their names to the petition, which says it aims to curb the “culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking.'”
Though Coleman said she won’t consider signing it in the future, she agrees with their characterization of the problem.
“This whole issue of binge drinking, particularly the kind of destructive, frequent binging on alcohol, is a big issue, and it’s a big problem on college campuses,” she said. “And it’s one that I certainly think deserves a lot of discussion, a lot of attention about trying to find solutions.”
During Coleman’s tenure as the President of the University of Iowa, she was a founding member of the Presidents Leadership Group, which promotes the role that university presidents can play in alcohol and drug prevention efforts on campus.
In that position she co-authored a guide to prevent student alcohol and drug abuse entitled, “Be Vocal, Be Visible, Be Visionary: Recommendations for College and University Presidents on Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention.”
Recent research suggests that lowering the drinking age to 18 would not curb such binge drinking as some critics have claimed, Coleman said. She said the University’s Institute for Social Research found that when some states lowered their drinking age in the 1970s, “the binge drinking problem got worse, and it went to younger and younger ages.”
Coleman mentioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s estimation that the current drinking age has saved 1,000 lives a year since 1975 as evidence of the higher drinking age’s effectiveness.
“I have seen no data to show me that a lower drinking age alleviates the problem of binge drinking,” she said. “In fact, I think it makes it worse.”
Coleman said the University aims to provide alternative social events to parties where binge drinking takes place.
“Do I believe we should focus on trying to find ways to approach it and trying to help young people make better decisions?” she asked rhetorically. “Of course I do.”
Prominent programs include UMix Late Night, alcohol-free activities and events on Friday nights, and Stay in the Blue, a University program aimed at informing students how to responsibly drink alcohol.
But though University officials are concerned about binge drinking on college campuses, Coleman said there are no simple solutions.
“There’s no silver bullet here,” she said. “But we’re not where we need to be.”