Many Colleges Join Petition to Lower Legal Drinking Age to 18

Two college presidents, both in Georgia, have withdrawn their names from a petition to reconsider the legal drinking age after it drew blistering criticism last week from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, safety experts, transportation officials, and politicians.

But 15 more from across the country have signed on, the organizers said Thursday, Aug. 21.

All told, 123 presidents from colleges including Dartmouth, Duke, Ohio State, and Tufts are supporting the petition, which says that raising the drinking age to 21 has fostered a culture of clandestine binge drinking and that students’ use of fake identification has eroded their respect for the law.

“Twenty-one is not working,” the statement reads.

But critics have accused the presidents of misleading the public, shirking their responsibility to enforce the law and trying to dodge the problem of student drinking.

The Governors Highway Safety Association has promised to hold at its national meeting next month “a workshop to help highway safety agencies counter any effort in their states to lower the drinking age.”

Kendall Blanchard, the president of Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, said he had pulled his name off the list in part because critics had misunderstood the petition’s intent. “It was clear to me that they didn’t see this as a dialogue; they saw this as some kind of effort on our part to turn our schools into party schools,” he said.

The other president who withdrew from the petition was Robert M. Franklin of Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Many critics said they objected to the suggestion that studies did not conclusively show a benefit to raising the drinking age, particularly the reduction of alcohol-related traffic deaths among young drivers.

“Why would you take the one thing that has been tried in the last 30 years that has been shown to be most successful and throw that out the window and say, ‘I have a better idea?’” said Alexander C. Wagenaar, an epidemiologist at the College of Medicine at the University of Florida.

But college presidents say they are fighting a losing battle with binge drinking and alcohol poisoning.

“Many of our university presidents are doing as good a job as they can at enforcing the drinking age,” said John M. McCardell Jr., the former president of Middlebury College in Vermont and a leader of the petition effort, which began last month. “They’re doing all the right things, and what is the result? Well, young people are moving beyond the view of the college officials and often beyond the boundaries of the college campuses, and campus officials have no authority there.”

S. Georgia Nugent, the president of Kenyon College in Ohio, who signed the petition, said, “I think there’s a direct connection between this law and this pattern of secret, fast consumption of high-octane alcohol. It’s much more dangerous than the traditional great big, loud keg party because it happens quietly, out of view.”

Mr. McCardell is the founder of Choose Responsibility, an organization that advocates lowering the drinking age, but the petition drive, called the Amethyst Initiative after the gemstone that the Greeks believed would ward off intoxication, calls only for “dispassionate public debate” of the issue. The drinking age has been 21 across the country since 1988.

In a written statement that Mr. McCardell called “intimidation bordering on bullying,” Laura Dean-Mooney, the president of MADD, asked the public to call the signers and demand that they remove themselves from the list.

“As the mother of a daughter who is close to entering college, it is deeply disappointing to me that many of our education leaders would support an initiative without doing their homework on the underlying research and science,” Ms. Dean-Mooney said in the statement. “Parents should think twice before sending their teens to these colleges or any others that have waved the white flag on under-age and binge drinking policies.”

College presidents should focus on changing the culture on campus, Ms. Dean-Mooney said. She cited efforts like requiring alcohol education, scheduling more Friday classes to cut down on Thursday night parties, fighting marketing efforts like drink specials and ladies’ nights near campuses and coordinating with local law enforcement agencies.

But students said they were not getting drunk in bars.

“From freshman year on, I hardly ever went out on the weekends without having four or five shots of vodka beforehand,” said Diane Bash, a senior at Ohio State University. “You’ve got to preload before you get to a bar because you can’t drink once you go in. I definitely drink a lot less now that I’m 21, and so do all my friends.”

Despite such tales of excess, experts said there was little hard evidence that binge drinking became more prevalent after the drinking age was raised to 21. One of the most comprehensive studies shows that heavy drinking among college students, defined as five or more drinks in a row, peaked in 1984.

Other studies by Henry Wechsler, a retired professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, show that binge drinking remained steady, with about 44 percent of college students doing it, from 1993 to 2001.

The controversy shines a light on the culture gap between college students and their nonstudent peers, who drink less.

Chuck Hurley, the chief executive of MADD, acknowledged that widespread drinking on campus fostered a distinct set of problems. “The drinking age is working far better in blue-collar America, or community college America, than in Ivy League America,” he said.