An Insider’s Take on the Amethyst Initiative

Combating Binge Drinking on Campus

Over the previous two years, retired Middlebury College President, John McCardell, has spent considerable time and effort to engage American colleges in a serious dialogue regarding the dangerous effects of high-risk alcohol use on campus. While the use of alcohol on campus is nothing new, the increased incidence of excessive alcohol use and its associated negative effects are considered significant problems within institutions of higher education.

McCardell correctly identifies the “culture of dangerous binge drinking” as the core issue associated with alcohol on campus. While MIT is not one of the 129 current signatories in support of a statement issued by the Amethyst Initiative, many in our community (I include myself in this number) would agree that excessive alcohol use on campus is a fundamental problem.

In this article, I will not offer a view on the behalf of MIT regarding the Amethyst Initiative or attempt to capture the complexity of the issues involved with high-risk drinking on college campuses. I will, however, offer my professional opinion on the Amethyst Initiative and the potential efficacy of lowering the minimum drinking age.

I welcome this opportunity to contribute to a dialogue that calls for serious attention to the issues and consideration of meaningful, research derived solutions.

The Presidential Statement signed by university presidents as part of the Amethyst Initiative commits signatories to do the following:

* Support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21-year old drinking age.

* Consider whether the 10 percent highway fund “Incentive” encourages or inhibits that debate.

* Invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.

* Pledge their institutions to playing a vigorous, constructive role as these critical discussions unfold.

Simply stated, the presidents signed the Amethyst Initiative in support of a public debate around a variety of issues that influence a college’s ability to effectively address alcohol use. As part of this process, the presidents also committed to support a discussion of the effects of the minimum drinking age, not to support lowering it, as McCardell has stated.

It would be a mistake to assume the support of rigorous public debate about current laws and policies regarding the 21+ drinking age is a tacit endorsement to abolish or change them. Unfortunately, this statement’s call for a broader dialogue and examination of the issues and options has become portrayed as an endorsement of both the recommendations advocated by Choose Responsibility (Dr. McCardell’s organization) and for lowering the minimum drinking age.

With all the press coverage since August of this year, I have yet to see a report note the actual objectives these presidents endorsed: to support a civil and thoughtful dialogue regarding alcohol use, public policy, and the campus environment.

On the contrary, McCardell himself is complicit in promoting the misperceptions of the Amethyst Initiative. In news reports and interviews, Dr. McCardell has either stated directly or implied that endorsement of the Presidential Statement is an endorsement to lower the minimum drinking age.

Predictably, the media has grasped onto the idea that college presidents would support lowering the minimum drinking age as an AP wire story published in the Chicago Tribune demonstrates: ”College presidents from about 100 of the nation’s best-known universities, including Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State, are calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, saying current laws actually encourage dangerous binge drinking on campus.”

In reality, one of the first lines in the Presidential Statement is, “The Presidential Statement does not advocate a specific drinking age.”

It is unfortunate that the call for dialogue and debate has become solely a call to lower the minimum drinking age. I believe most college presidents would support the true purpose of the Presidential Statement and the Amethyst Initiative.

The concerns underlying Dr. McCardell’s efforts to address alcohol abuse on campus are shared by all of us in higher education. Institutions of learning should support a thoughtful dialogue about how the campus environment and current laws and policies affect our ability to address alcohol use on campus.

In my opinion, supporting lowering the minimum drinking age at this moment would be (1) inconsistent with the request Dr. McCardell’s statement is asking of the presidents (to commit to a process to develop a view point on this issue) and (2) inconsistent with most of the peer-reviewed evidence to date regarding the social and individual impact of lowering the drinking age.

In addition, research and public policy panels convened to examine underage alcohol use have consistently found the minimum drinking age has led to a decrease in alcohol-related fatalities among 18–21 year-olds.

However, despite this evidence, organizations like McCardell’s Choose Responsibility, as well as many individuals continue to embrace the idea that lowering the minimum drinking is a panacea to solve alcohol issues on America’s college campuses. These organizations and individuals often cite laws in other countries, particularly those of Western Europe (especially France), as a model for lower drinking ages that appear to work. Unfortunately, this popular concept does not accurately portray the common problems of youth excessive drinking shared around the world.

In fact, researchers and government public health officials in France, Spain, England, and Germany have expressed concern over high-risk drinking among their youth to mobilize changes in public health practices and policy. Etienne Apaire, head of a French government committee aimed at addressing alcohol and other drug addiction, has characterized this trend of increased high-risk drinking among youth as evidence of a “globalized” behavioral trend evident in all 27 European Union member countries.

A 2005 French government study reported that while alcohol use rates among the general population have been falling, half of all French teenagers report having been drunk at least once in the previous month. In addition, comparing the 30-day prevalence rates for heavy drinking from the 2003 European School Survey Project on alcohol and other drugs to those of American 10th graders reveals that American youth drank less than all of their peers (except for Turkey) across the pond.

According to the U.S. Monitoring the Future survey, 22 percent of American 10th graders report high-risk drinking compared to the European Survey’s findings for the Netherlands (58 percent), UK (54), Belgium (50), Greece (39), Italy (34), France (28), Portugal (25), and Turkey (15).

To focus the debate solely on lowering the drinking age to 18 negates not only the stated purpose of the Amethyst Initiative but also oversimplifies the psychosocial, biological and environmental issues contributing to alcohol abuse among young adults. Evidence gleaned from colleges across the country, including MIT, indicates that resolving this issue requires employment of a variety of individual, environmental, and campus-community approaches, not a single policy solution.

Over the previous seven years, MIT students, faculty, alumni, and staff have worked with my office, the Community Development and Substance Abuse Center for Policy, Prevention, and Research, to create an innovative and comprehensive approach to address alcohol use in our community. We use evidence-based practices to assess problems, develop innovative solutions, and implement programs that reach across the MIT community.

Students, faculty, and staff at MIT have also worked in partnership with government officials, neighboring colleges, and local bars and restaurants in Boston and Cambridge to form coalitions that address shared concerns around the negative consequences of high-risk alcohol consumption. We will continue to employ a comprehensive approach in addressing high-risk drinking at MIT.

It is important to note the two key aspects differentiating MIT’s approach to this issue from those of most other colleges and universities in the United States: (1) student leadership and involvement and (2) the use of data and evaluation to identify areas of focus and evaluate strategy outcomes.

MIT students have developed our educational programs and co-authored our alcohol and other drug related regulations. For example, this past year students provided critical input regarding MIT’s alcohol policy revision and wrote MIT’s Good Samaritan policies.

MIT is recognized as a leader in addressing alcohol and other drug issues in higher education and has received national recognition as a model program for the prevention of alcohol and other drug issues by the U.S. Department of Education. We are committed to employing innovative, problem solving strategies to maintain and expand our comprehensive approach in addressing high-risk drinking at MIT.

The CDSA looks forward to engaging in a thoughtful debate with the MIT community as these issues continue to unfold.

Daniel Trujillo is the Associate Dean for Community Development and Substance Abuse Programs.