Ripon College's President Joyce Calls for Discussion on Reducing Underage Alcohol Abuse

The Amethyst Initiative is a group of college and university presidents across the United States who believe that "the problem of irresponsible drinking by young people continues despite the minimum legal drinking age of 21, and there is a culture of dangerous binge drinking on many campuses."

Amethyst Initiative presidents promote public discussion about the unintended consequences of current alcohol policies, including the minimum legal drinking age of 21, and invites new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use. For more information, visit Amethyst Initiative and Choose Responsibility

There are a number of possible policy changes that might be discussed. They include such things as possibly:

  • issuing drinking learner permits to adults aged 18 or older, similar to driving learner permits;
  • permitting adults serving in the armed forces to consume alcoholic beverages under certain conditions;
  • permitting states to develop their own programs to reduce alcohol abuse without penalizing them for doing so by withholding highway funding;
  • lowering the drinking age to 18, 19 or 20;
  • some combination of the above;
  • considering ideas not yet proposed.

There is much resistance to even discussing possible options for a variety of reasons. Many organizations and professionals have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Some simply don't believe any change is needed. Some believe the questionable theory that drinking in moderation harms developing brains, a notion disproven by the experience of Jews, Italians, Greeks, Portuguese, French, and others around the world. Some doubt the maturity of young adults. Some don't think we can improve what we're already doing. A surprisingly large number favor the de facto prohibition of alcohol as a way to prevent alcohol-related problems. And the list goes on.

Therefore, it's a brave person who publicly calls for discussions about how we might reduce alcohol abuse among young people. However, a large number of the presidents of some of our leading colleges and universities have courageously taken such a stand by signing the Amethyst Initiative to do exactly that.

President David C. Joyce of Ripon College is one of the signatories. He writes that

I signed the Amethyst Initiative statement on behalf of the Ripon College community with the sincere hope that it would lead to open and forthright dialogue about responsibility and accountability. I believe our students have proven themselves to be responsible and intelligent young adults and that they can learn how to drink responsibly. They can drive, vote, pay taxes, get married or go to war, but, according to federal law, they cannot be trusted to consume alcohol under any circumstances. This disparity is the proverbial elephant in the room, and young adults aren't the only ones who can see it. As a college president, educator and scholar of psychology, I believe that the inconsistent message we send to young adults with the 21- year-old drinking age actually might encourage the very kind of illicit behavior it was meant to curtail.

Dr. Joyce explains that

There are three primary components to the Amethyst Initiative statement. First, it calls for a public dialogue about the current drinking age. It does not suggest, as has been widely stated, that signatory institutions support lowering the drinking age. The issue is too complex and too poorly understood for such a simple fix.

The second point in the statement refers to the method used by federal government to implement the 21 drinking age in 1984. As you may recall, individual states could determine whether or not to raise the age. A very influential factor was that if the age was not raised, then the state would have its portion of the federal highway funds slashed. That ploy preserved states' rights, at least on paper, but it effectively squelched public debate.

Finally, the statement seeks new ideas for the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol. As an educator, I believe open dialogue, inquiry and consensus-building make for better decisions. I do not believe that this is too much to ask or expect.

The educational leader recognizes that

A number of advocacy groups have expressed their opposition to this initiative. For the record, I think I speak for all institutions when I say that we, too, are against the irresponsible consumption of alcohol and its too-often tragic effects....

I believe that we want the same things but differ in our appraisal of the current situation. Why can't we sit down and talk about how we can help young adults make better choices?

There is another reason why Ripon College signed the Amethyst Initiative statement. Promoting open debate and serious intellectual inquiry are among the most cherished values in liberal arts education. It would be antithetical for us to refuse a call for an informed and dispassionate public debate on just about any issue, especially one as important as this.

Dr. Joyce is clearly an educational leader of the first order.


  • David C. Joyce. Drinking age deserves a debate, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, August 23, 2008.

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