Amethyst Initiative: College Presidents Lead in Reducing Alcohol Abuse

The Amethyst Initiative is a group of college and university presidents across the US. They promote public discussion about the unintended consequences of current alcohol policies. This includes the minimum legal drinking age of 21. Amethyst Initiative presidents  invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.

Dr. John M. McCardell is one of the leading college presidents in the US. He founded Choose Responsibility and its Amethyst Initiative.


I.   Possible Policy Changes

II.  Opposition to any Discussion

III. Amethyst Initiative Signatories

IV. Why They Joined

V.   Conclusion

I. Possible Policy Changes

A number of possible policy changes might be discussed. They include such things as these.

    • Issuing drinking learner permits to qualified adults aged 18 to 20. They would be similar to driving learner permits.
    • Permitting adults serving in the armed forces to consume alcoholic beverages under certain conditions.
    • Allowinging states to develop their own programs to reduce alcohol abuse without penalizing them by reducing their highway funding.
    • Lowering the drinking age to 18, 19 or 20.
    • Ideas not yet proposed.
    • Some combination of the above.

II. Opposition to any Discussion

Amethyst Initiiative
Dr. John M. McCardell

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 believe that drinking in moderation harms developing brains. But this idea has been proved false. 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, the presidents of some of our leading colleges and universities have courageously taken such a stand. They did it by signing the Amethyst Initiative to do exactly that.

III. Amethyst Initiative Signatories

  • American International College (President Vincent Maniaci)
  • Arcadia University (President Jerry M. Greiner)
  • Avila University (President Ronald Slepitza)
  • Bennington College (President Elizabeth Coleman)
  • Bethany College (President Scott D. Miller)
  • Butler University (President Bobby Fong)
  • Castleton State College (President David Wolk)
  • Cazenovia College (President Mark J. Tierno)
  • Cedar Crest College (President Carmen Twillie Ambar)
  • Chapman University (President James L. Doti)
  • Chatham University (President Esther L. Barazzone)
  • Chicago State University Interim President Frank G. Pogue)
  • Clark University (President John Bassett)
  • Clarkson University (President Anthony G. Collins)
  • Coe College (President James R. Phifer)
  • Colgate University (President Rebecca S. Chopp)
  • College of Idaho (President Robert Hoover)
  • College of Notre Dame of Maryland (President Mary Pat Seurkamp)
  • College of St. Joseph (President Frank Miglorie)
  • Colorado College (President Richard F. Celeste)
  • Columbus College of Art & Design (President Dennison W. Griffith)
  • Dartmouth College (President James E. Wright)
  • Davis and Elkins College (President G.T. Smith)
  • DePauw University (President Brian W. Casey)
  • Dickinson College (President William G. Durden)
  • Dominican University of California (President Joseph R. Fink)
  • Duke University (President Richard Brodhead)
  • Eckerd College (President Donald R. Eastman III)
  • Elizabethtown College (President Theodore Long)
  • Elmira College (President Thomas Meier)
  • Emerson College (President Jacqueline Liebergott)
  • Endicott College (President Richard E. Wylie)
  • Fairfield University (President Jeffrey Von Arx)
  • Fielding Institute (President Judith L. Kuipers)
  • Gettysburg College (President Janet Morgan Riggs)
  • Goodwin College (President Mark Scheinberg)
  • Goucher College (President Sanford J. Ungar)
  • Gustavus Adolphus College (President Jack Ohle)
  • Hamilton College (President Joan Hinde Stewart)
  • Hampden-Sydney College (President Walter M. Bortz)
  • Hampshire College (President Ralph J. Hexter)
  • Hanover College (President Susan DeWine)
  • Hollins University (President Nancy O. Gray)
  • Holy Cross College (President Richard Gilman)
  • Johns Hopkins University (President William Brody)
  • Johnson & Wales University (President John J. Bowen)
  • Johnson State College (President Barbara Murphy)
  • Kapiolani Community College (Chancellor Leon Richards)
  • Kenyon College (President S. Georgia Nugent)
  • King’s College (President Thomas J. O’Hara)
  • Lafayette College (President Daniel H. Weiss)
  • Lake Forest College (President Stephen D. Schutt)
  • Lewis & Clark College (President Thomas J. Hochstettler)
  • Loras College (President James E. Collins)
  • Lyndon State College (President Leonard Tyler)
  • Maine Maritime Academy (President Leonard Tyler)
  • Manhattan College (President Thomas J. Scanlan)
  • Manhattanville College (President Richard Berman)
  • Marian Court College (President Ghazi Darkazalli)
  • Mesa State College (President Tim Foster)
  • Metropolitan State College of Denver (President Stephen M. Jordan)
  • Middlebury College (President Ronald Liebowitz)
  • Millsaps College (President Frances Lucas)
  • Mitchell College (President Mary Ellen Jukoski)
  • Montclair State University (President Susan Cole)
  • Moravian College (President Christopher Thomforde)
  • Morningside College (President John Reynders)
  • Mount Holyoke College (President Joanne V. Creighton)
  • Muhlenberg College (President Peyton R. Helm)
  • Murray State University (President Randy Dunn)
  • Naropa University (President Thomas B. Coburn)
  • New England Culinary Institute (President Fran Voigt)
  • Nichols College (President Debra Townsley)
  • Occidental College (President Robert A. Skotheim)
  • Oglethorpe University (President Lawrence Schall)
  • Ohio State University (President E. Gordon Gee)
  • Oregon College of Art & Craft (President Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson)
  • Pacific Lutheran University (President Loren J. Anderson)
  • Pacific University (President Phil Creighton)
  • Paul Smith’s College (President John Mills)
  • Pomona College (President David W. Oxtoby)
  • Quincy University (President Robert A. Gervasi)
  • Randolph-Macon College (President Robert R. Lindgren)
  • Rhodes College (President William E. Troutt)
  • Ripon College (President David C. Joyce)
  • Robert Morris University (President Gregory Dell’Omo)
  • Roosevelt University (President Charles R. Middleton)
  • Saginaw Valley State University (President Eric R. Gilbertson)
  • Saint Joseph’s University (PA) (President Timothy R. Lannon)
  • Saint Leo University (President Arthur F. Kirk)
  • St. Mary’s College of Maryland (President Joseph R. Urgo)
  • State College (President Patricia Maguire Meservey)
  • Santa Clara University (President Paul L. Locatelli)
  • Sewanee: University of the South (President Joel L. Cunningham)
  • Smith College (President Carol T. Christ)
  • Southern New Hampshire University (President Paul LeBlanc)
  • Spelman College (President Beverly Daniel Tatum)
  • Spoon River College (President Robert E. Ritschel)
  • St. Joseph College (President Pamela Trotman Reid)
  • St. Lawrence University (President Daniel F. Sullivan)
  • Stevens Institute of Technology (President Harold J. Raveche)
  • SUNY College at Purchase (President Thomas Schwarz)
  • Susquehanna University (President L. Jay Lemons)
  • Sweet Briar College (President Elisabeth S. Muhlenfeld)
  • Syracuse University (Chancellor Nancy Cantor)
  • Texas A&M University—West Texas (President J. Patrick O’Brien)
  • Towson University (President Robert Caret)
  • Trinity College (President James F. Jones Jr.)
  • Trinity Lutheran College (President John M. Stamm)
  • Tufts University (President Lawrence S. Bacow)
  • United States Sports Academy (President Thomas P. Rosandich)
  • University of Massachusetts—Amherst (Chancellor Robert C. Holub)
  • University of Wisconsin—Parkside (Chancellor John P. Keating)
  • University of Hartford (President Walter Harrison)
  • University of Maryland—Biotechnology Institute (President Jennifer Hunter-Cevera)
  • University of Maryland—College Park (President C.D. Mote, Jr.)
  • University of Massachusetts (President Jack M. Wilson)
  • University of Montana—Missoula (President George M. Dennison)
  • University of New Haven (President Steven H. Kaplan)
  • University of the Incarnate Word (President Louis J. Agnese Jr.)
  • University System of Maryland (Chancellor William E. Kirwan)
  • Vermont Law School (President Geoffrey Shields)
  • Vermont State Colleges (Chancellor Robert Clarke)
  • Vermont Technical College (President Ty J. Handy)
  • Virginia Tech (President Charles W. Steger)
  • Voorhees College (President Cleveland L. Sellers Jr.)
  • Wartburg College (President William E. Hamm)
  • Washington & Jefferson College (President Tori Haring-Smith)
  • Washington & Lee University (President Kenneth P. Ruscio)
  • Washington College (President L. Baird Tipson)
  • Westminster College of Salt Lake City (President Michael Bassis)
  • Wheaton College (MA) (President Ronald A. Crutcher)
  • Whittier College (President Sharon D. Herzberger)
  • Widener University (President James T. Harris)
  • Willamette University (President M. Lee Pelton)
  • Wilson College (President Lorna Duphiney Edmundson)
  • Wofford College (President Benjamin Bernard Dunlap)

IV. Why They Joined the Amethyst Initiative

Some college and university leaders have explained precisely why they joined the Amethyst Initiative.

President Richard H. Brodhead of Duke University.

Dr. Brodhead explains his support the Amethyst Initiative.

Amethyst InitiativePossessing and consuming alcoholic beverages is against the law under the age of 21, and we are all obliged to uphold the law. The current law has not prevented alcohol from being available, and drinking is widespread at all American colleges, and at younger ages as well. But at colleges and universities, the law does have other effects: it pushes drinking into hiding, heightening its risks, including risks from drunken driving. And it prevents us from addressing drinking with students as an issue of responsible choice.

Dr. Broadhead explains that “This is not a simple question. But the current answer is also not an effective solution to the problem.”1

President Elisabeth Muhlenfeld of Sweet Briar College.

“College and university presidents are not given to diving into such controversial waters. We know this issue is fraught with pain and frustration. But we also know that 21 simply isn’t working.”

President Elisabeth Muhlenfeld of Sweet Briar College.

I am an enthusiastic signer of the Amethyst Initiative because I am deeply concerned about the increasingly dangerous culture of clandestine binge drinking among high school and college students across the nation. Every day, we see the tragic costs of that culture first hand. It is the lucky college president who has not had to telephone parents to report that their child has been the victim of date rape exacerbated by alcohol abuse, or killed in an automobile accident coming back from an alcohol fueled all-night party. SAMHSA, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services, states that nearly one in five teenagers (16 percent) ‘has experienced ‘black out’ spells where they could not remember what happened the previous evening.’ This is not good clean fun. It is a national shame that demands our attention.

Amethyst InitiativeCollege and university presidents are not given to diving into such controversial waters. We know this issue is fraught with pain and frustration. But we also know that 21 simply isn’t working. Colleges work hard to combat the culture of underage drinking, and particularly binge drinking. But we often feel like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke. At my college, more than 70 percent of our students are under age, but we find ourselves unable to educate them effectively about drinking. We can only preach abstinence, which we know is unrealistic, or urge responsible behavior when imbibing – which acknowledges they will be breaking the law. Both postures seem hypocritical. There must be a better way, and the Amethyst Initiative is a clarion call to seek solutions.2

President Barbara E. Murphy of Johnson State College.

Amethyst InitiativeI support a national and objective dialogue about the drinking age because we have not had one yet. I believe that young adults need to learn responsibility for alcohol consumption as they are learning about constructing mature relationships, choosing partners and friends, exploring their life’s work, and living in community.3

President David Wolk of Castleton University.

Amethyst InitiativeI have the perspective of looking at the ‘Choosing Responsibility’ issue from the vantage point of knowing and working with both high school and college students. I support the 18 year old drinking age, as well as the related responsibilities as articulated by the Amethyst Initiative inherent with the age change. I believe that 18 year old adults in our culture are capable of voting, signing contracts, marrying, paying taxes, serving in the military, and assuming other adult endeavors including the right to drink responsibly. Other cultures have demystified alcohol consumption among young people. In the interest of improving safety, encouraging responsible maturation, and completing the aforementioned list of adult rights and responsibilities, I encourage you to join a growing number of educators who have joined the Amethyst Initiative.4

President L. Baird Tipson of Washington College.

Setting the legal age at which people may purchase and consume alcohol at age eighteen simply makes good sense. If arguments are needed, these seem to me the most compelling.

1. Amethyst InitiativeYoung people old enough to fight and vote are old enough to consume alcohol responsibly. Does anyone actually believe that none of our soldiers is drinking alcohol during military service until she or he reaches 21?

2. When our students study abroad, they discover not only that their host countries ordinarily have no law restricting consumption of alcohol to those over 21 but also that drinking is treated as part of a broader range of socializing, not as an end in itself. Because it is a forbidden pleasure, underage drinking in the United States has a seductive mystique that it would lack if responsible consumption of alcohol were simply accepted as part of ordinary behavior.

3. How often has a family with children between 18 and 21 found itself in a restaurant where wine or beer is served with dinner? The awkwardness of asking those children to drink sparkling water while the others share alcohol — in effect creating an artificial boundary between them and the adults, or conversely of pretending that the underage children are actually 21 and of legal age to drink — emphasizes the unnaturalness of our present laws.

4. Whether we like it or not, alcohol is part of student socializing. A large majority of our underage students drink, drink often, and believe they have a right to drink. To them the law is hypocritical, and its existence undermines the respect that all citizens ought to have for any law.

Amethyst Initiative5. The 21-year old drinking age has created a dangerous student culture of clandestine drinking. Because they will be disciplined if they are caught consuming alcohol, students drink heavily in private at the beginning of the evening rather than gradually in public throughout the evening. Drinking too many ‘shots’ at the beginning of the evening can cause alcohol poisoning; it can also cause the drinker not to be aware of how the alcohol is gradually infiltrating his or her system and impairing his or her j.udgment.

6 The 21-year old drinking age prevents us from modeling responsible drinking. Because the majority of students at liberal arts colleges are under 21, we cannot sponsor social events that involve alcohol without taking all sorts of invasive measures — armbands, frequent ID checks, and the like — which serve to separate students into haves and have-nots; so for the most part there are few campus events where students can observe how consumption of alcohol becomes subordinate to, not determinate of, the kind of social intercourse we would like them to grow into.5

President Tony Collins of Clarkson University.

“We have more in common with persons on the opposite side of the debate than we have differences and it is in those common areas that the debate and future action should focus. All sides of the debate wish to avoid the negative consequences associated with poor choices around alcohol consumption…”

President Tony Collins of Clarkson University

Another higher education leaders supporting the Amethyst Initiative and its call for a debate is President Tony Collins. He says that “universities can most effectively engage students in developing personal accountability with alcohol when they are given opportunities to interact openly with their peers and other members of their community in socially responsible ways.”

Dr. Collins explains that Clarkson University enforces the minimum legal drinking age law “with an admitted amount of frustration because we know that enforcement on our campus drives underage drinking out of public sight and limits opportunities to role model and encourage appropriate behavior with alcohol.”

President Collins continues that

Amethyst InitiativeWe have more in common with persons on the opposite side of the debate than we have differences and it is in those common areas that the debate and future action should focus. All sides of the debate wish to avoid the negative consequences associated with poor choices around alcohol consumption, most significant among those being drunk driving. I believe we all endorse full enforcement of those laws.

As a nation, however, we are not addressing the more systemic issue of excessive drinking among some cohorts of our youngest adults – adults with voting rights, adults serving our country in military uniform and adults building families in our communities. We have taken the easy road in trying to legislate behavior rather than focus on teaching and instilling personal responsibility. As a college educator, I am committed to promoting an open dialogue where responsible choices are respected, and where we role model the kinds of behavior we seek to inspire for a safe and well rounded campus life.

The time for this kind of debate is now. Young adults across the country are engaged in the political process like never before and in exciting ways. Those of us on college campuses see their energy and their mature sense of purpose as they acknowledge their role as the future leaders to address many of the most critical issues of our time – global climate change and renewable energy, peace and civil justice around the world, and the creation of economic opportunities for all of humanity to live rewarding lives.

Just as we support open dialogue about these critical issues impacting our society, our University’s participation in the Amethyst Initiative is intended to bring alcohol issues out in the open, encourage productive conversations about the real issues we seek to address and work towards solutions that address the mutual concerns of all who are impacted by the personal decisions individuals make when they consume alcohol. We offer the AlcoholEdu program to all first-year students and others on campus health and wellness initiatives. Clarkson in no way condones underage drinking and will continue to enforce the age-21 law on its campus. We do endorse and ask for the debate of this law to begin.6

President Daniel F. Sullivan of St. Lawrence University.

Amethyst InitiativeDr. Daniel Sullivan signed the Amethyst Initiative and explains that colleges are currently unable to help students learn how to drink responsibly in controlled settings.

President Sullivan doesn’t believe that simply lowering the drinking age is the answer, but points out that it might be possible under New York state law to introduce improvements. That’s because the law permits persons under the age of 21 to consume alcohol under specific circumstances.

• If they are students “in a curriculum licensed or registered by the state Education Department, and the student is required to taste or imbibe alcoholic beverages in courses which are a part of the required curriculum.”
• If they are served alcoholic beverages by a parent or guardian.

Dr. Sullivan believes that these explicit provisions have in common “the assumption that alcohol consumption which takes place as part of an educational purpose in a controlled setting supervised by someone who has the interest of the underage person at heart should be legal because it should lead ultimately to more responsible drinking behavior.”

Amethyst InitiativeThe educational leader explains that “a college or a university might, in carefully defined situations, be willing to assume ‘in loco parentis’ responsibility for overseeing underage student drinking if it is done in a way that helps students learn their limits and how to drink responsibly and safely.”

Dr. Sullivan writes that he “can imagine some such circumstances and think broad discussion of what they might be could be very productive. Assuming such responsibility might entail additional legal risk for a college, or any other entity proposing to accept responsibility, but we experience great legal risk now and that level of risk might actually be reduced in properly designed circumstances.”7

President Donald R. Eastman, III, of Eckerd College.

Dr. Eastman explains his support of the Amethyst Initiative.

Amethyst InitiativeWhat the current age limit does is make drinking by those younger than 21 an illegal, furtive, clandestine experience, with little to no chance for adult oversight and care. Government surveys have shown that 51 percent of all young people between 18 and 20 are considered binge drinkers, consuming more than four or five drinks during a single occasion. One wonders what role the current age limit plays in that binge-drinking culture.

The president of Eckerd College emphasizes that

Residential liberal arts colleges take the out-of-classroom experience to be just as much a part of an undergraduate’s education — and just as much the college’s responsibility — as what happens in the classroom. Residential colleges create communities, with faculty and staff deeply involved in the daily lives of their students. Our goal is to teach young adults to think for themselves, with academic and co-curricular programs built upon the best wisdom available about their developmental needs and urging them to make choices that enhance their own, and others’, lives.

“The solutions to the problems we face need to go far beyond a drinking age limit. Since we are so far from perfect now, how can we not reopen a conversation this vital?”

President Donald R. Eastman, III, of Eckerd College.

But the 21-year-old drinking age limit arbitrarily divides our community and, much worse, robs us of the chance to create a culture that encourages young people to drink responsibly, if they wish to drink, in a safe environment. What the current law does is send those under 21 who want to drink off campus into a world that takes their money and ignores the rest.

Now I am not absolutely sure lowering the drinking age to 18 will be an unalloyed better deal for my students — maybe it ought to be raised — but I am certain that rethinking this important cultural issue, given all the problems of the current environment, is long overdue. That’s all the Amethyst Initiative asks for — to reopen the conversation, a conversation, by the way, that is not simply about alcohol but about good parenting, proactive schools and the development of responsible drinking behaviors in young adults.

Amethyst InitiativeThe steps we as a society have taken in the past 25 years to address underage drinking are insufficient. A law enforcement system treating underage drinkers as criminals and a federal system that directs funds to highways based on a state’s drinking age do little to teach young adults responsible behavior toward alcohol. We shouldn’t think that because fewer young adults die from alcohol-related deaths when the drinking age is 21 versus when it was 18 that we have met our responsibilities. Too many young adults, under and over 21, continue to die each year due to alcohol-related deaths. The solutions to the problems we face need to go far beyond a drinking age limit. Since we are so far from perfect now, how can we not reopen a conversation this vital?8

President Randy Dunn of Murray State University.

Dr. Dunn emphasizeses that “To be clear at the outset, the Amethyst Initiative is a call for discussion about drinking on campuses; it is not, as some headlines have mistakenly suggested, a demand to reduce the legal drinking age from 21 to 18, 19, or anything else.”

The Amethyst Initiative “is a call for discussion about drinking on campuses; it is not, as some headlines have mistakenly suggested, a demand to reduce the legal drinking age from 21 to 18, 19, or anything else.”

Dr. Randy Dunn, President of Murray State University

He observes that colleges “have a culture of drinking that has not lessened with all of the enforcement and education that has taken place to curb alcohol use. College students who wish to drink are doing so. But they are doing so in a way that promotes binge drinking, clandestine drinking, and drinking to intoxication whenever an opportunity to do so arises (and to drink faster to reduce any risk of getting caught).”

President Dunn believes that young adults can learn how to drink responsibly-complying with all existing laws against public intoxication, drunk driving, and everything else associated with drinking as an adult. They can drive, vote, get married, go to war, enter into contracts, pay taxes, decide on their own health care, and pretty well exercise all of those privileges that society confers upon “adults”-but according to federal law (which has become the basis for Legal 21 in every state)-they cannot be trusted to consume alcohol in any circumstance or situation. To me, that seems counterintuitive.

Amethyst InitiativeDr. Dunn says “I don’t know what the results of a national discussion and debate on Legal 21 will be-but I do know there are no easy answers to this. We have not changed the culture of drinking that is pervasive on many of our campuses today. I also know that stifling debate on issues is not healthy behavior-for universities or democracies.”9

President Sharon Herzberger of Whittier College.

Dr. Herzberger joined the Amethyst Initiative and explains why.

Amethyst InitiativeI, like many of the signatories [of the Amethyst Iniative], do not claim to know what the “magic” legal drinking age should be nor if a change in the drinking age will lead to more responsible conduct. What I do know, however, as a president and as a parent of recent college graduates, is that our laws and policies regarding alcohol use by young people are simply not working.

“We can continue shutting our eyes to the problem, or we can begin to discuss solutions.”

Dr. Sharon Herzberger, President of Whittier College

President Herzberger says that

Clearly, we have two choices. We can continue shutting our eyes to the problem, or we can begin to discuss solutions. As president of an institution that teaches students to do the latter, I know I must lead by example.

So I have joined the Amethyst Initiative and have been vocal about calling for reasoned discussion, a full analysis of evidence from studies in this country and abroad, and the benefit of expert opinion from those who deal with the challenge of alcohol use and abuse on a regular basis. After this discussion, we as a nation can decide whether the current law, while flawed in its outcomes, is the best we can expect or whether change is in order.

There’s much misinformation and even fear-mongering. There’s no call not to enforce the drinking age laws but Dr. Herzberger notes that “Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an organization I admire, has warned parents that they should not send their students to colleges whose presidents signed the initiative for fear that such presidents will not enforce the drinking laws. MADD’s warnings are certainly not true.”10

President James T. Harris III of Widener University.

Amethyst InitiativeDr. Harris has long been actively involved in efforts to reduce the problem of underage alcohol abuse. He is concerned that the current law has likely driven some students to drink off-campus in environments with no responsible social controls. He joined the Amethyst Initiative to promote “a serious debate about how closely public policy, including the drinking age, and the reality of campus life are aligned.”

“We cannot allow a few highly opinioned voices to shut down this conversation before it begins. To find workable solutions, we must face the truth about underage drinking.”

Dr. James T. Harris III, President of Widener University

Dr. Harris stresses that “It is important to note that the presidents who signed the initiative are not advocating for the drinking age to be 18; rather, we are saying that a serious and sustained debate on public policy should be held and that the drinking age should be one of many issues discussed.”

President Harris emphasizes that “we do not advocate breaking laws that do not suit us; we advocate examining those laws – and perhaps working to change them – through informed opinions and healthy debate.”

Amethyst InitiativeHe notes that “Unfortunately, there are some who strongly believe the legal drinking age should remain 21 and suggest we are acting irresponsibly just for opening the debate” but “We cannot allow a few highly opinioned voices to shut down this conversation before it begins.To find workable solutions, we must face the truth about underage drinking.”

In conclusion, “The academy has always been the place where controversial topics have been discussed and debated. As we move forward, let’s not shoot the messengers; let’s solve this national dilemma.”11

President David C. Joyce of Ripon College.

Dr. Joyce is one of the signatories. He writes 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.

Amethyst InitiativeThe 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.

Amethyst InitiativeI 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.12

President Theodore E. Long of Elizabethtown College.

Dr. Long explains that

Amethyst InitiativeSimply put, current laws — created with the admirable goal of curtailing youthful drinking and its abuses — are not working as intended. Today, underage men and women who want to drink can readily secure and consume alcohol, and they do so regularly in clear disregard of the law. What the law actually does is to drive underage drinking underground, separating it from the moderating influence of adults with more experience and wisdom. On their own, underage drinkers too often drink to excess, frequently harming themselves or others as a result.

President Long says that

We raise this issue because we believe we could address the issue more successfully under different legal circumstances. Currently, when we engage students first-hand in settings where they use alcohol, we must act as enforcers of the laws they seek to break. If instead we could actively model responsible behavior at the point of their decision-making, or intervene to promote healthy choices rather than to police their law-breaking, we could shape their behavior more positively, limit bingeing, and reduce its harmful consequences.

He agrees with many of his colleagues that

Amethyst InitiatiativeObviously, changing the drinking age alone will not solve the problems of irresponsible drinking. It is part of a web of social, cultural and policy factors that should be considered together in order to address this issue most effectively. To be effective, any change would need to be aligned with and supportive of those complementary influences as well. Reopening discussion of the drinking age is therefore just a starting point for a larger conversation about what we as a society must do to change the destructive equation of youthful drinking and to better support young people in building the habits of responsibility.

The college president attempts to correct widespread misperceptions.

Contrary to much press coverage, Amethyst presidents have not taken any position on what changes might work best and do not have any specific legislative agenda to advance. We are united only in the view that current law should be reconsidered because of its adverse, unintended consequences on the drinking behavior of young people and on our capacity to promote responsible behavior regarding alcohol. Undertaking the public dialogue we propose will enable us to highlight both the limitations and the advantages of current policies and to determine together how best to achieve objectives that are widely shared in our society. As concerned parents, educators and citizens, we can do no less for the next generation and for our society.13

President William G. Duren of Dickinson College.

“Any claim that ‘science’ is unequivocally on the side of a specific drinking age…is patently false ”

Dr. William G. Duren, President of Dickinson College

Dr. Duren explains his support for the Amethyst Initiative.

I have watched with fascination and something akin to shock the reaction of some organizations to the Amethyst Initiative, an organization of more than 120 college presidents who support informed and unimpeded debate on the consequences of current alcohol laws and invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.

Our call is for a discussion about drinking. It is not, as some headlines have suggested, a call to reduce the legal drinking age to 18.Amethyst InitiativeAs a co-author of the initiative’s Presidential Statement, I knew that calling for a national discussion on the issue of binge and underage drinking would cause a stir. What I had not expected was the outrageous accusations, baseless predictions and fear-mongering responses by some to the mere suggestion of a national debate on the topic.

Dr. Duren emphasizes that “the current law is not working and the country needs to examine this carefully — discuss and debate with all the facts, including the age limit, on the table — before we reaffirm the 1984 legislation tying enforcement of the age limit to federal transportation funds.”

He expresses concern over efforts to shut down discussion.

What I have witnessed in response to our call is a purposeful misreading of the Amethyst Initiative and our intentions.

Any claim that ‘science’ is unequivocally on the side of a specific drinking age or that college presidents are ‘waving the white flag’ and want the age lowered to lessen their liability is patently false, but it certainly is a popular attack that would be appealing to those who want to simplify the issue.

He believes that

Amethyst InitiativeA national discussion about current laws and what could be modified and/or enhanced to help all educators (and parents, for those young people not living at residential college campuses or attending college) teach responsible, reasonable drinking behaviors — and the option of not drinking — while curbing those that are dangerous is without question long overdue.

The apparent fear of debate about the drinking age is most troubling, as I believe the effort to suppress it also goes to the heart of repressing constructive dialogue in a democracy.

The college president emphasizes that “what is at stake here is not just the issue of alcohol, but the continued assertion of colleges and universities to fulfill their democratic mission of forwarding rational conversation and opposing anything that shuts it down.”

Dr. Duren says that

Slipping away is rational conversation in a democracy, and that is most troubling — or should be for all citizens. To live in an age where the winning strategy is to shout down any rational difference of opinion, so that the loudest and most distorting voice wins, leaves us in a sad place as a country. We cannot permit this.14

President Peyton R. Helm of Muhlenberg College.

Amethyst InitiativeWhen asked what’s wrong with the legal drinking age of 21, Dr. Helm explains that “Twenty-one is inconsistent with the prevailing definition of adulthood (18), and is already widely ignored by young people. Current law drives young people to drink secretly and dangerously. Strict enforcement simply drives the behavior further underground, where it becomes even more risky.” He also points out that “18-year-olds are allowed to vote, join the military, buy property and assume other roles of adulthood, so they should be allowed to consume alcohol.”

To the argument that lowering the legal drinking age might simply shift the problem down to the high school level, President Helm points out that most high school students are already drinking but live at home where values can be taught and behavior monitored. However, colleges can’t teach responsible drinking “when freshmen arrive as experienced drinkers and the only option is zero tolerance.”

Amethyst InitiativeTo the argument that raising the drinking age would lead to an increase in alcohol-related traffic accidents, the college leader observes that “Drunk driving is a serious problem, but drivers under 21 are not the key to the solution. National Highway Safety Traffic Administration statistics show the highest rates of drunk driving in fatal crashes are recorded for drivers 21-to-34 years old (34 percent), followed by ages 35-to-44 years old (27 percent). Alcohol involvement in fatal crashes for 16-to-20 year olds is about the same percentage as for 45-to-54 year olds.” Dr. Helm asks “Shouldn’t we focus on the problem itself: keeping drunk drivers off the road, whatever their age?”15

President Bobby Fong of Butler University.

“It is not enough to preach abstinence, sanction offenders and pick up the pieces after a student has been a victim of alcohol abuse. There must be education about alcohol from childhood through adulthood. That’s what the Amethyst discussion is all about.”

Dr. Bobby Fong, President of Butler University.

Dr. Fong reports that he

signed the Amethyst Initiative, a statement from university presidents that invites public discussion on how Americans deal with alcohol. It proposes that America has developed a culture of dangerous binge drinking, particularly on college campuses. The signatories call on elected officials and the public to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.

Amethyst InitiativePresident Fong notes that some who signed “support the current 21-year-old drinking age; others may want to change it. But they are united in their concern about the effects of binge drinking.”

We know that “Responsible drinking is a learned behavior. We know that the overwhelming majority of college-age students drink, but we cannot model what responsible drinking is like.”

The educational leader emphasizes that “It is not enough to preach abstinence, sanction offenders and pick up the pieces after a student has been a victim of alcohol abuse. There must be education about alcohol from childhood through adulthood. That’s what the Amethyst discussion is all about.”16

President Lawrence Schall of Oglethorpe University.

President Schall explains why he signed the Amethyst Iniative.

Amethyst InitiativeAs my mother taught me, the sign of either stupidity or stubbornness is to keep doing the same thing in the face of failure. Why sign? As a father of four and college president responsible for thousands more young men and women, one thing I know is that our sons and daughters and their friends, almost without exception, begin drinking long before their 21st birthday. Some drink experimentally, some regularly, and some to great excess. Abuse of alcohol is now a common occurrence in middle school. In high school, it is rampant and that continues onto college.

Dr. Schaal continued.

I see the effects of this abuse every day, in automobile accidents, in sexual behavior, in acts of vandalism and assault, in academic performance. I know I don’t have the answers, but I also know that the status quo has failed. I signed the Presidential Statement not because I think there is an easy solution out there, but because we need to be talking about solutions.17

V. Conclusion

All of these college and university presidents have shown that they are true leaders by joining the Amethyst Initiative.



1. Amethyst Initiative. Why I Signed.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.


7. Daniel F. Sullivan. Student drinking: college students can safely learn limits. Albany Times Union.

8. Donald R. Eastman, III. Lowering the drinking age: Let’s keep th.e dialogue open. St. Pete Times.

9. Randy Dunn. Should the drinking age be reconsidered? The News.

10. Sharon Herzberger. Why I signed on to Amethyst . Whittier College’s president calls for a more coolheaded discussion on revisiting drinking-age laws. LA Times.

11. James T. Harris III. From hallowed halls, a call to open debate on drinking age. Philadelphia Inquirer.

12. David C. Joyce. Drinking age deserves a debate. Milwaukee J Sent.

13. Thomas E. Long. We need to talk about drinking laws again. Lancaster Sunday News.

14. William G. Duren. Shutting down debate won’t solve binge issue. PatriotNews.

15. Genevieve Marshall, Reducing the minimum drinking age. The Morning Call.

16. Bobby Fong. Start discussing ways to educate about alcohol. Indianapolis Star.

17. Amethyst Iniative. Why I Signed.