Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Sunday, January 20, 2019

College presidents urge conversation on alcohol

Kerwin has yet to take position

It is uncertain whether AU President Neil Kerwin will unite with 128 other college leaders in promoting the academic discussion about alcohol abuse on college campuses by signing the Amethyst Initiative.

Kerwin is still sizing up the debate and trying to analyze the arguments and data connected to the Amethyst Initiative, according to David Taylor, Kerwin's chief of staff.

"He's very interested in the policy debate on what the Amethyst Initiative is suggesting, but we're not ready to take a position just yet," Taylor said. "There are merits to both sides, but what are the arguments? What are the alternatives? That's where we are, rather than being a signatory just yet."

The Amethyst Initiative is a movement to encourage open dialogue about the shortcomings of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act imposed in 1984, in which states with a drinking age below 21 were penalized 10 percent of their highway funds.

The initiative calls upon elected officials to support open discussion about the issue, consider if any of the current laws stifle such debate and come up with new ideas about how to encourage responsible drinking while it pledges college presidents and their campus resources to be active facilitators and contributors of the debate, according to the Amethyst Initiative's Web site.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs at Duke University, said he is frustrated with the current misinterpretations of the initiative.

For instance, The Washington Post on Aug. 21 reported on the issue with the headline "Lower Drinking Age is Criticized."

"Some of the reporting on this has been incomplete and imprecise," he said.

While the idea of college presidents advocating a lower drinking age was a good slogan, it was not necessarily true, he said.

College presidents are concerned about the health and safety of their students, Dennis O'Shea, the executive director of communications and public affairs at Johns Hopkins University, said in an e-mail.

"They believe the current law is acting contrary to the interests of health and safety by driving drinking underground and promoting binge drinking," he said.

Schoenfeld said the Amethyst Initiative is a call to bring the medical, ethical and law and order factors surrounding the issue to light by bringing people together to look at the situation holistically.

"They don't have the answers," he said.

Johns Hopkins University President William Brody and Duke University President Richard Brodhead have both signed the Amethyst Initiative.

At AU, views on the current drinking age vary.

AU Public Safety Chief Michael McNair said he remains wary of laws that lower the drinking age.

"This is not a new issue," he said. He cited periods in D.C. and Maryland history when the drinking age was lowered to 18 and their lack of success in minimizing binge drinking. He attributed the shortcomings to the marketing of businesses serving alcohol.

"Young people don't see [underage drinking] as high-risk behavior because they don't see the consequences right away," McNair said.

Erin O'Neill, a professor in the School of Education, Teaching and Health, said she believes a lower drinking age is not the solution.

"We need to look at the social reasons why students binge drink," she said.

O'Neill advocates looking at college drinking problems as an epidemiological problem rather than a policy problem, citing generational differences as a possible source.

She said college is a "culture shock" for new students. The resulting inability to cope leads to coping behaviors which can turn out positively or negatively with the negative leading to risky behavior, such as binge drinking.

Some students have a simpler explanation for underage drinking.

"A lot of people do it because they're trying to be bad ass," said Kristen Luppino, a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Public Affairs. "A lower drinking age would lead to better regulation because people are going to do it anyway."

Emily Watson, a sophomore in the School of Communication, said lowering the drinking age will reduce binge drinking.

"Taking away the illegality of it takes away the lure," she said.

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