To the St. Mary’s College Campus Community: as your president, I am considering signing on with other presidents around the country to the Amethyst Initiative. The initiative asks that we reopen a national discussion on the drinking age.

From their web site, http://www.amethystinitiative.org/: “Launched in July 2008, the Amethyst Initiative is made up of chancellors and presidents of universities and colleges across the United States. These higher education leaders have signed their names to a public statement 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. The Amethyst Initiative supports informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age. Amethyst Initiative presidents and chancellors call upon elected officials to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.”

I share a number of concerns with presidents and chancellors who wish to reopen the debate on the drinking age. I am concerned that we, as professionals responsible for the education of young adults, have created an atmosphere where students who choose to consume alcohol often do so in ways dangerous to their health.

They do so not because they are ignorant of health issues, but because they seek to avoid criminal charges they would incur if they were “caught” in a commercial establishment or in a public space consuming alcohol. As a result, we have conditions in place where binge drinking, tragically, is one logical response to an atmosphere the professionals have created.

The current policy creates an equally tragic situation where the decision to drink or not to drink is one that defines the social scene. Because purchase and consumption is illegal for most students, it cannot be casual and incidental to a social occasion, but must be planned and schemed as one would a criminal activity.

A social divide ensues between those who have chosen to drink and those who have chosen not to do so – as a result, having a glass of wine or beer is not a casual affair but an intense activity, not dissimilar to the way an alcoholic might encounter the disease.

Not all students care about alcohol consumption, but enough do to make it a major issue on college campuses. We are educating young adults, providing them opportunities and challenges that we claim, with confidence, will serve them throughout their lives and careers.

The Amethyst Initiative asks that we reconsider how the current drinking age sets up a distinctive atmosphere in which students learn about alcohol consumption as a part of their socialization as adults. It also places a prohibition on adult modeling of socially responsible consumption of alcohol to 18-20 year olds—in fact, makes it a criminal activity.

Current policy drives young adult drinking underground, implicitly defining it as an illicit activity, encouraging the kind of drinking associated with diseased behavior.

I agree with the signers to the initiative in that I think it is time to reopen this discussion. As I consider signing the Amethyst Initiative, I want the campus community to understand my reasoning, and to hear those who have contrary opinions.

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