ALARMED AT undergraduate binge drinking and other illegal activities they say are related to a nationwide ban on under-21 alcoholic beverage consumption, more than 100 college presidents have signed a petition pleading for a dispassionate public debate on the issue.
The petition signers include presidents of Duke, Syracuse, Ohio State and Johns Hopkins universities as well as those at many small liberal arts colleges, some with Catholic and Protestant heritage.
Opposition arose quickly after the late-August announcement of the Amethyst Initiative, named after the purple gemstone that Greek mythology considered an antidote to the negative effects of intoxication. The petition does not explicitly advocate lowering the drinking age, though some backers think it should drop to 18, the minimum age for voting and serving in the military.
Politicians, health and safety experts, and newspaper editorial writers pointed to studies showing that traffic crashes and fatalities increased when the drinking age was lowered in the 1970s and decreased after states raised the minimum age to 21.
The stimulus for change came in 1984 when Congress passed the Minimum Drinking Age Act, which imposed a 10 percent reduction in federal highway appropriations on any state with a drinking age lower than 21.
"A culture of dangerous, clandestine binge drinking--often conducted off-campus--has developed," says the Amethyst Initiative, launched by John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont.
A comprehensive study on heavy drinking (at least five drinks in a row) among college students showed that the trend peaked in 1984 but remained steady, with about 44 percent doing it, from 1993 to 2001. Henry Weschler, a retired professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, who popularized the term binge drinking, has been quoted as saying that lowering the drinking age would be "pouring gasoline to put the fire out."
But Richard H. Brodhead, president of Duke University, said current laws have not prevented widespread drinking at U.S. colleges or by younger teens. The laws exacerbate the problem on college campuses, said Brodhead in a statement on the Amethyst Web site.
"It pushes drinking into hiding, heightening its risks, including risks from drunken driving," he said, "and it prevents us from addressing drinking with students as an issue of responsible choice."
Jesuit priest Jeffrey von Arx, president of Fairfield University in Connecticut, said that it is worth "taking another look at" the national Minimum Drinking Age Act when it comes up for renewal in 2009. Arx signed the appeal, which "invites us all to reexamine how we are helping our young people learn to handle the consumption of alcohol responsibly."
Another signer, President Jack R. …