Presidents of about 100 U.S. universities, including Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State, are calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, saying current laws encourage dangerous binge drinking on campus.
The movement, called the Amethyst Initiative, began quietly recruiting presidents more than a year ago to provoke national debate about the drinking age.
"This is a law that is routinely evaded," said John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, who started the organization. "It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory."
Eckerd College in St. Petersburg is among the colleges supporting the initiative.
"I signed because my 35 years in higher education and my 30-plus years as a parent to three sons convinced me that the 21-year-old drinking age is hypocritical, ineffective, guilt-inducing and counterproductive," president Donald Eastman III said in a statement. "It is a form of miniprohibition, and needs to be replaced with education and a focus on the value of moderation, not intolerance."
University of Florida president Bernie Machen declined to join the group because "it didn't fit with his philosophy on the issue," spokesman Steve Orlando said.
University of Miami president Donna Shalala, who was secretary of health and human services under President Bill Clinton, also declined to sign. "I remember college campuses when we had 18-year-old drinking ages, and I honestly believe we've made some progress," Shalala said. "To just shift it back down to the high schools makes no sense at all."
Prominent schools in the group include Syracuse, Tufts, Colgate, Kenyon and Morehouse.
Critics are lining up
McCardell's group takes its name from ancient Greece, where the purple gemstone was believed to ward off drunkenness if used in drinking vessels and jewelry. He said college students will drink no matter what, but do so more dangerously when it's illegal.
Even before the presidents begin the public phase of their effort, which may include newspaper ads, they face sharp criticism.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving says the move would lead to more fatal car crashes. It accuses the presidents of misrepresenting science, and MADD officials are urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.
"It's very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses," said Laura Dean-Mooney, MADD president.
McCardell says that his experiences as a president and a parent, as well as a historian studying Prohibition, have persuaded him the drinking age isn't working.
Critics say he has badly misrepresented the research by suggesting that the decision to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21 may not have saved lives.
'Science is very clear'
Chuck Hurley, CEO of MADD, said nearly all peer-reviewed studies looking at the change showed that raising the drinking age reduced drunken-driving deaths. A survey of research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others reached the same conclusion.
McCardell cites the work of Alexander Wagenaar, a University of Florida epidemiologist and expert on how changes in the drinking age affect safety. But Wagenaar himself sides with MADD in the debate.
The college presidents "see a problem of drinking on college campuses, and they don't want to deal with it," Wagenaar said. "It's really unfortunate, but the science is very clear."
Both sides agree that alcohol abuse by college students is a huge problem. Research has found more than 40 percent of college students reported at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence. One study has estimated more than 500,000 full-time students at four-year colleges suffer injuries each year related in some way to drinking, and about 1,700 die in such accidents. A recent Associated Press analysis of U.S. records found that 157 college-age people, 18 to 23, drank themselves to death from 1999 through 2005.
The statement the presidents signed avoids calling explicitly for a younger drinking age. Rather, it seeks "an informed and dispassionate debate" over the issue.
But the statement makes clear the signers think the current law isn't working, citing a "culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking," and noting that while adults under 21 can vote and enlist in the military, they "are told they are not mature enough to have a beer." Furthermore, "by choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law."
Times staff writer Donna Winchester contributed to this report.