Nickl: University presidents aim to dodge alcohol liability

By Gina Lea Nickl, Opinion Columnist

It’s safe to say that binge drinking has become a part of life for many college students. More than 44 percent of college students show symptoms of alcohol abuse or dependence, according to a study performed by Harvard School of Public Health.

In July, more than 100 university presidents around the nation launched the Amethyst Initiative, “amethyst” coming from the Greek word meaning “not intoxicated” Members of the Initiative include presidents from Duke, Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins.

The Initiative’s official statement calls for “an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age.”

The effort paid off. Since the story broke, there has been a frenzy of talk in the media and public. It seems we are ready to have this debate, but the problem is that the call for the debate came from leaders of higher education institutions who are supposed to be providing safe environments for students and teaching students higher standards.

No one is disputing the injuries and risks involved with underage drinking and binge drinking. The studies all indicated that lowering the drinking age wouldn’t solve the alcohol abuse going on among students. Many studies, including the College Alcohol Study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, show that lowering the drinking age will increase the risks and injuries associated with drinking, which leads some to question the intent of these university presidents.

The presidents behind the initiative know that more than 599,000 students at four-year universities suffer injuries related to excessive drinking every year, according to the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention.

They know that sexual assault increases when alcohol is involved and that class attendance and academic performance drop when students consume more alcohol, as shown by the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey.

Knowing all of this, the presidents must be giving up the fight against underage drinking. If it is time to have the debate about lowering the drinking age, then we should have it. But the call for the debate is coming from the leaders who are supposed to be holding students to a high standard. Instead, they are only lowering the standard and ridding themselves of the liability for the illegal actions going on under their watch.

These presidents may say they have the students’ best interests in mind, but research shows otherwise. Their actions are teaching students that if you do something illegal long enough, it will become legal.

U President Michael Young agreed that underage drinking is a serious problem around the country, but said about the presidents behind the initiative, “I don’t question their motives. I believe they have the best interests of the students in mind.”

However, Young disagrees with the initiative.

“Lowering the drinking age is unlikely to have the salutary benefits they desire. The illicit factor of illegal drinking is only a small part of the problem. The larger problem is that it is unregulated,” said he.

The presidents in the initiative should encourage campuses to increase security around areas they know to be hot spots of alcohol use. More needs to be done to inform students of the risks involved with alcohol. Instead of just lowering the drinking age, there needs to be a graduated system to full, legal drinking. Much like a driver’s license permit, teens would be allowed to drink alcohol in regulated amounts, only with parents in public restaurants, thereby teaching them how to drink responsibly so when they get to college, alcohol isn’t the forbidden fruit that it is now.

The solution is to teach personal responsibility. What lessons are we learning from the presidents who want to avoid being responsible for their students’ illegal actions? The presidents behind the Initiative need to look for alternative solutions rather than giving up the responsibility they have to their students.

[email protected]

Phil Cannon