Mothers Against Drunk Driving called on college presidents Tuesday to remove their names from a group lobbying lawmakers to reconsider the legal drinking age.
Around 100 college presidents across the nation have supported the Amethyst Initiative, a group that wants politicians to rekindle debate on the current drinking age in an effort to curb binge drinking on campus.
“As the mother of a daughter who is close to entering college, it is deeply disappointing to me that many of our educational leaders would support an initiative without doing their homework on the underlying research and science,” MADD National President Laura Dean-Mooney said in a prepared statement. “Parents should think twice before sending their teens to these colleges or any others that have waved the white flag on underage and binge drinking policies.”
John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, started the Amethyst Initiative earlier this year in an effort to "reopen public debate over the drinking age," according to the group's Web site.
"This is a law that is routinely evaded," McCardell said. "It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory."
Among the college presidents who have signed their name to the initiative are the leaders of Duke, Ohio State, Syracuse and Morehouse.
MADD called the Amethyst Initiative's push "misguided" and "deliberately misleading," saying the current law saves lives and that a drop in the legal age would bring on an increase in fatal car crashes.
MADD CEO Chuck Hurley said nearly all peer-reviewed studies looking at the change showed that raising the drinking age reduced drunk-driving deaths. A survey of research from the U.S. and other countries by the Centers for Disease Control 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 in a telephone interview. "It's really unfortunate, but the science is very clear."
Another scholar who has extensively researched college binge-drinking also criticized the presidents' initiative.
"I understand why colleges are doing it, because it splits their students, and they like to treat them all alike rather than having to card some of them. It's a nuisance to them," said Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health.
But, "I wish these college presidents sat around and tried to work out ways to deal with the problem on their campus rather than try to eliminate the problem by defining it out of existence," he said.
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 federal records found that 157 college-age people, 18 to 23, drank themselves to death from 1999 through 2005.
"Signing this initiative does serious harm to the education and enforcement efforts on our campuses and ultimately endangers young lives even more," University of Miami President and former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said in prepared statement. "I ask every higher education leader who has signed to reconsider. I am old enough to remember life on our campuses before the 21 year drinking rule. It was horrible."
The Amethyst Initiative is considering publishing newspaper ads in the coming weeks.
Moana Jagasia, a Duke University sophomore from Singapore, where the drinking age is lower, said reducing the age in the U.S. could be helpful.
"There isn't that much difference in maturity between 21 and 18," she said. "If the age is younger, you're getting exposed to it at a younger age, and you don't freak out when you get to campus."
McCardell's group takes its name from ancient Greece, where the purple gemstone amethyst was widely 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.
The statement the presidents have signed avoids calling explicitly for a younger drinking age. Rather, it seeks "an informed and dispassionate debate" over the issue and the federal highway law that made 21 the de facto national drinking age by denying money to any state that bucks the trend.
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."
"I'm not sure where the dialogue will lead, but it's an important topic to American families and it deserves a straightforward dialogue," said William Trout, president of Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., who has signed the statement.
Duke faced accusations of ignoring the heavy drinking that formed the backdrop of 2006 rape allegations against three lacrosse players. The rape allegations proved to be a hoax, but the alcohol-fueled party was never disputed.
Duke senior Wey Ruepten said university officials should accept the reality that students are going to drink and give them the responsibility that comes with alcohol.
"If you treat students like children, they're going to act like children," he said.
Duke President Richard Brodhead declined an interview request. But he wrote in a statement on the Amethyst Initiative's Web site that the 21-year-old drinking age "pushes drinking into hiding, heightening its risks." It also prevents school officials "from addressing drinking with students as an issue of responsible choice."
Hurley, of MADD, has a different take on the presidents.
"They're waving the white flag," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.