Prez backs new debate on drinking

President Richard Brodhead has taken a shot at the legal drinking age.

On June 26, Brodhead was one of the first of 123 college presidents to sign on to a movement that decries the effectiveness of the current drinking age limit at 21 and advocates candid debate on alternative options, including lowering the legal drinking age to 18.

"We do not simply advocate lowering the drinking age as a solution to a very serious problem," Brodhead wrote in an e-mail. "Rather, we want to encourage an honest and constructive dialogue among educators, lawmakers, parents and students."

The movement, called the Amethyst Initiative, argues that the current law pushes drinking underground and encourages destructive binge-drinking among college students.

"Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer," the statement signed by college presidents reads.

But though college students might raise their glasses to the idea, it has drawn a critical look from anti-drinking groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who have denounced the signatories for advocating a more dangerous drinking culture.

The Amethyst Initiative began in June under a nonprofit organization called Choose Responsibility, which former Middlebury College president John McCardell founded in December 2006.

Julian Robertson, founder of the Robertson Scholars Program, has close ties with McCardell. In addition to offering counsel, Robertson also gives robust financial support to Choose Responsibility, providing half of the organization's $1 million dollar annual budget, said Grace Kronenberg, assistant to the director of Choose Responsibility.

"The considerable connection between the Robertson family and Duke may have been an influential factor in President Brodhead's decision to sign," Kronenberg said.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, however, denied that Robertson had influenced the president's pledge.

Brodhead first met with McCardell in 2007, at which time he expressed interest in joining the movement but hesitated from being a lead recruit, Kronenberg said.

"[Brodhead] did consult with other people in the administration and there was discussion on this for sure," Schoenfeld said. "The discussion included not staking Duke out in some leadership form on this."

Kronenberg recalled, however, that the president signed the pledge early on as an initial founding member of signatories. In mid-July, Amethyst Initiative members mailed recruitment letters to all public and private universities that award four-year degrees, or roughly 2,000 schools.

Schoenfeld explained that the purpose of Duke's pledge is to promote awareness and dialogue about a drinking culture that he said begins even before students arrive on campus.

"It should be obvious to anyone that the current system is broken and isn't doing what it should to protect the health, safety and well-being of our children," Brodhead said. "And if what we are doing now doesn't work, then we have an obligation to ourselves, and to society, to explore what might."

Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta said he supports continued dialogue on the drinking age, though he does not have a stance on whether the age should be lowered or raised.

Scientific research has not shown conclusive benefit or harm to lowering the legal drinking age, said Dr. Scott Swartzwelder, clinical professor of psychology and member of Choose Responsibility's Board of Trustees as an adviser to the organization. He added that alcohol education is one of the more pressing solutions to dangerous binge-drinking.

"If what this dialogue creates is more of a push toward effective alcohol education for young people, then I'm all for it," he said.

Duke Student Government President Jordan Giordano, a senior, said Brodhead's pledge is both a novel and positive move.

"If you look at the presidents who signed, Duke is the most prestigious on there," he said. "It really says that Duke is a place that values discussion and not really speaking to the status quo."

Other universities that have signed the statement include Dartmouth University, Syracuse University and Ohio State University.

After months of subtle recruiting, the Amethyst Initiative had planned to make a public announcement about their efforts in September. They have changed their future plans after news of the movement leaked to the media, Kronenberg said.

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