Don't ask President Richard Brodhead whether he supports lowering the drinking age.
As if repeating a statement, Brodhead will say firmly that he neither advocates nor thinks it worthwhile to fixate on such a policy. And though his signing of the Amethyst Initiative-a pledge that decries the effectiveness of the 21-year-old drinking age-has caused some opponents of the movement to speculate otherwise, Brodhead insists that his pledge is "absolutely not" about the legal age limit.
"The question about the drinking age is really not the interesting question," he said.
Instead, the interesting question is whether discussion can focus primarily on responsible behavior and alcohol education-and only then touch upon the age limit, he explained.
Whenever Brodhead speaks, he chooses his words carefully-and when he talks about the Amethyst Initiative, he is especially cautious to make his point clear. The current system for addressing drinking is ineffective, he said, but before anything can change, there needs to be thorough discussion.
"In the existing world, we understand how we have to address this is that we have to remind people that the law is 21. We can't encourage people to break the law. At the same time we also have to, in every way we can, urge people to understand that the freedoms of adult life require a sense of responsibility with them," he said in a September interview with The Chronicle. "But on every campus in America there's a need for more."
For Duke, Brodhead pointed to the recent hiring of its first associate dean and director of the Alcohol and Substance Abuse Prevention Center, Tom Szigethy, as an important step toward reforming the University's drinking culture.
But at least one student said the president could do more to follow up directly on his signing of the initiative. Senior Lauren Maisel, Duke Student Government's vice president for student affairs, said Brodhead should take advantage of the publicity his pledge has received to generate the debate the Amethyst Initiative calls for.
"I don't think that this conversation has gained a lot of traction at Duke," Maisel said. "It's a great thing that President Brodhead wants to have this conversation on a national scale, but I don't see a lot of that being facilitated on a very local scale.... I hope this isn't something that Duke puts a rubber stamp on and lets others handle."
Maisel cited the first-ever President's Forum on Critical Issues that Brodhead held in October on the financial crisis as a model for sparking campus discussion about the drinking culture. As of the September interview with The Chronicle, Maisel also noted that she has not focused on the issue in talks with administrators, but she said she plans to make it a part of her agenda.
The pledge, started by former Middlebury College president John McCardell, has done little to bring its 134 signatories together in pushing for a discussion beyond the initial signing. The group of presidents have no cohesive strategy nor even a single goal in mind-"for better or worse," McCardell said.
Since this past summer, a small staff recruited university presidents to sign the pledge, and were overloaded with phone calls and work when the pledge was unexpectedly leaked to The Associated Press in August, said Grace Kronenberg, assistant to the director of Choose Responsibility, the organization that created the initiative.
"We have only infrequent communication with the presidents. We have no governance structure, we have no budget-we have no nothing," McCardell explained in a September interview with The Chronicle. "The Amethyst Initiative is just 130 people who have signed the paper."
And Brodhead noted that he did not necessarily wish to be particularly vocal or active after signing onto the pledge.
"In signing my name I simply wanted to join a company of other people who are calling for the subject to be raised," he said. "I don't have an instant solution to this, and I'm pretty much going to distrust anybody who does, but I think that the publicity about the Amethyst Initiative has itself helped to raise discussion."
Duke is among the more prominent colleges listed on the initiative, which also includes Dartmouth University and Syracuse University-a point that McCardell said has helped bring credibility to the movement in itself.
Brodhead has taken special care to not present himself as a leader on the issue, but the University has nonetheless been thrown into the spotlight of media coverage on the Amethyst Initiative.
The pledge has not stirred as much discussion among students as it has among the media, noted Szigethy, who has spent his first few months in the position talking to students about the campus drinking culture.
It has, though, prompted responses from proponents of a conservative alcohol policy-including Durham City Councilman Howard Clement, who called Brodhead and others' support of the initiative an "easy way out" of facing the drinking culture on campus.
Clement also said the underage drinking that occurred at the now-infamous March 2006 lacrosse party cannot be separated from the culture of drinking that exists at Duke.
"I'm not saying we could have stopped it, but I lay the onus on Duke University and other institutions for allowing a climate to exist on campus that exacerbates a drinking problem," he said.
Brodhead, however, said the linkage is unfounded and "particularly regrettable."
McCardell said "natural occasions in the university's calendar," such as Homecoming, could be an appropriate time for presidents to generate discussion on their campuses. But he noted that he does not expect Brodhead or other signatories to pursue a more active stance.
For his part, Brodhead said outrage from a movement decrying presidents for supporting a lower drinking age is simply unfounded, and has not deterred his support in the slightest way.
"I signed it on the basis of a life lived in universities and caring about the well-being of students. And for all the controversy, it has been disappointing to me that so much of the coverage has made it seem that this was a call to lower the drinking age," he said. "It is a call to raise the sense of responsibility and figure out if we can't find a more successful way to address the question of drinking than the drinking age."
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