Lower drinking age? The debate is on

The college presidents said they wanted a national debate on the 21-year-old drinking age. They got it.

For years, former Middlebury College President John McCardell has been criticizing the law, saying it only encourages binge drinking and pushes alcohol into the shadows.

But then McCardell quietly enlisted about 100 college presidents in a campaign calling for the drinking age to be reconsidered. After The Associated Press reported on the effort this week, the issue erupted into the biggest discussion on the subject in years – in blogs, over e-mail, in newspaper editorials and around office water coolers.

College presidents usually avoid contentious topics because alienating alumni and politicians poses big risks and offers few rewards. So it was big news when so many leaders of the nation's best-known institutions signed on to McCardell's “Amethyst Initiative,” named for the Greek gemstone said to ward off intoxication.

Supporters included presidents of private universities such as Duke, Dartmouth and Johns Hopkins, and public schools, such as Ohio State and the University of Maryland.

“No matter where you stand on this issue, it's impossible to look at what has happened over the last three or four days and say this is a settled question,” McCardell said Friday.

Critics led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving got their view across, too, accusing the presidents of seeking to avoid cracking down on campus lawbreakers.

MADD marshaled critics, including the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, who called changing the law “a terrible idea” that would “jeopardize the lives of more teens.” On Friday, the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a statement opposing a lower drinking age.

Amid the backlash, two presidents – Robert Franklin of Morehouse College and Kendall Blanchard of Georgia Southwestern State – withdrew their support. But at least 20 presidents have added their names this week, bringing the total to at least 123.

A number of newspaper editorials this week criticized the presidents, calling enforcement a better answer.

But other editorial pages were more sympathetic – at least to the presidents' call for debate, if not to lowering the drinking age.

Student newspapers were also sympathetic, like the Duke Chronicle, which praised President Richard Brodhead for signing on.

“We'd even raise a glass to him – that is, if we could,” the Chronicle editors wrote.

AP writer Barbara Rodriguez contributed from Raleigh.