Rethinking Drinking: CMC and the Amethyst Initiative

In July 2008, a group of presidents and chancellors of colleges and universities across the country launched  the Amethyst Initiative, an organization committed to supporting “informed and unimpeded debate on the 21-year old drinking age.” These higher education leaders signed a statement that “the problem of irresponsible drinking by young people continues despite the minimum legal drinking age of 21 and that there is a culture of dangerous binge drinking on many campuses.” Currently there are 130 signatories to this statement, including the presidents of Dartmouth, John Hopkins, Middlebury, and our own neighbor Pomona. The list of signatories does not include president Pamela Gann of Claremont McKenna College.

Given CMC’s fairly liberal attitude towards underage drinking, at first glance it seems surprising that our administration would not gladly sign onto a statement that promotes lowering the drinking age. However, when examining the Amethyst Initiative statement more closely and comparing it to the drinking culture at CMC, it is apparent that president Gann has some good reasons not to sign it.

Despite the drinking age being 21, says the statement, “a culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking’ – often conducted off-campus—has developed.” While there may be a fair amount of binge drinking at CMC, clandestine is definitely not the word to describe it. In addition, there is little social life off-campus for underage students and more students that are 21+ go off campus to drink than those that are underage.

A social life that centers around campus, says President Gann, is exactly what the CMC administration aims to achieve” “We don’t stick our heads in the sand and say students aren’t going to drink,” she says. Instead, the administration tries to respect students’ privacy and focuses on the safety and security of the students. These actions by our administration are different than most other colleges and universities and perhaps show that there’s an alternative to lowering the drinking age that can still promote student health and prevent drunk driving and “clandestine” binge drinking. Gann points out that the size of our school and the fact that almost 100 percent of students live on campus are helpful to achieving these goals, and that she is not ready to promote this a solution for other schools.

In addition, the statement says: “alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.” President Gann believes that education about alcohol is extremely important and that college administrators have a responsibility to make sure that their students are prepared to deal with widespread drinking, both on campus and in the “real world” after graduation.

“We run 24/7 a village and community for young people and it is our responsibility to make sure they are socialized to the appropriate uses and dangers of alcohol,” she says. This goes beyond focusing on the law to providing a practical education about alcoholism, alcohol and mental illness, alcohol poisoning, and other dangers of alcohol. It also means exposing students to an environment where they can make healthy decisions about alcohol. This type of education is important regardless of the drinking age, Gann believes.

Opponents of the Amethyst Initiative, most notably Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), have argued that raising the drinking age has lowered drunk driving deaths by over 10 percent, even when controlling for other factors like new safety features. The unique approach to alcohol at CMC serves as an example of how we can keep our roads safe while cutting down on uncontrolled and unhealthy drinking on campuses.

There are certainly many compelling reasons for lowering the drinking age, and I’m sure most of you underage would love to be able to drink legally (I just turned 21 suckers!), but CMC proves that there are many actions that college and university administrators can take without having to drastically change public policy.

One of the most positive results of the Amethyst Initiative is that it has sparked debate, not only on college campuses, but also throughout the country. The drinking age not only affects us at CMC, but it affects our peers serving in Iraq who are not trusted to drink even though they are prepared to give their lives. “Colleges are just a very small subset of the American population,” says Gann. She looks forward to having candid discussion about this issue, both on campus and in the greater American community.