Reveley hesitant on Amethyst Initiative

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September 16, 2008

1:38 PM

College of William and Mary President Taylor Reveley has said he is uncertain about signing the Amethyst Initiative.

The Amethyst Initiative is a public statement calling for open debate concerning the national drinking age, considering the prevalence of underage drinking. Since its inception in July of this year, 130 university chancellors and presidents have signed their name to the statement.

“I haven’t decided whether it would be useful for me to sign the Amethyst Initiative,” Reveley said. “It doesn’t look like many, if any, of the presidents of public colleges and universities in Virginia have signed so far.”

A bill which urges Reveley to add his name to the list of signatories unanimously passed last week in the Student Assembly. Sen. Ross Gillingham ’10, who co-sponsored the bill with Sens. Steven Nelson ’10 and Ben Brown ’11, said he felt compelled by the realities he observed on campus.

“There is an unsafe drinking environment at the College as evidenced by medical cases and the fact the majority of judicial sanctions are alcohol related,” Gillingham said. “Steven, Ben Brown and I all think this debate is worth having and while we have reason to believe the current alcohol policy is flawed, it’s important to note the initiative does not proscribe any change to the law.”

Beyond the legal and safety issues concerning alcohol, there are serious sociological complexities underlying drinking practices in this country, according to sociology professor Graham Ousey.

“As a society, we make distinctions between adult and child status in part on the basis of age. But the distinction is more than an age threshold. It’s a maturity and responsibility threshold,” Ousey said. “As the Amethyst Initiative notes, we believe adults younger than 21 are responsible enough to vote, sign contracts, serve on juries and serve in the military, but not to make informed decisions about the use of alcohol.”

He explained that such threshold discrepancies mark national disagreement about the age of responsibility and is indicative of powerful interest groups that influence policies based on particular issues, rather than principles of adulthood.

Additionally, Ousey voiced skepticism about whether a change in the legal drinking age would ultimately lead to safer drinking practices.

“Shifting the legal drinking age is not, in itself, likely to radically change usage patterns or drastically affect safety,” he said. “In my view, the safer consumption of alcohol seems to require a well-developed culture that stresses responsibility in drinking decisions.”

Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler ’88 Ph.D ’06 said that she shares the concerns of the SA bill’s sponsors, especially when it comes to the practices of high-risk behavior such as binge drinking. Considering these concerns, she expressed support for the initiative.

“I welcome this broad national conversation,” she said.

Upon the bill’s passage, the co-sponsors sent Reveley a message that included the results of the vote and their plans to elicit student support for the initiative.

Kenneth P. Ruscio, president of the private Washington and Lee University, is the only president from Virginia to sign the initiative. In a letter to the Washington and Lee community, he explained why he joined the other signatories.

“As educators, we want young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol, and we question whether the current law leads to behaviors that are irresponsible and, often, dangerous,” he said.
Reveley agreed and expressed support for the debate the initiative calls for.

“It’s very good, however, that the initiative seems to have started a serious national conversation about whether the legal age for drinking should move from 21 to 18,” he said.
Reveley did express some hesitation about the wider effects a lower drinking age could cause.

“If the only issue were how colleges and universities could best seek responsible drinking by their students, moving the age to 18 would make a lot of sense,” he said. “Traffic deaths from drunk drivers under 21, however, must also be taken into account.”

Disputed data and disagreements over the effects of such a change persist, but Reveley explained that the Amethyst Initiative’s conversation could be important in “shedding light on such disputes.”

Though a national conversation could have a positive impact on curbing unsafe drinking behavior among college students, Reveley believes the policies of individual universities can go a long way in preventing this type of behavior.

Reveley said it is hard to know exactly which policies are most effective.

“My best guess is that colleges are most useful when they provide credible, compelling information to their students on two scores: first, the inescapable health and safety consequences of irresponsible drinking, and, second, campus-specific information showing that many students choose not to drink at all and even more choose not to drink irresponsibly,” he said. “In the final analysis, though, I believe the most effective constraint on irresponsible drinking by college students is peer pressure.”

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