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Group wants lower drinking age

College presidents from about 100 of the nation's best-known universities, including Duke, Dartmouth and Ohio State, are calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, saying current laws actually encourage dangerous binge drinking on campus.

The movement called the Amethyst Initiative began quietly recruiting presidents more than a year ago to provoke national debate about the drinking age.

"This is a law that is routinely evaded," said John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont who started the organization. "It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory."

Other prominent schools in the group include Syracuse, Tufts, Colgate, Kenyon and Morehouse.

Area colleges, though, are hesitant about leaping on board.

University of North Dakota President Robert Kelley received a letter last week from the Amethyst Initiative asking the school to join the group, UND spokesman Peter Johnson said, adding that the school declined.

"We have trouble understanding an advantage to anybody by dropping the drinking age from 21 to 18," Johnson said. "We don't see how dropping the age can make a positive impact."

North Dakota State University athletic director Gene Taylor said NDSU also was asked to join the initiative but declined.

"We would certainly be opposed to that," Taylor said. He and Johnson said North Dakota's high rate of binge drinking is one big reason to not lower the legal age for drinking.

Jim Meier, the dean of Student Life at Concordia College, said curbing binge drinking needs to come not from changing the age limits, but changing national attitudes about drinking.

"I think we would need to be careful about moving in that direction," he said.

Concordia is a dry campus, and Meier said it's unlikely the college would change that policy if the law changed.

Ann Valentine, the president of Minnesota State Community and Technical College, agreed there are other places people should focus their efforts.

"I just don't think that would be responsible legislation," she said. "We're better off investing in education (preventing binge drinking)."

Doug Hamilton, spokesman for Minnesota State University Moorhead, said the decision about the issue would come from a higher level than the public university.

"If anything like this were to gain any kind of traction, it would be a state issue and certainly a Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (system) issue," Hamilton said.

MSUM is among 32 state colleges and universities in the system. All of the schools maintain dry campuses, Hamilton said.

In the national movement, the presidents who have signed on and began the public phase of their efforts - which may include publishing newspaper ads in the coming weeks - have faced plenty of sharp criticism, too.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving says lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes. It accuses the presidents of misrepresenting science and looking for an easy way out of an inconvenient problem. MADD officials are urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents signed on.

"It's very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses," said Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of MADD.

Both sides agree alcohol abuse by college students is a huge problem.

Research has found more than 40 percent of college students reported at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence. One study has estimated more than 500,000 full-time students at four-year colleges suffer injuries each year related in some way to drinking, and about 1,700 die in such accidents.

Moana Jagasia, a Duke University sophomore from Singapore, where the drinking age is lower, said reducing the age in the U.S. could be helpful.

"There isn't that much difference in maturity between 21 and 18," she said. "If the age is younger, you're getting exposed to it at a younger age, and you don't freak out when you get to campus."

McCardell's group takes its name from ancient Greece, where the purple gemstone amethyst was widely believed to ward off drunkenness if used in drinking vessels and jewelry. He said college students will drink no matter what but do so more dangerously when it's illegal.

The statement the presidents have signed avoids calling explicitly for a younger drinking age. Rather, it seeks "an informed and dispassionate debate" over the issue and the federal highway law that made 21 the de facto national drinking age by denying money to any state that bucks the trend.

"I'm not sure where the dialogue will lead, but it's an important topic to American families and it deserves a straightforward dialogue," said William Trout, president of Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., who has signed the statement.

But some other college administrators sharply disagree that lowering the drinking age would help. University of Miami President Donna Shalala, who served as secretary of health and human services under President Clinton, declined to sign.

"I remember college campuses when we had 18-year-old drinking ages, and I honestly believe we've made some progress," Shalala said in a telephone interview. "To just shift it back down to the high schools makes no sense at all."