A group of college presidents and chancellors concerned about underage drinking, which they are grudgingly all-too familiar with, recently reignited public debate about the country's 21-year-old drinking
age limit, just as students begin to return for a new school year.
The Amethyst Initiative created an open petition, signed by 128 college presidents and chancellors, calling on politicians and the public to reconsider the country's drinking laws, citing binge drinking common to college campuses as proof that the status quo isn't working. The media jumped on it, including an Associated Press article, “College presidents seek debate on drinking age,” and then editorials and outcry from some groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) followed.
Though Amethyst's letter called for a debate on the issue, rather than an actual lowering of the drinking age, its critics focused on the possibility of legalizing under-21 drinking. MADD's president, Laura Dean-Mooney, called the initiative “deeply disappointing” in an initial statement. MADD initiated a letter-writing campaign, urging the public to ask the college representatives to remove themselves from the list, as well as a counter media relations effort. Two signatories to the letter, both in Georgia, pulled out following the backlash: presidents of Georgia Southwestern State University and Morehouse College.
Despite negative publicity, Amethyst's leaders say they achieved the effort's initial mission.
“We have clearly touched a nerve and demonstrated that the public does not view this as a settled question,” says John McCardell, a former president of Middlebury College and the organization's leader. “Our call for debate is very timely... This particular initiative is to help people decide.”
Part of the confusion might have stemmed from the fact that McCardell also leads Choose Responsibility, which is dedicated to lowering the drinking age.
“We are also at great pains to point out that simply because [Choose Responsibility] started the [Amethyst] initiative, doesn't mean that the presidents who signed embrace that agenda,” adds McCardell, who is director of Choose Responsibility. While the two groups share staff, McCardell says there is a firewall between the two organizations.
MADD, with help from AOR GMMB, have disputed Amethyst's message through interviews, its Web site, and a radio media tour.
“We understand that there's a need for a dialogue, but these college presidents are being misguided and misled, because 75% of the information we've reviewed on their Web site is grounded more in philosophy and humanities, than in the facts,” says Misty Moyse, director of media relations at MADD.
MADD also partnered with a variety of public officials and trade organizations, such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), to help it lead the dialogue.
“The drinking age should remain in place,” says IACP's chief of staff, Jim McMahon. “Colleges that have signed onto this are [in effect] raising white flags.”
However, one signatory, James Harris, president of Widener University, says his stance hasn't changed, despite the number of MADD e-mails he received. Signing the petition was a clear expression of “sustained conversation that needs to happen,” he adds.
Rodney Ferguson, MD and principal at Lipman Hearn, which represents education clients, says the college leaders “occupy a special place in the American mind,” and their support lends a unique element to a tough political battle.
“Ultimately, this becomes a political battle,” Ferguson says. “College presidents don't have the authority to police or monitor, but are ultimately held responsible for the young people who attend [to] their college's well-being.”
Patrick Riccards, president of Exemplar Strategic Communications, also notes the political element, and says the signatories are following their mandate to take part in debate.
“This becomes no different than any other traditional political campaign,” he says. “A good college president inspires discussion and says, ‘We're going to explore these issues.”
McCardell says Amethyst was overwhelmed by the reaction and is in the process of opening an office in Washington, and is considering hiring PR support to aid its expansion.