A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
September 18, 2008 Volume 39 / Number 1


From the President's Desk

The Drinking Age Debate

About a month ago, the news media in this country began focusing on an "initiative," signed by about a hundred American college and university presidents, calling for a "conversation" aimed at lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18. The Amethyst Initiative (because the amethyst in some ancient cultures supposedly had the power to ward off drunkenness) is predicated on the notion that the current national drinking age encourages secret and excessive drinking on campuses and that neither the laws of our society nor the policies and enforcement actions of our campuses are adequate to control this behavior.

It seems clear that the signatories to this initiative were unprepared for the response to it.

It was quickly discredited by organizations as diverse as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the California Highway Patrol, the American Medical Association, and the Alcoholic Beverage Control, which provided powerful evidence refuting the claims of the Amethyst authors that less binge drinking, fewer alcohol-related fatalities, and more responsible behavior would accompany the lowering of the drinking age. The response was so resounding that several signatories to the initiative bailed from their commitment and others wrote very defensive editorials explaining that they had signed on for a conversation about, not necessarily a change in, the drinking age.

Yet, the Amethyst Initiative is not just an academic exercise, that is, a call for a conversation on a controversial topic. Rather, it is about mounting a fundamentally flawed, inaccurately presented, and misguided argument, which every university should reject. For the issue here is not about the drinking age and some simplistic notion that lowering it will remedy many ill-advised social behaviors and their often tragic consequences. It is about taking responsibility for the conduct we wish to see among the students on our campuses, understanding the conditions and causes of alcohol abuse, and working diligently and purposefully with campus experts, community partners, and yes, students to establish higher behavioral expectations and a safer social environment.

This kind of commitment requires both understanding and action, not a measure that signals desperation and surrender and which would push the problem elsewhere, namely, down to the high schools.

Strong and clear! This kind of commitment exists here at Chico State.

For almost 10 years, in partnership with the leadership of the City of Chico and concerned, supportive citizens, our University has mounted a comprehensive effort to prevent alcohol and drug abuse and encourage safer and more responsible student social behavior. The effort focuses on awareness and education and includes such strategies as a mandatory alcohol education program for all freshmen, alcohol-free alternative social and entertainment programs, peer education through a survivor series, parental notification of alcohol policy violations by student housing residents, a safe-ride program, a social-host and safe-party guide, a uniform alcohol policy for all student organizations, and a students-helping-students campaign. In many respects, what we decided to do at Chico informed the CSU trustees and the Chancellor's Office, which adopted an alcohol policy in 2001 with many of the elements of our approach.

Contrary to the picture painted by the Amethyst group, we have good data demonstrating that such measures can make a difference. Since 2003, alcohol and drug violations in student housing have declined significantly (64% for alcohol and 85% for drugs); student knowledge about blood alcohol concentration and care-taking behaviors has increased; binge drinking and DUIs among our students have declined; and the numbers of alcohol-related misconduct arrests and medical transports of our students have decreased. Many campuses in the CSU report similar results with their efforts.

Here, though, the progress we are making is as much values-based as it is behavior-focused. We have intentionally challenged our students to be a part of a community that values civility and respect, emphasizes the responsibilities and privileges of membership, and celebrates actions that honor us, not embarrass us. We are surrounded by evidence that our students, overwhelmingly, want this kind of university, this kind of positive engagement, and that they respond favorably to it.

I did not sign the Amethyst Initiative because the problems its signatories say they want to address must be met hands on with confidence and commitment, not hands up in despair and denial.

Paul J. Zingg, President