After turning down Amethyst Initiative, Rosenberg discusses the drinking age

By Diego Ruiz

This past summer, 129 college presidents signed the Amethyst Initiative, which calls for a reconsideration of the drinking age-that is, lowering it. President, Brian Rosenberg, chose not to sign it. The Mac Weekly interviewed him about his decision, and the issues of underage and binge drinking at Macalester.MW: Were you ever approached to sign the Amethyst Initiative?

BR: It was probably at some point over the summer that I received the letter and the e-mail [asking if I?would sign it]. It wasn’t an especially aggressive campaign. It wasn’t as if I was getting e-mails and letters constantly. It was a fairly low-key request.

The Amtheyst Initiative itself-if you look at what it really says-just calls for an informed public discussion about the appropriate legal drinking age, and in that sense, it’s hard to object to. I think in reality, the underlying motivation is advocacy for a lower drinking age, for lowering it back to 18

I thought about [the Initiative] in terms of advocacy for actually lowering the drinking age, as opposed to simply advocacy for having a conversation, and I made a decision that I just wasn’t prepared to take that position at this point, because I don’t think I know enough about the pros and cons right now to make an informed judgment about whether lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18 would in fact promote more responsible drinking. I know there’s data to suggest that drunk driving fatalities have declined since the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21-and for me, especially, as someone who has a 17-year-old son, that’s of more than trivial importance.

The research on this as far as I can tell from reading about it-and I have been-seems mixed. Some argue that there is evidence that raising the age has had positive benefits. Others argue that it has had none, or even negative impacts. I just don’t feel comfortable taking a public position, particularly when it’s a position that inevitably becomes the official position of the college, unless I feel as if I have a strong belief and a strong basis for that belief.

This seems to me an issue where I don’t have either of those yet, and where I’m not persuaded, at least to date, that the best response . is to lower the drinking age. And, most of the Mac staff that I’ve spoken to in thinking about this have not been particularly supportive of it either … Those are the main factors that figured in my decision not to sign it.

MW: One of the main points of the backers of the Amethyst Initiative is that, due to the 21+ drinking age, an activity which will inevitably happen on college campuses is conducted in secret instead of under the oversight of administrators. They say this is one of the root causes of binge drinking. How do you respond to that?

BR: When I was in college, the drinking age was 18. We had bars in all of the student unions on campus. There was nothing illegal about drinking when you were 18, and there was a ton of binge drinking that went on anyway . I’m not sure anyone would argue, or has argued convincingly, that there was less binge drinking in 1975 when I was in college and the drinking age was 18 then there is now when the drinking age is 21.

MW: Do you think that the illegality of alcohol among underage students makes it harder to educate students about its dangers?

BR: I think that if one takes the approach that, since it’s simply illegal we should declare it illegal and not talk about it, then, I think, yes, it can hinder education, it can hinder discussion, it can hinder prevention. I think that if you take the approach that even though underage drinking is against the law, you know that some students will break that law, and that breaking the law is a widespread part of college culture . then it doesn’t necessarily have to be an insuperable obstacle. I do agree that it can be an obstacle if you use the law as an excuse not to discuss something. But I don’t think we do that here. I think that we try to have informed discussions because we’re more realistic.

MW: How is Macalester attempting to curb binge drinking among students?

BR: I think that we work more through an educational rather than an enforcement model . My sense is that we pretty much take the approach in residence halls that we’re not going to be overly intrusive as long as behavior isn’t disruptive . I know we offer programs and discussions about responsible use of alcohol. So I think the approach here has to be through education, and then enforcement when behavior either threatens the safety of the individuals engaging in it, or threatens the safety or security of other students.

MW: Do you approach underage drinking as an inevitability of being at a college?

BR: Yes. If you’re an administrator at a college and don’t accept the reality of underage drinking . you’re turning your back on something that is consequential and important, potentially dangerous to students [and] potentially a positive opportunity to educate and shape life behavior.

I think one of the advantages we have at Macalester is that we have students who come from places and cultures with different drinking ages, different drinking laws . different approaches to alcohol. And so it does provide some of our students with an opportunity to see how alcohol is viewed in different places and to see, I think, the absence of the same fascination among students, perhaps for whom it’s been part of life from an earlier age. So in that sense, we may have an educational opportunity that some schools don’t have.

MW: Is there anything you would encourage students to do concerning this issue?

BR: I think having a campus discussion, a student discussion, a national discussion is a good idea, and important. I would just like to see it happen without the implication that there is a pre-set agenda.

I think one of the problems with the Amethyst Initiative is this perception that there’s already an agenda that supercedes the desire simply to have an informed discussion. I think that’s been the source of a lot of the negative reaction to it, and the source of some of my concern about it.

MW: Is there anything else you would like to say concerning the Amethyst Initiative or drinking at Macalester?

BR: College presidents are . called “walking logos.” You’re kind of a symbolic embodiment of your institution. I think the people who really should be leading this discussion are the people who know most about it, and in a place like Mac-and I’m sure at most other colleges-those would be the people who work in Residential Life, who work in counseling, who work in Health and Wellness, who work in student affairs. They’re the ones who deal everyday, on the ground, with the issues of binge and underage drinking. And rather than the issue of college presidents trying to define an issue from the top, I’d like to see those people asked what they think, and how they’d like to see the discussion shaped, to make their work easier and more effective. So I’m always a little bit suspicious, or leery, of these initiatives that come from presidents, who, as well intentioned as they are, maybe don’t always know as much about issues as some people who deal with them everyday.