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Spanier abstains from initiative to lower drinking age

Unlike more than 100 university presidents at some of the most prominent schools in the country, Penn State President Graham Spanier declined to join a controversial initiative that aims to “rethink the drinking age.”

But several of the 128 university presidents who have signed onto the Amethyst Initiative have asserted the group’s true purpose is to launch a discussion on college-age drinking, not overhaul a 24-year-old federal law.

A statement on the initiative’s Web site calls for an “informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21-year-old drinking age.”

“[Twenty-one] is not working,” the statement reads.

Still, a representative from the Amethyst Initiative said all group members do not necessarily support a lowered drinking age. Rather, they’re encouraging discussion, said Grace Kronenberg, the assistant to the director of Choose Responsibility, a group that sponsors discussions about drinking among 18- to 20-year-olds.

Choose Responsibility, founded by former Middlebury College President John McCardell, is the non-profit organization that backs the Amethyst Initiative.

University spokeswoman Lisa Powers said Spanier was invited to sign the statement three weeks ago.

Spanier said he did not sign the initiative because he “[doesn’t] really have a sense about what the right thing to do is.”

Powers said Spanier is open to discussion, however.

“We’re really glad that the topic of high-risk drinking has come to the forefront,” Powers said. “But the president doesn’t think that lowering the drinking age is the answer because he hasn’t seen any compelling evidence.”

Kronenberg said the group members’ diverse views could lend themselves to discussion but not necessarily a change in the law.

“One hundred twenty-eight presidents are going to have 128 different views. The way the statement has been worded, a president who supports a drinking age of 25 could sign on,” Kronenberg said.

However, she added that a revised drinking age is necessary to “effect positive cultural change” and advocated for a drinking age of 18, “coupled with reality-based education and strong, stringent enforcement of the law.”

Representatives of some university presidents who signed on to the initiative stressed discussion about college-age drinking rather than drastic policy change.

Ohio State spokesman Jim Lynch said Ohio State President E. Gordon Gee signed the statement “to encourage debate.”

“President Gee is a big proponent of the democratic process, and he believes that sensitive issues like this should be debated,” Lynch said. “I think the politically correct and easy decision would be, ‘Let’s do nothing at all,’ but is that the right decision?”

In e-mail statements, representatives of the University of Maryland and Syracuse University, whose respective president and chancellor signed the statement, also downplayed the idea of a lowered drinking age and emphasized a broad discussion about drinking. Powers said she wasn’t surprised some presidents have signed onto the Amethyst Initiative.

“Across American higher education, people are kind of at their wit’s end … People are willing to explore all kinds of avenues because they really would like to find a solution to the problem that’s killing so many of our young people,” she said.

According to data from Penn State Live, 444 students visited the emergency department at Mount Nittany Medical Center for alcohol-related reasons in 2006 and 2007. The students’ average age was about 20.

The State College Borough Police received $45,000 this year from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board to reduce youth access to alcohol.

While State College Police Cpt. Dana Leonard said he has “no way of saying” how a lowered drinking age may affect the police force, he said he believes there should be a shift in the focus of the underage drinking issue.

“I’m a bit disappointed that college presidents who have signed onto this looked at the issue that narrowly,” he said. “I think the issue that needs to be framed is how do we reduce instances of dangerous drinking behavior, no matter what the age.”

Some students at schools whose presidents have signed the Amethyst Initiative have had positive reactions.

“As far as the drinking culture goes, [Ohio State is] very similar to Penn State,” said Kate Sweeney, a sophomore at Ohio State. “There is underage drinking, and it is something that is rampant. I agree that [a lowered drinking age] is something that should be considered.”

Jordan Giordano, the student body president at Duke University, said he agrees with Duke President Richard Brodhead’s decision to sign the statement, adding that parties on either side of the issue often have common goals.

“The behavior we’re trying to curtail is drunk driving, alcoholism, people dying from alcohol-related diseases,” Giordano said.

Some Penn State students had mixed reactions to the idea of a lowered drinking age.

“The more you set limits on something, the more people are going to want to do it,” said Jennifer Warner (junior-secondary education), who said she agrees with lowering the drinking age.

But Megan Zaner said changing the drinking age could throw other age restrictions, such as the driving age, into question.

“It could touch issues like, ‘Why don’t we just make everything 21?’ ” Zaner (junior-marketing) said. “I think it’s fine at the age it’s at.”

Collegian staff writer Heather Schmelzlen contributed to this report.