Letter to the Community Regarding the Amethyst Initiative August 29, 2008

Dear Staff, Faculty, and Students,

As you may know, I have joined more than 125 other presidents and chancellors of colleges and universities in signing the Amethyst Initiative. It calls for a renewed and informed debate about the legal drinking age of 21. Why? Because as educators, we want young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol, and we question whether the current law leads to behaviors that are irresponsible and, often, dangerous.

For the exact statement, see http://www.theamethystinitiative.org/statement/.

The Amethyst Initiative began with an invitation from John McCardell to a group of college presidents. John is no stranger to W&L, being a member of the W&L Class of 1971, a member of our Board of Trustees and the father of a current student. He asked my colleagues and me to consider reopening the debate on the drinking age. McCardell brings a knowledgeable background to his concern. He is president emeritus of Middlebury College and someone who has studied the issue for many years.

The initial news coverage of this effort has triggered vigorous debate, which, in the best liberal arts tradition, is healthy and important. Like the other presidents who have signed the Amethyst Initiative, I believe that the significant problems created by some college students' abuse of alcohol demand thoughtful consideration of whether or not public policy in this area has worked, and what alternatives we might consider.

While my fellow signers and I welcome the debate, I do want to clarify some elements of the conversation as it has unfolded through the media.

  1. Contrary to what some press reports have said, the other signers and I have not called for a lower drinking age. Rather, we want to hold a careful, civil and rational discussion of the effectiveness of the current law.
  2. I am committed, first and foremost, to finding an effective way to educate college students--especially W&L students--about their responsibilities when it comes to alcohol.
  3. I want to explore a variety of efforts to address the problem of irresponsible and dangerous drinking on our campus. Neither the initiative nor the debate it has engendered will deter W&L from continuing to administer our comprehensive alcohol-education program (see the links at the end of this message) and to enforce federal, state and local laws--and all of our own regulations.
  4. The other signers and I want to confront a complex and difficult problem and to talk about it in a reasoned, dispassionate manner so that we can try to solve problems associated with alcohol use on our campuses. We take our responsibilities as educators seriously, and some of us at least question whether the current law leads to legal- enforcement discussions only, at the expense of educational ones.
  5. My fellow Amethyst participants and I want to examine the data and discuss where it leads. That data includes the relationship between the drinking age and highway deaths, as well as data showing the trends in binge drinking on campuses and the trends in such alcohol-related problems as poor academic performance, unacceptable behavior toward others and harm to oneself.

I welcome your thoughts as I continue this vital discussion with the other Amethyst participants, and with all of you.

Thank you,

President Kenneth P. Ruscio