This was written earlier this year, when I was still president of Hiram College.
Here’s the question people are asking me almost every day. “Are you winding it down?” The answer is no. Really I’m winding up, but my time as President of Hiram College is down to just a couple of months. Now that the clock is really ticking, my mind is racing as I try to finalize a number of projects, bring lots of my big plans to closure and give a few people a few more words of advice.
As you can imagine, this is really a thankless task. I’ve seen a number of lame ducks in action during my long career and worked for some, too. But that doesn’t deter me, and I am determined to push on with my agenda. So before my time runs out, I want to propose one more idea from the “bully pulpit.”
I believe this is the right time to lower the legal drinking age to 18. I know we’ve been over this argument a number of times since 1984. That’s when the federal law changed and reduced highway funding for any state setting its drinking age lower than 21. It’s time to rethink that law—and the philosophy behind it. My 11 years as a college president have opened my eyes to a new reality. That law doesn’t keep kids from drinking and ultimately adds to the problems.
In March, I was invited to assist the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The attorneys in the room, including three small college presidents and a number of General Counsel from larger universities, talked about what their schools are doing to try to prevent sexual misconduct. It’s clear that an overwhelming number of sexual assault incidents are tied to the abuse of alcohol. During the past 10 years at Hiram College, alcohol was involved in over 92 percent of the incidents that came to our attention. Binge drinking is a huge issue everywhere and almost always a factor in sexual assaults.
I propose we roll back the drinking age and reinstate 3.2% beer. Let colleges operate their own campus bars and supervise them so kids don’t overdo it. Then we can outlaw drinking in dorms, fraternities, sororities and college-owned apartments. (Incidentally, those are the places where one-half of the sexual assaults occur and where much of the binge drinking happens.) We need to regulate this conduct not prohibit it. Prohibition as a practical matter just has not worked.
Now, I am sure that the anti-drunk driving people—and I am one of them—will generally object. However, we need to be data driven. The data shows that we have reduced the incidence of drunk driving accidents since the federal mandate in 1984. But that reduction has been across all age categories, not just 18- to 21- year-olds. Moreover, in Canada, where the drinking age is 18 or 19, the incidence of decreased DUI is virtually the same as in the United States—again across all age categories. It is not the drinking age that has made the difference, but the public attention to the DUI problem.
So, let’s not confuse cause and effect.
Alcohol consumption by young people is a fact. Drinking alcohol in excess is a real problem. Lowering the legal drinking age will not “solve” the problems of excess drinking or sexual assaults. But it will save resources— both human and financial—that we can direct smartly to the problem. We need to start a real dialogue and reach out to those who have had experience in this field. Keeping the drinking age at 21 is not the answer to any of these “problems.” Rather it is making the problem worse.
Copyright © 2014 Tom Chema; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.
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