President Barry Mills has declined to sign the Amethyst Initiative, a national petition of college and university presidents that aims to invigorate discussion about changing the legal drinking age.
In a statement released in late August, Mills said that he would not sign the petition because "the conversation and debate about an appropriate legal drinking age needs to be much broader."
According to Mills, this discussion "goes well beyond the gates of America's college and university campuses since many people who would be affected by a change in America's drinking laws are not enrolled in college."
In an interview, Mills said that Bowdoin handles underage drinking as well as any school in the country.
"Students on this campus make good decisions [about drinking], and we need to understand that," he said.
Currently, 129 college and university presidents have signed the petition, including Leonard Tyler of Maine Maritime Academy, Ronald Liebowitz of Middlebury College, and James Wright of Dartmouth College.
The Amethyst Initiative was sparked by John McCardell, former president of Middlebury, as he prepared to give a talk about the drinking age at a gathering of liberal arts college presidents. After talking with many of them, McCardell and others realized that they were all interested in renewing this debate and discussion on a broader level.
According to the initiative's Web site, the current drinking age of 21 is "not working." The site suggests that rethinking this age could be a way to reduce binge drinking and encourage responsible consumption.
Grace Kronenberg, assistant to the director at Choose Responsibility, the organization run by McCardell that oversees the Amethyst Initiative, said that the effort does not seek to ignore young people not enrolled in college.
"Because the Amethyst Initiative is limited to college presidents for now doesn't mean we feel they're the only stakeholders in the debate, it just means they're the first ones to come on board," she said. "College is the most prevalent and common choice for someone after high school graduation'65 percent of high school students enroll full or part-time. We believe that starting with leaders in higher education...would send a forceful message to the nation and to our elected officials."
Kronenberg said that her organization might extend the initiative to other groups or beyond higher education, though they are still focused on adding more college presidents to the list.
Geno Ring, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor who evaluates Bowdoin students, said that while he valued discussion on the issue, he needed to see hard evidence in support of any reduction in the drinking age.
"I'm always a firm believer in dialogue," he said. But, he added, "considering what the stakes are for it, which are lives, it seems like a potentially reckless gamble."
While Ring stressed that he did not know the details of the initiative, he did say that passing new laws was not the best way to solve the problem of binge drinking.
"To a certain degree, we can't rely on legislation to change a culture where binge drinking is okay," he said. "If you want to change people's behaviors, you need to change how they think, and that's a lot of work."
Ring agreed with Mills that the College is already doing well with the issue of underage and binge drinking.
"I think Bowdoin is dealing with it," he said. "Bowdoin has taken a number of steps to realistically reduce as much as possible unhealthy drinking."
No students or groups at Bowdoin have organized or lobbied for a change in the drinking age in the recent past. According to Lindsay Bruett '09, president of the Inter-House Council (IHC), the current law is not causing problems at the College.
"I don't think the fact that people under 21 aren't allowed to drink creates a dangerous environment at Bowdoin," she said. "I don't think it's a pressing issue, as far as we're concerned."