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A former Vermont college prez is leading a national campaign to lower the drinking age

click to enlarge John McCardell - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • John McCardell

You don’t need a PhD to advance a simple theory on college drinking. Students are still getting trashed, despite laws that forbid them from consuming alcohol before age 21. Worse, there’s reason to believe they’re drinking larger quantities in more dangerous situations. The evidence is staggering — literally — every weekend night on the streets between downtown Burlington and the University of Vermont. Residents along the retching routes won’t be surprised to discover that 44 percent of college students admit to binge drinking in the two weeks prior to being surveyed.

That last statistic is courtesy of Choose Responsibility, a new, Middlebury-based nonprofit that is challenging the conventional, older-is-better wisdom of organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Choose Responsibility asserts that lowering the drinking age will lead to reduced alcohol abuse among young adults; it also proposes mandatory education and “licensing” for drinkers under 21, along the lines of driver’s ed.

“Prohibition doesn’t work,” asserts John McCardell, Jr., the founder of Choose Responsibility and former president of Middlebury College. His oft-quoted soundbite on the issue: “The 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law.”

With a crew of recent grads and student interns, McCardell has spent the last two years building a scholarly case against “Legal Age 21” — the 1984 law, signed by then-President Ronald Reagan, that forced states to raise their drinking ages to 21 or give up millions of federal highway dollars. Choose Responsibility is attacking the law’s basic assumption: that Legal Age 21 would result in fewer alcohol-related fatalities. In fact, after 1984, the number of drunk-driving deaths went down in every age category, not just among 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds.

What’s on the rise, McCardell points out, are casualties of a different sort: those that result when kids go “underground” to drink “in dark corners, off campus, in the worst-possible, most-risky, least-manageable situations.” He reasons, “Even if you accept the argument that Legal Age 21 has saved a thousand total lives a year — on the highway — that’s more than offset by the close to 1500 18-to-24-year-old lives lost to alcohol in other settings. Those lives aren’t less precious. Nobody wants to talk about that.”

Nobody, that is, except McCardell and the two recent grads who staff Choose Responsibility in a one-room, second-floor office in Middlebury’s grim Battell Block. Now that they’ve completed a “white paper” packed with 224 pages of research data supporting their assertions, McCardell and company are testing the “traction” of their issue. “My sense is that a great swath of the public — when it thinks of this at all — thinks of it as a ‘settled question,’” McCardell suggests. “They think, ‘Well, any misgivings I may have about Legal Age 21 are those of a tiny minority; probably nobody else agrees with me, and so I must be wrong.”

MADD has a lot to do with that perception. The organization, which operates in all 50 states on a $54 million annual budget, has lobbied hard over the past 25 years to convince the country that kids under 21 should not be allowed to drink. Members of the group are none too fond of McCardell or his organization; the head of the Vermont chapter declined to comment and referred questions to the national office.

In a Parade story that appeared two Sundays ago, MADD CEO Charles Hurley characterized McCardell as a dangerous gadfly. He was quoted as saying, “Life-and-death issues of kids are really too important for off-the-cuff musings.” An accompanying online poll showed readers evenly divided on the question of lowering the drinking age.

Two days later, however, another story appeared on MSNBC, with another online poll. The results? As of press time, 68 percent of 168,688 respondents across the country say young adults should be able to consume alcohol at 18.

Almost every one of Vermont’s college presidents — including Norwich University’s Rich Schneider — agrees.

McCardell is the ideal spokesperson for a nationwide campaign to lower the drinking age, and it’s not just because he’s a Harvard-educated historian with a couple of honorary degrees and two twentysomething sons. Silver-haired and tan, the 58-year-old Maryland native exudes gravitas, but his professorial eloquence is not off-putting. It’s soothing, Southern-accented and oratorical — almost Clintonesque.

McCardell is also an experienced politician and fundraiser. Despite his country-club look, he’s cool with his young staffers. One of them, Grace Kronenberg, works on the website while McCardell gives an interview. On the rare occasion he can’t remember a date or name, she supplies it before he can pose the question; Kronenberg’s got one ear on her boss and both eyes on the organization’s Facebook ads.

McCardell knows that online social networking is a crucial part of getting the word out about Choose Responsibility. It’s also been instrumental in getting the word in. A quick perusal of posts on the website turns up supportive cops, grandmothers, reformed alcoholics, doctors and a mother whose 9-year-old son became hysterical when he caught her adding red wine to a beef dish. He’d been told at school that alcohol is poison. “Particularly since the website has been up, we’re hearing from people all over the country — male and female, all walks of life. This isn’t just elite colleges and universities; this is military. This is people in Youngstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And Cambridge, Massachusetts,” McCardell says. “We think we’ve struck a nerve.”

******************

McCardell was recruited from faculty ranks to become president of Middlebury College in 1992. He never stopped teaching American history during his 13-year reign, but made time to direct the college through a strategic planning effort that resulted in dramatic expansion. Under McCardell’s leadership, Middlebury bought land, put up buildings — critics called it empire building — and increased the size of both the faculty and student bodies. McCardell oversaw a $200 million capital campaign that exceeded its goal by $12 million. He’d raised another $40 million by the time he left in June 2004.

But he was holding out on the college, in a way. People at Middlebury knew McCardell’s opinion on the legal drinking age; he’d discussed it in academic settings. But three months after he left his post, the former president went public: He published an op-ed piece in The New York Times that doubled as a confession. Evoking the free-speech limitations inherent in being a college president, he pleaded guilty to “failing to take bold positions on public matters that merit serious debate.” He went on to skewer tenure, the notion of student-faculty ratios as a measure of quality and, last and most controversial, the legal drinking age. “No college president will say that drinking has become less of a problem in the years since the age was raised,” McCardell wrote. “Colleges should be given the chance to educate students, who in all other respects are adults, in the appropriate use of alcohol, within campus boundaries and out in the open.”

Reaction to the piece was “intense, broad and much more positive than I might have expected,” McCardell recalls. Fifty words — in a 750-word op-ed — “contributed to my 15 minutes of fame,” he jokes. More importantly, the article landed an enthusiastic backer: the Robertson Foundation, which makes large grants to proven researchers seeking solutions to public-policy problems. “Julian Robertson called me up and said, ‘This is an important issue. What are we going to do about it?’” McCardell explains. The foundation paid the cost of producing the white paper and seeded the nonprofit — a total of about $250,000. It’s also giving McCardell a partial salary so that, instead of resuming his teaching this year, he can take his Choose Responsibility show on the road.

“I wrote that essay figuring, ‘Well, this will get some things off my chest,’” McCardell concedes. “I had no idea this would take off.” Neither, perhaps, did Al Gore when he began his “An Inconvenient Truth” lectures.

McCardell’s own PowerPoint presentation begins with the image of an apple. The message? The “forbidden fruit” is no less tempting today than it was in Adam and Eve’s era. Like Gore, he moves on to graphs and charts — most depicting alcohol-related traffic fatalities, mapped according to various age groups. Choose Responsibility parts company with MADD in the way it interprets the cause-and-effect relationship between the legal drinking age and the number of drunk-driving deaths on the highway. McCardell employs terms such as “coefficient of correlation” like a seasoned statistician.

But he can also get to the nitty-gritty: “The whole basis for this change back in 1984 was the belief that if we raised the drinking age, we could reduce the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities . . . That’s what Mothers Against Drunk Driving was all about . . . This is what they convinced the president and Congress to do about it. And they have celebrated the success of this law over the past 25 years by pointing to the fact that the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities has steadily declined during that period. They have failed to indicate that that decline — that downward trend — began before the law changed. And that it has occurred in all age groups. What on earth Legal Age 21 has to do with fewer deaths of 55-year-olds eludes me.”

McCardell says the drops were too precipitous to be explained away by fewer young drinkers on the road. He points out that seatbelts, air bags, “designated driver” awareness and enforcement have collectively improved highway safety for motorists of all ages.

Meanwhile, Legal Age 21 puts college presidents — and parents — in a bind that is proving to be even deadlier than the problem the law set out to solve. Responsible adults have two choices: “Be either a haven from the law,” as McCardell puts it, “or an arm of it.” In other words, role models can look the other way and let a little law-breaking occur. Or they can crack down.

McCardell explains: “You say, ‘The law applies here same as everywhere else. You’re not drinking in our house. You’re not drinking on this campus.’ They all say, ‘OK, we won’t drink,’ and they go someplace else . . . probably in their car.” Not surprisingly, between 1993 and 2001, 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds showed the largest increase in binge-drinking episodes of all Americans, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control. Another government report, from the Institute of Medicine, indicates that more than 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by underage drinkers goes down in binge situations.

McCardell’s frustration with this no-win scenario extends to his own two sons, now 20 and 25. Trying to parent under the current law led him to conclude it’s “anti-family” — a term he admits is aimed squarely at conservatives. “The child is home from college at age 19, would like to have a glass of wine with Thanksgiving dinner. Isn’t it responsible parenting to say ‘yes’ and be there with them?” he asks rhetorically. “In the state of Vermont — there is no ambiguity about it — you are breaking the law… I hate to implicate him, but my son has consumed beer under our roof and in my presence. So arrest me.”

A number of parents have been arrested for hosting parties they knew would lead to underage drinking. In a recent Charlottesville, Virginia, case, a husband and wife were both sentenced to 27 months in jail for supplying alcohol to their 17-year-old son. McCardell doesn’t condone their behavior, but he notes that the impulse to keep the drinking at home “was loving, caring, protective, parental. That doesn’t justify breaking the law, but it justifies challenging the rationality of the law, which is what we’re doing.”

McCardell goes back to the highway figures to make another compelling point: Currently, the greatest number of alcohol-related fatalities involve legal drinkers: 21-year-old drivers, followed by those who are 22 and then 23. It’s fair to say that the danger factor “has to do with the point at which the encounter occurs legally and the degree of risk and vulnerability that is present at that moment,” McCardell reasons. “When you think of it that way, 18 is a far more manageable, governable moment in a young person’s life — when they are more likely to be at home, or more likely to be within the presence of responsible adults — than 21. Nothing magical happens on the day you turn 21.”

Another slide in McCardell’s PowerPoint arsenal underscores that illogic, with a list of all the things the law deems you mature enough to do at 18. They range from gambling and purchasing firearms to voting, adopting children and fighting for your country. McCardell says Choose Responsibility’s first public service announcement will show an underage war veteran going into a bar, getting served — and being arrested. “That would tell the story in 30 seconds,” he asserts.

McCardell points out that the Marines recently liberalized their on-base drinking policy by expanding the definition of “permissible opportunities” for soldiers under 21. “MADD had a fit over that,” McCardell says, laughing. “MADD was quoted as saying, ‘Don’t they realize they’re putting lives at risk?’ We’re talking about the Marines. We are talking about young people who have already decided to put their lives at risk, and who may be putting their lives less at risk by drinking a beer at Camp Pendleton than by driving to Mexico.”

•••••••••••••••••

What would it take to transform America’s binge-drinking teens into healthy and responsible Syrah sippers? Choose Responsibility would let them start drinking at 18 in the company of their parents. During senior year of high school, they could take an alcohol-education course, and after graduation, earn a license to go it alone. Any violation of the state’s alcohol laws would result in revocation. One strike and they’re dry — until 21.

Vermont already has alcohol-education programs in place — but they’re only for people who have already been convicted of drunk driving. “That doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense,” McCardell suggests with feigned naïveté. He would expand the existing curriculum to accommodate teens. Funding would come from drinking-license fees or a surcharge on alcohol sales.

Of course, none of the above can happen in Vermont — or anywhere — unless Congress agrees to eliminate the highway-fund incentive that currently ties the hands of governors such as Jim Douglas. In a recent Rutland Herald story, Vermont’s guv went on record saying he’d support lowering the drinking age to 18, but not if it meant losing $17.5 million for roads and bridges.

“No state will touch it until Congress lifts that condition,” McCardell declares.

What would it take to get the U.S. lawmakers to act? No less than a national movement. “The only way you can hope to get any sort of legislative change is to let congressional leadership understand that this is on constituents’ minds,” McCardell suggests, acknowledging that any real change is “probably an election cycle away. It’s a new congress and a new president.

“Iraq, health care, environment, economy, taxes — this is not at the top of very many people’s list,” McCardell concedes. “That said, I feel absolutely that we’re doing the right thing at the right time and like to think that I can make a difference in this debate.”

If Choose Responsibility were to get its way, the U.S. would no longer have a uniform drinking age. It would vary from state to state. “Some might decide to keep it at 21; some may decide to lower it to 18 unconditionally. Some may say beer and wine at 18,” McCardell says. “Congress can still exercise leverage, but the states can be little laboratories of progressivism, as they were 100 years ago. I think that would be far more healthy than the current situation.”

Wouldn’t that create a slippery situation in which young adults in more restrictive places cross state lines to drink in more permissive ones? McCardell has two answers to that question. “First, federalism is untidy, but it’s how we operate. We have 50 different tax laws. Fifty different lots of things. Is alcohol so exceptional as to require an abdication of the federal principle?” Second, licenses would not be portable: States with Legal Age 21 wouldn’t serve anyone younger. States with Legal Age 18 would refuse young drinkers from more restrictive states.

No one doubts that Vermont would go the “laboratory of progressivism” route. “It would be a great place to try John’s idea,” suggests Norwich University President Rich Schneider. “We’re leading the Union in so many areas.” And, of course, it doesn’t hurt that the state’s entire congressional delegation supports allowing people to consume at 18 — the “age of majority.” Stowe Rep. Dick Marron got tripartisan support for a bill he sponsored twice — in 2005 and 2006 — that would have lowered the drinking age. The effort went nowhere, though, because everybody knew Douglas would veto it.

Daunting as his mission appears to be, McCardell, a Civil War scholar, finds hope in history. With lectern-gripping authority, he recalls that Prohibition was actually written into the Constitution in 1919. “You want to talk about an uphill battle. Try repealing a constitutional amendment; it had never happened,” he lectures. “The ‘dries’ figured, ‘We’re set forever. This is over. We won.’ Thirty-six states were persuaded to change their minds within a dozen years.

“Our historical memory is very short. Every so often, Americans have to relearn the lessons of Prohibition.”

Views from the Top

Richard Schneider

President, Norwich University

Alcohol is the single greatest risk to a student reaching their goal of getting a degree in America - I don't care what college or university. We also have really strict punishment if you get caught. For a young person who wants to be in the U.S. military, one DUI will disqualify you from getting a commission. I don't think the general public realizes that.

My personal belief - and the trustees and the school have yet to comment - is that John McCardell may have it right . . . and we need to teach them how to drink responsibly in the same way we teach them to drive a car.

The students here say to me, "I can enlist and fight and die for my country at 18, but you're telling me I can't have a drink. What's wrong with this picture?" I can see the inconsistencies for an 18-year-old. I say, "Welcome to being in the Republic. If you don't agree with the law, you should deal with it in an appropriate way: Get a hold of your congressman or legislator and start a grassroots movement." Until the law changes, I am honor-bound to enforce the laws of the United States.

That said, I don't think prohibition works, and I'm a Coast Guard officer. It puts the school at odds with its students in ways we wish we weren't.

I think the country may be ready for a change, and I think we should experiment with this. I think we should try it. Vermont would be a great place to try John's idea. We're leading the Union in so many areas.

Marc vanderHeyden

Former president, St. Michael's College

I agree with his efforts, but I would go further. I don't want an age in there at all. These kids learn to drink socially - or antisocially - behind the backs of their parents. I want to include the parents in educating their children to drink responsibly. Drinking can be a good thing: good for your health, good for conversation.

It's sort of easy to dismiss when I say it - people say, "Marc is a European." But I lived in Europe 25 years and here 45 years.

My father and mother taught us how to have a glass of wine with dinner as teenagers. They diluted it when we were younger. You teach people how to use something.

In America, they drink in order to get drunk. It really has become a crisis, so something needs to be done about it. What we have now is a bad law; it doesn't help. It has no rational meaning. You can drive a tractor at age 15; you can get married, have children. Why don't we say you can only drive a car after 21?

Ellen McCullogh-Lovell

President, Marlboro College

Legal Age 21 turns us into enforcers, not educators . . . I fully support John's proposal. It's well thought through and rational and addresses a really severe problem that we all have to face. We've just pushed it underground for too long. Other people have been really afraid of it. He's been bold enough to do the research, and I applaud him for bringing it up and pursuing it on all of our behalf.

Dan Fogel

President, University of Vermont

I have not reached a conclusion on the specific issue of the drinking age, but like many other educators I am deeply concerned about the grave issue of binge drinking among young people. This is a very serious problem not only for higher education but also for society as a whole. It is, moreover, an entrenched problem that has proved to be resistant over the years to a wide variety of proposed measures to mitigate its pernicious, too often tragic, and sometimes lethal effects.

Dr. McCardell has my great respect and admiration. His proposals are worth considering very carefully. I would welcome a wider national debate on the issue, with any and all good ideas in the mix, as well as research and evidence-based analysis of the costs and benefits of different approaches, all of which may have unintended as well as intended consequences that we need to understand as thoroughly as we can before committing to a course of action.

We are building a community at UVM that is dedicated to the health and well-being of its members. Teaching responsible, safe behavior, self-respect and good citizenship is an obligation we take very seriously. Our commitment to doing so is in my view consistent both with trying, through policy, to keep residence halls free of alcohol -since the vast majority of the students living in them are under age - and with allowing the responsible consumption of beer and wine in the Davis Center bistro by students who are over 21.

Robert Clarke

Chancellor, Vermont State Colleges

I agree with John that the drinking age should be 18. It is much better to drink responsibly on campus than to drive "underage" drinking off campus. We should be able to teach responsible drinking behaviors. I believe binge drinking is happening at almost every college in the country to some degree.

David Finney

President, Champlain College

Is Legal 21 working? I think by and large, for most students, it is. Most students don't cross the line too much at Champlain. Having said that, clearly some students do, and so in that sense it doesn't work. I think, particularly on rural campuses, it would create more situations where students are drinking and then driving. That's less of an issue at Champlain.

I certainly agree that the drinking age should be 18. When I was that age, I figured if I was old enough to die in Vietnam I was old enough to go in a bar and order a drink. Switch Vietnam for Iraq and it's the same deal.

I guess I never stopped thinking that way.

Over time I've been influenced by watching how alcohol is consumed in Europe. I've spent a lot of time in Italy. I guess I concluded that, because prohibition is not part of the culture, young people's attitudes are much more mature. They have a glass of wine with dinner, but there's no sense that they have to go out and binge drink. We pay a certain price here by setting alcohol up as a forbidden fruit.

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Paula Routly

Paula Routly

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Paula Routly is the cofounder, publisher and coeditor of Seven Days.

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