Last April, when the Yale College Council asked then-President Richard Levin to publicly support lowering the drinking age, the student body laughed. It was absurd, silly, ill-timed. It wouldn’t happen, we thought — and if it did, our voice would certainly sink in the big pond of national politics.
But after the inauguration of Peter Salovey — who has since used his pulpit to speak out on federal issues like immigration, research funding and wealth inequality — we should no longer laugh too hard. The YCC’s proposal was not preposterous; in fact, it is now right. If our president is indeed serious about making Yale “a leader in reducing high-risk drinking” — which he said just this past week — then he cannot duck when it comes to fully committing our school to the big fight on the national stage.
The merits of lowering the drinking age are relatively clear. We know that college students drink. But the current law drives college students “underground” to consume alcohol, like when students take shots in quick succession in dorm rooms. The current drinking age also edges students toward other illegal activities, such as purchasing fake IDs in order to enter bars and clubs. What’s more, 21 is a false threshold for maturity, if such a threshold even exists. Last year’s alcohol report, which surveyed over 2,000 Yale students, found that upperclassmen actually drink more irresponsibly than younger students. Seniors, the report found, more frequently engaged in binge drinking than any other class.
It is telling, then, that Yale acts as if all students were able to openly drink. Our programs are created with the purpose of mitigating the dangers of drinking, not stopping alcohol consumption itself. Freshmen take a skit-based online course before they arrive, as well as attend orientation meetings designed to acclimate them to the drinking scene. For all current students, the Dean’s Office even offers a “bartending class” to teach us how to serve alcohol and intervene effectively.
If we already act as if all of campus were of drinking age, why wouldn’t we support a change in the law? Our effort to deal with the reality of underage drinking clashes with our duty to teach students to respect existing laws. Indeed, one cannot wholly advocate for both abstinence and protection.
An 18-year-old drinking age — or 19-year-old, in order to avoid legal drinking by high school seniors — would complete the circuit in our “safety first” alcohol strategy. If we do choose to go ahead and announce our support for change, it would not be hard. Our school will not be alone.
In fact, we would be joining a group of 136 colleges, including Dartmouth and Duke, who are signatories of the Amethyst Initiative. Amethyst — which means “not intoxicated” in Greek — is a coalition of college presidents who urge a reconsideration of the national drinking age. They may not be able to battle Mothers Against Drunk Driving singlehandedly, but it is certainly a beginning.
While there are limitations to what a university can do, we have seen that Yale’s half-a-million lobbying budget can change things. In 2007, Richard Jacob, the University lobbyist, led the opposition against proposed academic research restrictions on international students, which had been discussed in the Bush administration as a potential response to the 9/11 attacks. Jacob, along with a coalition of universities, orchestrated a campaign against the proposal, which included phone calls, mail, policy statements and meetings. In the end, the proposal never became law.
To say that we are ineffective — that our words don’t matter, especially when joined by hundreds of peer schools — is a vast understatement.
The time is perfect for change. This fall, the University Council Committee on Alcohol, which is made up of five university officials and five alcohol experts, will recommend major reforms to our school’s alcohol policies and programs. Among these recommendations should be public University support for a lower drinking age. Otherwise, the inherent contradiction in our alcohol strategy will never be fully resolved.
In the end, the drinking age is not simply an issue of our right to choose. It is a matter of policy inconsistency. In this country, a 19-year-old can choose to risk her life on a battlefield but cannot take a sip of beer. At this school, the law prohibits us from fully enforcing alcohol safety, no matter how effective our program. As all economists know, inconsistencies lead to real costs. In this case, the biggest cost is not financial — it is personal, and it results in injuries, hospitalizations and damaged lives.
Geng Ngarmboonanant is a junior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .