Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Solving Illegal Behavior Problems by Making It Legal

August 20, 2008, 8:20, 9:10, 9:40 a.m.

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"UI Sexual Assault Update," July 19-August 9, is now being updated as a Web page, "University of Iowa Sexual Assault Controversy -- 2007-08," July 19-present.
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And see, Database Index of 500-plus blog entries

Higher Education's "Leadership"

A group of 114 college and university presidents calling themselves "higher education leaders" has formed what they call the Amethyst Initiative and "have signed their names to a public statement that the 21 year-old drinking age is not working, and, specifically, that it has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking on their campuses."

For the story that first reported their actions, and got this controversy started, see Justin Pope, "College presidents seek debate on drinking age," Associated Press [Yahoo! News], August 18, 2008, 9:57 p.m. ET ("Mothers Against Drunk Driving says lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes. It accuses the presidents of misrepresenting science and looking for an easy way out of an inconvenient problem. MADD officials are even urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on. . . . . University of Miami President Donna Shalala, who served as secretary of health and human services under President Clinton, declined to sign. 'I remember college campuses when we had 18-year-old drinking ages, and I honestly believe we've made some progress,' Shalala said in a telephone interview. 'To just shift it back down to the high schools makes no sense at all.' . . . McCardell cites the work of Alexander Wagenaar, a University of Florida epidemiologist and expert on how changes in the drinking age affect safety. But Wagenaar himself sides with MADD in the debate. The college presidents 'see a problem of drinking on college campuses, and they don't want to deal with it,' Wagenaar said in a telephone interview. 'It's really unfortunate, but the science is very clear.' Another scholar who has extensively researched college binge-drinking also criticized the presidents' initiative. 'I understand why colleges are doing it, because it splits their students, and they like to treat them all alike rather than having to card some of them. It's a nuisance to them,' said Henry Wechsler of the Harvard School of Public Health. But, 'I wish these college presidents sat around and tried to work out ways to deal with the problem on their campus rather than try to eliminate the problem by defining it out of existence,' he said.")

The Initiative's proponents have come upon the brilliant insight that if illegal behavior on campus is a problem the simplest way to prevent it is to repeal the law. No law, no illegal behavior. With creative insights like that no wonder they've been able to make it to the top of their academic totem poles.

Who are these folks? Well, a week ago Forbes magazine came out with a listing of 569 colleges and universities (including Iowa) that it considered "America's Best." Hana R. Alberts, Michael Noer and David M. Ewalt, eds., "America's Best Colleges," Forbes, August 13, 2008, 6:00 p.m. ET.

The ranking includes Forbes "ten best." They are:

# Princeton University
# California Institute of Technology
# Harvard University
# Swarthmore College
# Williams College
# United States Military Academy
# Amherst College
# Wellesley College
# Yale University
# Columbia University

Cross-check this list with Amethyst's 114 "signatories" and you will find not a single one of America's ten best has joined the effort.

Fortunately, our own UI President Sally Mason has chosen to join with "America's Best" rather than this rather embarrassing movement of self-proclaimed "higher education leaders."

"I do not agree that lowering the drinking age would be effective at this time," Mason wrote in a letter Tuesday to John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont [who] started the Amethyst Initiative . . ..

Mason explained that because 19- and 20-year-olds can enter Iowa City bars, many underage patrons are drinking alcohol and getting drunk.

"As a consequence, one-in-five of our students reports being assaulted by a drunken peer. One in three reports being the subject of an unwanted sexual advance. This is simply unacceptable and I do not believe that these statistics would change in the current cultural environment with a lowered drinking age," Mason wrote.

Erin Jordan, "U of I president opposes lowering drinking age," Des Moines Register, August 19, 2008, 4:56 p.m. And see, Brian Morelli, "Locals weigh in on drinking age debate; UI president says proposal won't solve the problem," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 20, 2008; and Editorial, "Drinking Debate OK," The Gazette, August 20, 2008, p. A4 ("[W]e’re skeptical that expanding the pool of legal drinkers will somehow diminish campus alcohol issues. We think the 21-year-old threshold should not be changed to simply accept bad behavior or to relieve college administrators from having to deal with tough issues spawned by excessive drinking.").

So why do I say the 114 are "embarrassing"? Because this effort represents what many consider disappointing about "the academy" and its "higher education leaders."

They are disingenuous.

It is clear from the statement they have all endorsed that they want to lower the drinking age to 18. Under headings such as "It's time to rethink the drinking age," "Our experience as college and university presidents convinces us that Twenty-one is not working," and "How many times must we relearn the lessons of prohibition?" they use arguments such as, "Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer."

OK. That's fine. We've all heard those assertions before. No reason why advocates can't continue to use them.

The problem is that when these academic leaders are called on the fact they are ignoring the scientific literature on the subject that has come from research at "America's Best" academic institutions, they do the little sidestep . . .

[The preceding one-minute fair use clip is from the delightful 1982 R-rated full-length musical comedy, "Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," staring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton, among a great many other accomplished and well-known actors, and still available for rental and sale. It's based on a true story of a brothel outside LaGrange, Texas, that was ultimately closed down in 1973, following the work of investigative reporter Marvin Zindler of KTRK-TV, Houston. The writing was done by Larry King (whom I remember from Austin in the 1950s), the Governor was played by Charles Durning, and the studio was RKO Pictures. The film is copyright by, presumably, RKO. The use of this miniaturized, very brief clip is for non-commercial, educational and commentary fair use purposes only. Any other use may require the permission of the copyright owner.]

. . . and say, "Oh, we're not really proposing the age be dropped to 18, our statement just calls for 'an informed and dispassionate public debate.'" Which, indeed, it does.

But for a group of academics to say they want an informed debate while simultaneously excluding from that debate any and all solid evidence that is contrary to their position, and urging little better by way of support than one could get from any drunken undergraduate at one of their campus bars on a Friday night, does not speak well for "the academy."

See, e.g., these excerpts from "Underage Drinking: Why Do Adolescents Drink, What Are the Risks, and How Can Underage Drinking Be Prevented?" Alcohol Alert, no. 67, January 2006, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Perhaps most telling is this statement under "Interventions for Preventing Underage Drinking": "Increasing the age at which people can legally purchase and drink alcohol has been the most successful intervention to date . . .."

The "most successful intervention to date" and these 114 "higher education leaders" (a) make no reference to the finding, and (b) pick doing away with it as their top priority for treating the binge-drinking problem?

"NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] estimates that a legal drinking age of 21 saves 700 to 1,000 lives annually. Since 1976, these laws have prevented more than 21,000 traffic deaths. Just how much the legal drinking age relates to drinking-related crashes is shown by a recent study in New Zealand. Six years ago that country lowered its minimum legal drinking age to 18. Since then, alcohol-related crashes have risen 12 percent among 18- to 19-year-olds and 14 percent among 15- to 17-year-olds (62)."

The report begins:

"Alcohol is the drug of choice among youth. Many young people are experiencing the consequences of drinking too much, at too early an age. As a result, underage drinking is a leading public health problem in this country.

"Each year, approximately 5,000 young people under the age of 21 die as a result of underage drinking; this includes about 1,900 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, 1,600 as a result of homicides, 300 from suicide, as well as hundreds from other injuries such as falls, burns, and drownings. . . .

"According to data from the 2005 Monitoring the Future (MTF) study . . . 11 percent of 8th graders, 22 percent of 10th graders, and 29 percent of 12th graders had engaged in heavy episodic (or “binge”) drinking within the past two weeks.

"Other research shows that the younger children and adolescents are when they start to drink, the more likely they will be to engage in behaviors that harm themselves and others. For example, frequent binge drinkers (nearly 1 million high school students nationwide) are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including using other drugs such as marijuana and cocaine, having sex with six or more partners, and earning grades that are mostly Ds and Fs in school."

Aside from the deaths and "risky behaviors," what are the effects of binge drinking?

"Brain Effects—Scientists currently are examining just how alcohol affects the developing brain . . .. Subtle changes in the brain may be difficult to detect but still have a significant impact on long-term thinking and memory skills. Add to this the fact that adolescent brains are still maturing . . .. Research has shown that animals fed alcohol during this critical developmental stage continue to show long-lasting impairment from alcohol as they age. . . ."

And see also, Harvard School of Public Health, College Alcohol Study, "Key College Alcohol Study Publications."

In general, we know that alcohol is our nation's number one hard drug problem by any measure. Roughly half of prison inmates have a problem of alcoholism or alcohol abuse. Similarly, alcohol is involved in roughly half (give or take) of all crimes, including sexual assaults, spousal and child abuse. It involves roughly 10 million Americans -- who then have an adverse impact on maybe 30 million more (such as family members and co-workers). It causes more, and more serious, permanent health effects (e.g., brain and liver damage) than some of the drugs that are illegal and thought to be more dangerous. It's involved in many if not most accidental injuries and deaths -- automobile and other. And the economic losses, from a whole variety of related consequences, run into the billions.

As if that were not enough, as the NIH's and other studies point out, there are additional consequences for binge drinking adolescents above and beyond those for adults.

It's counter intuitive that making it easier for even more young people to get access to even more alcohol, and driving down the problem to junior high students and younger, is somehow going to improve the situation.

I understand the impact of the profits of local bar owners on their community's city council members, college and university administrators, and media (advertising). I understand the political power that comes from the profits of an alcohol industry engaged in heavy advertising and promotional campaigns aimed at encouraging college students' "culture" of binge drinking. I understand the need for the additional tuition cash flow provided by those who come to school more to party than to learn.

But I also understand the need for "higher education leaders" to provide some leadership -- even if it involves some risk to their future job opportunities at even higher salaries.

The NIH report also lists some six strategies for serious improvement, and four case studies. There is a literature out there. We know what to do. We know what works -- and what doesn't. And what these "higher education leaders" have been doing, and what they are now proposing to do, hasn't and won't work.

Indeed, it's sad to say, but after years of their deliberately choosing to do nothing very effective, it's hard to believe they have ever really wanted to do anything that would work.

# # #


Anonymous said...

What a joke nick.

It Doesn't matter if an 18 yo is potentially more irresponsible or not. If we can send them to die in Iraq or Afghanistan at 18, they should be able to have a beer.

People need to quit trying to nanny college students. You are legally an adult at 18, it should be no different here.

Anonymous said...

Are we better off today than we were in 1983 before the 1984 federal uniform minimum age to drink law was passed? I am not aware of any convincing evidence that we are and my impression is that the situation is significantly worse.

Why is a public discussion about changing the legal age to drink a problem? I think the caliber of the alcohol research in the US is very low in comparison to the research done in Europe and Australia.

Anonymous said...

These are 2 issues: 1.) drinking and 2.) binge drinking on college campuses.

The legal age of drinking should be 18, period. It has nothing to do with nannying college students. It has everything to do with adulthood.

Making the legal for alcohol 18 does not mean tolerating public intox, or drunk driving, or alcoholism, any more that allowing a college kid to have a bank account encourages overdrafts.

Now the second issue is drinking on college campuses.

1. Considering the incredible mess the dorms tend to be (as seen in the Hillcrest Rape Case) it is entirely understandable that the students binge drink. The dorm authorities have no control over the dorm

2. In the old days college campuses were a place where a young adult could develop his ming, his body, and his spirit. Somewhere along the line the spirit and body were eliminated from development....and the mind if fast going.

There used to be great recreational opportunities for students -- intramural leagues, more clean facilities, etc. The rec program is a joke because it must cost too much.

Class time has significantly decreased and class size increased. All this is done to max out profit -- tuition -- while supplying classes at a minimum. Classic business strategy.

What this does is leave students with little to do on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and even Sunday. No recreation worth a damn. The bizarre over-crowding in the dorms. An academic schedule that gives them tons of free time..and disposable income.

So the students drink and party and binge.

We need colleges not run on the business model of buy low, and sell high, or supply minimum worth for maximum dollars, but college campuses that once again develop mind, body, and soul.

Those days are probably long gone, however under our current profit-is-everything thinking.

The recreational money is spent on D-1 sports that encourages...sitting on the ass and drinking beer. Great.

Lowering the drinking age will do little to stop college drinking.

Actually going back to the ideals of college, as it was founded would clearly reduce (but not eliminate) drinking.

sajohnson said...

If the drinking age is to remain at 21, what about raising the age for voting, serving in the military, signing contracts, etc, to 21 also?

Generally speaking, people tend to get what they want one way or another -- guns, drugs, and alcohol. Making something illegal has its own set of negative consequences.

I don't see any obvious answer to this question. There's nothing wrong with at least discussing this issue.