The following will run as a more condensed article for The Claremont Independent.
With the cost of tuition rising faster than inflation or real income, you’d think college students would be more concerned about getting their minds filled, rather than emptying those kegs, but some think it better to get a little retarded from time to time. It's far time for some sober reflection on why. David Oxtoby, Pomona's president, thinks he knows the reason: education, paid for, of course, through more tuition dollars. He's signed the Amethyst Initiative, with 120 other college presidents calling for lowering the drinking age. (Of course, the Pomona students he leads, do something a bit more practical -- stroll over to CMC.)
"There should be an opportunity for students to be educated about alcohol and right now we can't do it in good conscience. We have to tell students that it's illegal to drink but if you are going to drink this is how you should do it. That is a mix message to send students," said Oxtoby to ABC News after signing a letter with one hundred other college presidents to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18. Instead of mixed messages, Oxtoby wants us to get serious about our drinking policy, "The 21 year old age limit does not prevent binge drinking, it happens in campuses across the country, and I think if we were able to show responsible drinking and modeled responsible drinking and we educate students about it would be very beneficial for everybody."
In a statement in support of the Initiative, Oxtoby said the following. I've added the emphasis.
"I support this initiative because it will allow our colleges to engage in real education of our students about responsible use of alcohol, as well as model moderate behavior. At present we are constrained only to talk about abstinence, since anything else is against the law. Treating college students as adults will help them to make more responsible decisions."
But is it really that students don't have good role models or is it that the social conditions encourage overconsumption of alcohol in the first place?
At Annapolis where my grandfather, Rear Admiral Dwight Lyman Johnson, matriculated, he taught a course on social drinking where they taught the soon-to-be naval officers how to hold their liquor and drink like proper gentlemen. Everyone once in awhile, though, they would get someone who drank too much, who was abusive, and reflected poorly on the country and the Navy. Officers who really couldn't handle their liquor or misbehaved on shore leave lost their passes. By engaging in risky behavior, there was a reward, but there was also a downside in overindulging. Moderation was a virtue and rewarded.
At colleges on the other hand, social context is everything and education must have incentives for students to learn the proper lessons. In classrooms, those are tests. In the navy, it was shore leave passes. The reason education will fail as a policy is that students don't drink to excess because they don't know their limits, but because they want to engage in behavior that would otherwise be frowned upon. You can see the internal logic at work: If you drink too much and kiss that girl and it doesn't work out, well, hey, it was the booze and not you that did it all. There isn't much of a downside for misbehavior. There's no incentive to stop drinking when you're around your buddies.
But of course in other occasions, there is a huge downside for drinking too much. People rarely attend church drunk, or wander the streets because if you get really drunk, most communities will have you spend the night in jail. Mostly though, social norms enforce good behavior. No one likes to appear hungover at the workplace or be remembered as the office drunk.
This raises an interesting question, why is that colleges, a place for learning, encourages the overconsumption of alcohol? Might it be that colleges seldom enforce their own rules?
Pomona's Selective Law Enforcement
Oxtoby didn't lay out why he stops with just legalizing alcohol for those under twenty-one.
It's not an easy thing to do, of course, and would require serious political wrangling. It would seem much easier to encourage the federal government's DEA to decriminalize another drug, marijuana, which is legal in California for anyone with a prescription. But you don't see Oxtoby calling for loser marijuana laws, even though marijuana is a drug that doesn't do nearly the damage alcohol does to our college campuses. (Heck, decriminalizing marijuana might even bring in more money for the over-priced Sagehen Cafe. And when was the last time you heard of someone being rushed to the hospital for smoking too much pot?)
For students caught smoking marijuana, the penalties can be severe -- federal financial aid is often withheld from students that have been caught smoking pot -- and Pomona, rather than turning a blind eye, helps enforce those drug laws with almost gusto. According to The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, in October of last year, Pomona school officials called police after finding marijuana inside student Vinay Shahs's dorm room in the 200 block of East Bonita Ave. The Student Life later reported that school officials had used a private investigator to smoke out the drugs on campus, tramping students' right to privacy in the process. (One wonders what would happen if Pomona didn't reward another kind of law-breaking -- illegal immigration -- by giving illegal immigrants reduced tuition. Of course no such relief is provided for the international students who apply to Pomona college, most of whom must pay the full tuition to attend.)
If Oxtoby were really serious about education or treating us like adults, he'd be in favor of all kinds of freedoms that Pomona currently obstructs. For instance, Pomona's current policy with respect to Army ROTC makes it difficult for families already making that tough decision by refusing to accept money from the military in protest of the Army's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. (Of course the military has created an exception to their general rule of paying the colleges by paying the families directly for all the costs they incur, but once they've itemized the receipts, which is a definite hurdle.) That policy message, unlike the drinking one, isn't hard to understand at all. For Pomona students that it's not okay to defend your country. And I sincerely doubt Pomona would be okay with allowing CMC's LTC Fitch, currently serving in Afghanistan, to educate Pomona students at a career fair. At CMC, by contrast, the college pays for ROTC students' housing. (In the coming weeks, expect more on this story.)
Of course, Oxtoby is really most hypocritical on the very thing most necessary for education itself: a free mind. Oxtoby cannot claim to be a true supporter of education after he formed an executive commitee to discuss just how much freedom of thought would be permitted on campus. Ostensibly to assuage the campus radicals who shouted down Marvin Stewart of the Minuteman project, the formation of this committee is a dangerous sign for those of us who value academic freedom and open debate and certainly does treat Claremont students as adults.
It's the Lawyers, Stupid
However sincere Oxtoby may be in trying to overturn the current alcohol laws, the real reason he and the other ninety presidents signed the petition is legal liability. Nowadays, when a child drinks himself into the emergency room or grave, the first thing many parents do is call their lawyer. In March of this year, the parents of a student at College of New Jersey sued after their son died from drinking too much. The same thing happened at Rider University in 2007 and at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in 2004. In September of 2000, M.I.T. settled with the parents of freshman Scott Krueger for a whopping $4.75 million when he drank himself to death at a frat house in 1997. (They also got an apology form the president of MIT who expressed sadness for "failing" Scott and his family. In truth, Scott failed all of them by not valuing himself and his education more.) Sadly, many of these colleges are quick to settle, lest the perception of their campuses as booze-fueled hurt their enrollment numbers. And when they settle, their costs increase, borne by either unawares alums or future students. These lawsuits present a good argument for reducing the drinking age, but supportive college presidents should be straightforward about their motives.
In all this talk of lawyers, education, and lawsuits, the message becomes crystal clear: while most college students may not be old enough to crack a brew, they still can think for themselves and choose rationally. Colleges, recognizing that they can never truly police it all, should fight for liability reform and to be exempted from frivolous lawsuits over which they had little cause. After all, no one makes you drink. should increase tuition for students caught drinking underage. At the very least, those students who drink to excess should be the last ones to get their aid packages evaluated, with priority going towards students who have followed the rules. When students fail breathalyser tests, they ought to have to make a public apology for damages they cause and charges they accrue. Every time an ambulance arrives on campus it isn't somewhere else where it may be more needed. And drunken misbehavior like that which occurred on Claremont McKenna's seniors night out on the town in which members of the Class of 2008 stole alcohol, defecated on buses, and broke property on a cruise line ought to be strictly punished by going after the individuals responsible, rather than sending the whole class back home. Put simply, not everyone needs to be "educated" on how to be respectful.
But Oxtoby and the others, quixotically hoping that the federal government will lower the drinking age won't do much more than play the blame game. Now there's a sobering thought.