The Amethyst Initiative

The Amethyst Initiative, launched by the non-profit organization Choose Responsibility, headed by my predecessor John McCardell, is attracting much publicity, both positive and critical. This publicity is good and is why I signed on to this initiative.

There is a need for a wider discussion of the problem of alcohol use on our campuses. The Amethyst Initiative is not about lowering the drinking age to 18, as some believe; that is Choose Responsibility’s cause. The 18-year drinking age is not even mentioned in the Amethyst petition, signed by more than 120 college and university presidents. Most presidents who signed the petition may believe an 18-year-old drinking age should be part of the solution to the current problems they see on their campuses, but many, including myself, signed because it was a good way to bring much-needed attention and debate to the broader issue—abusive drinking and its consequences among the under-21-year-old cohort. Through this debate many hope there can come new ideas on how best to address the alcohol issue on our campuses.

I have stated before, most recently in my 2008 baccalaureate address—and will carry this message throughout the coming academic year to students, faculty, and staff—that the issue is more about how one drinks and conducts oneself than about a particular legal age for consuming alcohol. Though I agree that the higher drinking age has had unintended consequences on college campuses, including more binge drinking behind closed doors because alcohol is less available in public social venues, I feel much more strongly that abusive drinking and all that comes with it would be minimized significantly if friends and peers just held one another to a higher standard of behavior, no matter the legal age for consumption.

I am interested to hear your views on this important topic, including ideas on how to deal best with it on our campus.

See Dickinson College President William Durden’s recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education on this initiative. (Note: Subscription or Web pass required.)

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Singing this petition tells your incoming Freshman one thing: Midd’s President thinks it is ok to drink at Midd. Yeah, Midd is about partying, that is why CNN once again put it in the top ten list of party schools, and yeah, our Pres is chill, so underage drinking policies really don’t matter anymore at Midd. Which are you more proud of, yesterday’s US News #5 ranking or the CNN top ten party ranking? You can’t have both for too long.

I find it simply scary how thoughtless your participation in this ‘initiative’ will prove to be, again God forbid. Under Title IX, you are supposed to be providing the exact opposite message.

Indeed, although I have never been in a courtroom, and don’t do any kind of litigation, I can assure you that the parents of a student who is raped after a night of underage drinking at one of the colleges whose presidents signed this petition will have a separate and distinct cause of action against such college’s president.

Sophomoric indifference and casual neglect by college administrators and ’security’ personal to blatant, persistent and destructive violation of campus drinking policies regrettably remain the norm, not the aberration in the nation. It has taken hundreds of deaths and rapes, as noted, and concerned parents and advocates to expose this and hold parties accountable.

In spite of this, you wish to ‘have a national dialogue’ about allowing these Freshman to drink, legally, in your dormitories. This is a thinly veiled attempt, in my view, to either shield yourselves from the changes in the law mentioned above or to simply excuse the current profound lethargy among college administrators vis a vis existing alcohol policies.

Instead of embracing a transparent ‘dialogue’, why don’t you all sign on to a national uniform standard of effective protection of students from death and rape? For example, why haven’t you all come up with a uniform policy for adoption by all colleges which is Title IX compliant AND which is matched by a follow on national program of monitoring, grading and reporting as to effectiveness? I think I know why – it is cheaper and easier to ignore that which is creeping up on you.

I tell you that long before the law is changed, college after college will be justly accused and found responsible for the plague of drinking-related deaths and rapes on campuses. In your own best interests, you should abandon this ‘dialogue’ and instead take immediate, collective and effective action to prevent alcohol-related tragedies.

I am certainly cynical enough to know that none of you wish to be the guinea pig, that is, to tell all those affluent applicants that they won’t be able to drink. For example, what NESCAC school could recruit in hockey, football or lacrosse if it got out that the recruiting coach required the applicant to acknowledge and sign an alcohol policy? Oh, the humanity! However, in the long run for everyone, especially those 16-18 year olds who will die or be raped in 2010 on your campuses, it is time you got brave.

John: thank you for your message. We obviously don’t agree over the value of getting the issue out to a broader audience.

You wrote:

“Midd is about partying, that is why CNN once again put it in the top ten list of party schools, and yeah, our Pres is chill, so underage drinking policies really don’t matter anymore at Midd. Which are you more proud of, yesterday’s US News #5 ranking or the CNN top ten party ranking? You can’t have both for too long.”

Please provide the link or source for Middlebury being named to a top ten party list: I have never heard of this, nor do I believe it. Would be interested to see it.

More importantly, the broader debate many of us seek will recognize and perhaps address the unintended consequences of the 21-year drinking age—such as binge-drinking behind dorm doors by underage students, or the increase in students going off campus to party, which places students and others who are driving at great risk. All the policing in the world will not eliminate under-age drinking, which is a fact we must deal with. New approaches are necessary, and many of us look forward to engaging our campuses on this issue.


I think the confusion over whether or not Middlebury College has been named a “party school” stems from an Associated Press article about universities that topped the Princeton Review’s party school list, but also mentions Middlebury as the school with the best professors. (see:

Hi Ron–as a recent graduate and Choose Responsibility employee, I applaud your courageous stance on this issue. Just wanted to share with you and your readers one of the (many) supportive messages we have received over the past week. I am sharing the following with Mr. Ludwig’s permission:

I have no affiliation with Middlebury College but wanted to write to let you know that I would happily send either of my daughters to your institution. I have two sons in college now and I know, first hand, what you are up against. I have nothing against MADD but it is unconscionable for any organization to be as dismissive of a frank discussion of ideas as they were when they stated that they would advocate that parents not send their children to colleges and universities that are part of the Amethyst Initiative.

This issue has been a problem for years and one that I felt was insurmountable because there was NO political constituency to lead the discussion of the inconsistency of this issue. I am not a fan of drinking by any age group when it is done to excess and this issue needs to be addressed. I want to commend you on having the good sense to raise your hand and saying that this is something that should be revisited.

How do so many other countries in world have lower drinking ages and fewer problems? Do we need to stick our head in the sand AGAIN and say every country that has lower drinking ages is intellectually stunted. I am tired of America ( and MADD )implying that it is our way or else; maybe, for once, we could to learn something from other societies and cultures.

Finally, I do not have the statistics at hand but I am fairly certain that ALL age groups have seen a decline in highway fatalities since MADD has raised awareness of this serious problem.


Jim Ludwig
Summit, New Jersey

Deirdre Henderson, Parent

Deirdre Henderson, Parent’s avatar

Thank you for supporting the Amethyst Initiative’s call for an honest and reasoned national conversation on alcohol use. It is heartening indeed to see college presidents exercise leadership on a difficult issue that attracts much ideological hyperbole and subjects them to the predictable ad hominem attacks. Please know that there are many, many parents who admire and support your stand and are grateful for the Amethyst Initiative.

Mr. President,

How many more have to die? Instead of ‘encouraging debate’ with your ‘initiative’, why don’t the NESCAC Presidents lead the Nation by agreeing, together, to enforce their EXISTING alcohol policies? If this simple act were done, no one college would lose applications and all would set a national standard and save lives. Instead of Midd, Amherst, Williams and Bowdoin being top 10 US NEWS colleges, why don’t you make them top ten safe colleges. A death at Midd, or any of the others, will happen while your ‘debate’ continues.

N.J. freshman dies from suspected alcohol poisoning at University of Delaware
by Katie Wang/The Star-Ledger
Sunday November 09, 2008, 9:15 AM

A University of Delaware freshman from South Brunswick died Saturday of apparent alcohol poisoning after a fraternity party, police said.
Brett Griffin’s senior portrait from the 2008 South Brunswick High School yearbook.
Brett Griffin, 18, was discovered in cardiac arrest about 3 a.m. at an off-campus house where members of Sigma Alpha Mu were hosting a party, said Newark, Del., Police Lt. Brian Henry. The student, who had been in the process of joining the fraternity, was taken to nearby Christiana Hospital and pronounced dead, Henry said.

“It’s just a nightmare,” said Louis Braschi, 19, one of Griffin’s fellow fraternity pledges. “Everyone is just beside themselves.”

Griffin grew up in Kendall Park and graduated in June from South Brunswick High School, where — like his two older brothers — he had competed on the wrestling team.

“He was one of those kids who never missed a practice,” said Joseph Dougherty, the team’s coach. “He wanted to be the best wrestler he could be. He was very inspirational to the other kids on his team.”

The pale-yellow clapboard house where Griffin was found unconscious stands several blocks north of campus and is home to several members of Sigma Alpha Mu, school officials said.

Griffin lived on campus and was among about 40 people who attended the party that night, police said.

At 2:52 a.m., authorities received a 911 call and arrived at the house to find Griffin on the second floor, police said.

The preliminary cause of death was an alcohol overdose, and an autopsy was scheduled for today, Henry said. No one has been charged in the death, he said.

Police have had no previous problems with the fraternity, he said.

Griffin’s friends recalled him as shy, fiercely loyal and charismatic. He liked staying up late, listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers music and playing acoustic guitar with his band back home in New Jersey, they said.

He was studying nutrition but had not picked a major, friends said. His quiet confidence, athletic build and shaggy blond hair — uncut since August — made him popular with girls, they said.

“He was a kid people wanted to be around,” said Braschi, a sophomore who grew up in Verona.

He declined to talk about the specifics of Griffin’s death.

The University of Delaware — located about 45 miles southwest of Philadelphia — includes about 15,000 undergraduate students. Roughly 825 hail from New Jersey, according to the school’s website.

Sigma Alpha Mu has branches at schools across the nation and was founded in 1909 as a Jewish fraternity. Members have included Terry Semel, former CEO of Yahoo and Warner Bros., and Philip Roth, the Newark-born author.

The University of Delaware chapter — which is not exclusively Jewish — includes some 50 members.

Griffin, who wrestled at about 155 pounds, made the varsity team his senior year at South Brunswick High School. He was the only wrestler during Dougherty’s 21 years of coaching who never missed a practice, the coach said.

His father, a police officer, and mother never missed a match. “They were very supportive,” said Dougherty.

News of the death spread quickly through cell phone calls and messages on social networking websites, leaving friends and relatives jolted.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet. Everyone’s pretty shocked,” said Matt Robertson, 19, Griffin’s roommate who grew up in Demarest.

“He was just a normal kid, you know? That’s why it’s so weird,” said Alexandra Ferreira, 18, a University of Delaware freshman from East Hanover.

Nearly 10 cars were parked outside the Griffins’ house late Saturday night, on a curving, tree-lined street near Route 27. The family declined to comment.

University officials offered condolences to Griffin’s family and said they would cooperate with the investigation.

“Our deepest sympathies go out to Mr. Griffin’s family and to his many friends on our campus,” said Michael Gilbert, vice president for students affairs. “His death is a tragedy for us all.”

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