Scores of U.S. college and university presidents have stepped forward to declare it's time to rethink the drinking age.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, though, quickly denounced the idea as irresponsible and dangerous.

MADD's national president, Laura Dean-Mooney, even suggested, "Parents should think twice before sending their teens to these colleges or any others that have waved the white flag on underage and binge drinking policies."

Peyton R. Helm, president of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, called that response "absurd."

"What this movement calls for is a national discussion," he said. "It doesn't recommend a policy."

He was one of 104 college and university presidents who signed a statement that criticizes the drinking-age laws as fostering a culture of "dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking" in which "students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law."

The age restriction dates to 1984, when a federal law mandated a 10 percent cut in highway funds for any state allowing those under 21 to purchase or publicly consume alcohol.

These educational leaders represent a broad spectrum of institutions all over the country, including such prestigious schools as Duke, Dartmouth, Tufts and Smith, and a variety of schools in Pennsylvania, including St. Joseph's, Widener, Arcadia, Gettysburg, Lafayette, Elizabethtown and Dickinson.

In New Jersey, only Drew University was on the initial list of backers.

Support for a national debate was rallied by a group called the Amethyst Initiative, which was started by John McCardell, former president of Vermont's Middlebury College.

"This is a law that is routinely evaded," he said. "It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory."

Gavin McGirr, 19, a sophomore at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, agreed.

"If kids are able to handle themselves responsibly, then why not?" he said of lowering the drinking age. "I know all over the world it is like 18, some places 16, in Canada it's 19. I always thought 21 was a weird number. At 18, you're old enough to join the Army and die but you can't drink a beer."

Muhlenberg's Helm said all the pros and cons should be reexamined.

For example, one could argue that the current cutoff is bad policy because "it drives alcohol use underground where it can't be observed, it can't be controlled. ... I think you increase the number who are drinking in secret, and driving off campus to drink."

MADD's Dean-Mooney strongly disagrees.

"As the mother of a daughter who is close to entering college, it is deeply disappointing to me that many of our educational leaders would support an initiative without doing their homework on the underlying research and science," she said.

Almost all careful studies have shown that U.S. drunk-driving deaths dropped after the drinking age was raised to 21, according to MADD.

Some college administrators declined to sign.

"I remember college campuses when we had 18-year-old drinking ages, and I honestly believe we've made some progress," said University of Miami President Donna Shalala, former secretary of health and human services. "To just shift it back down to the high schools makes no sense at all."

St. Joe's junior Willy Hendrick, 21, said he was against lowering the drinking age. "Even with myself, I've seen maturity since I was 18," he said, adding, "We would see more drinking and driving."

The name for the Amethyst Initiative was inspired by a bit of history, according to its website, www.amethystinitiative.org. Amethyst comes from Greek words meaning "not intoxicated" and the gem amethyst was once thought capable of counteracting the effect of alcohol.

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.
Staff writer Lloylita Prout and the Associated Press contributed to this report.