A Pandora's bottle was uncorked yesterday over a national proposal that calls for rethinking the legal drinking age.

Known as the Amethyst Initiative, it urges "dispassionate public debate" and has the signatures of presidents at St. Joseph's, Arcadia, Duke, Dartmouth and scores of other universities and colleges.

Well, we now have a debate and then some. Yesterday, Mothers Against Drunk Driving denounced the idea as irresponsible and dangerous.

And Nationwide Insurance released a poll of Americans - timed to press reports on the initiative - in which nearly 80 percent rejected lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18.

Meanwhile, noted researchers took to task former Middlebury College president John McCardell and his plan, launched quietly last month.

"Frankly, this is beginning to look like it's based mostly on myth, not data," said George Dowdall, a professor of sociology at St. Joseph's University and author of the coming book Campus Drinking.

Laura Dean-Mooney, MADD's national president, challenged in a statement: "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."

Those were heard as fighting words.

"That's absurd, and it basically says let's not talk about it," said Peyton R. Helm, president of Muhlenberg College in Allentown and one of the signatories of the statement. "What this movement calls for is a national discussion. It doesn't recommend a policy."

While the Amethyst Initiative does not explicitly back a public policy, it does criticize the legal drinking age of 21 as "not working." The plan, named for the gem that the ancient Greeks believed warded off drunkenness, was an outgrowth of Choose Responsibility, a nonprofit in Middlebury, Vt., where McCardell is president. That group advocates lowering the age to 18 and requiring education and licensing of drinkers. It is developing a curriculum to teach responsible drinking.

Including Helm, 110 college and university presidents have signed a statement that says the drinking-age laws foster a culture of "dangerous, clandestine binge drinking" in which "students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law."

Ten schools have declined to support the plan, McCardell said. Other colleges have not responded to a mailing that went out at the end of July, he said.

Those who signed represent a spectrum of institutions all over the country, including Tufts, Smith and the University of Maryland and eastern Pennsylvania schools such as Widener, Arcadia, Lafayette, Elizabethtown and Dickinson.

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

The age restriction dates to 1984, when a federal law mandated a 10 percent cut in highway funding for any state that allowed those younger than 21 to buy or publicly consume alcohol.

College drinking remains an intractable problem that contributes to about 1,700 student deaths, 599,000 injuries, and 97,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape annually, according to the federal National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Students at area schools mostly supported lowering the drinking age.

"If kids are able to handle themselves responsibly, then why not?" said Gavin McGirr, 19, a sophomore at St. Joseph's University. "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."

At Widener University, sophomore Joe DiBiaggio, 19, welcomed the idea.

"Everybody does it anyway," he said. "It'll keep kids out of trouble. I think college kids are responsible enough to take care of themselves."

Some students said the age should stay 21. "Eighteen-year-olds are still in high school," said James Sofia, a junior in graphic design at Drexel University. "They shouldn't be able to drink if they're seniors in high school. If I was allowed to drink when I was 18, I definitely would have gotten drunk every day after high school. It would have been bad news."

Arcadia University's president, Jerry Greiner, said he favored lowering the age and wanted the issue debated. Students younger than 21 are told not to drink and warned of the consequences, he said.

"It would be much better to say, 'You're 18 now. We expect you to be responsible, and we're going to help you.' "

MADD's Dean-Mooney strongly disagreed.

"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.

Most studies have shown that raising the drinking age reduces drinking and alcohol-related fatalities and injuries, said Ralph Hingson, director of epidemiology and prevention research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that raising the age to 21 has reduced traffic fatalities involving drivers 18 to 20 years old by 13 percent and saves about 900 lives a year.

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 U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. "To just shift it back down to the high schools makes no sense at all."

For a video of students commenting

on lowering the drinking age, go to http://go.philly.com/alcoholEndText