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Shortsighted Call for Change

Dan McGuire, Brett Altschul, and Douglas E. Heimburger

It is not clear at this point that fighting to lower the drinking age is a battle that MIT should or could take on at this point. Such a move would require MIT to expend a great deal of political capital on a battle that is fundamentally not winnable right now.

If MIT decides to take up this cause, it will find itself in a political quagmire. Although the drinking age is set by the state of Massachusetts, the issue is also a national one, since the federal government will deny highway funding to states with a drinking age below 21. Any group campaigning to lower the drinking age would thus need to lobby both the federal and state governments. This would require a great deal of time and effort and would put the Institute in direct opposition with popular organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving as well as powerful religious groups. There are no indications that either government would have any inclination to lower the drinking age. In the current political climate, this is an issue that would not be worth a fight for anyone.

This issue would also distract MIT from the important legislative agenda that it has set out for itself. MIT has been slowly nudging the Department of Defense towards accepting homosexual students into the Reserve Officers' Training Corps program. It has also been supporting affirmative action in an increasingly hostile political climate. It should not remove manpower from these efforts to pursue a new alcohol policy with little public support.

In addition, even if such a fight were to be mounted, it is not clear that MIT is the right organization to lead it. After the tragic death of Scott S. Krueger '01, MIT's alcohol policies were harshly criticized by politicians and civic leaders as being too lax. Many people currently view the Institute as a place where alcohol abuse rages out of control. It would be imprudent for MIT to say now that the solution to alcohol-related problems is to lower the drinking age.

Some would argue that lowering the drinking age allows students to educate themselves about the effects of alcohol in a safe environment, such as a dormitory or living group. Opponents would argue that most people between the ages of 18 and 21 do not have access to such a safety net. Lowering the drinking age without providing a comparable safety net for these people would be an irresponsible move by the government, and advocating such a change would be an irresponsible decision by the Institute.

Opponents would also argue that the frequency of highway deaths fell rapidly when states were forced to raise the drinking age to 21. Arguments of "freedom" and "honesty" do not compellingly answer these questions, and taking a principled stand in a hostile environment with a shaky moral foundation is a recipe for disaster.

For MIT to state that the drinking age should be lowered would cost the Institute a tremendous amount of political influence. State and federal laws are very unlikely to change. Coming on the heels of Krueger's death, this would be all the more costly for the Institute, since our level credibility on the issue is negligible. MIT has better places to delicate its time and effort.