John McCardell ‘71: Scholar, Leader, and Activist
By Christian von Hassell
In 2009, the University of the South was looking for a new Vice-Chancellor and a woman involved with the search gave John McCardell a call. She asked McCardell whom he might recommend. A couple names later, she followed up – “Well, would you be interested in the job?”.
McCardell’s gut reaction: “No. I’ve gotten that out of my system.”
After creeping north from W&L to Johns Hopkins to Harvard, in 1976 John McCardell stayed the course and began teaching at Middlebury College in Vermont. His focus of course was Southern American History. Over time, he transitioned into more administrative roles, working on capital campaigns and serving as Provost. After the college’s president stepped down in 1991, he became acting-President. A year later, the Board of Trustees voted McCardell president of the only college where he had ever worked.
He served as Middlebury’s president for twelve more years, before stepping down in 2004 to teach history again. The New York Times soon approached McCardell and asked him to write an op-ed, sparking a project that would dominate the rest of his decade. McCardell explained in a September interview with The Spectator, “They wanted me - as a former college president – to say what I always thought, but never really could publicly articulate because of my position. I wrote about the drinking age.”
His op-ed- entitled “What Your College President Didn’t Tell You” – received widespread media coverage, effectively beginning a movement to lower the drinking age. With the assistance of the Robertson Foundation, McCardell completed a 2006 whitepaper on the drinking age’s effects on young people. In 2007, he founded Choose Responsibility, an organization that advocates lowering the drinking age. A year later in 2008, McCardell and Choose Responsibility launched Amethyst Initiative, a statement signed by over 130 college presidents expressing their openness to discussing the 21-year old drinking age.
McCardell’s strategy back then revolved around the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. The act threatens any state that allows the sale of alcohol to people under 21 with a 10% cut of their federal highway funds. With heavy support from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the act passed Congress and was signed into law in the summer of 1984. It was due for reauthorization in 2009, which McCardell and the movement saw as the best chance at revising the status quo. However, the legislative climate in 2009 proved tumultuous, and Congress did not pay serious attention to the drinking age. McCardell admits the year was a major blow. “We still have a website. We still absolutely advocate for the cause, but the energy has faded without the very clear pathway to change.”
That brings us back to the phone call. McCardell’s five years working on the drinking age might have just come to a soft close, but he was not exactly prowling for his next career move. “Retirement surely looked like the most likely next step,” he explained, as he was sixty-years old at that point.
“She asked if I was willing to just talk. Of course no harm could be done from just talking,” laughs McCardell, who was elected Vice-Chancellor by Sewanee’s board in January, 2010. That June – after 34 years in Middlebury, VT where the snow can be waist-high in March – McCardell headed south for Tennessee.
He wasted little time getting settled. Within a year, McCardell was in the headlines again, when Sewanee announced a tuition cut of 10% in 2011. The recession was hurting Sewanee and many potential students were choosing more affordable state universities. The decision was a tremendous success and received tremendous media coverage, a serious boon for a school looking to draw in more families. It also let Sewanee publicly question the inevitability of exploding college costs.
McCardell has been travelling a lot recently either on behalf of Sewanee or – as the case was recently in Lexington – to talk about his own scholarship. On September 18th, McCardell delivered the 2014 Hendricks Law and History Lecture, entitled “The Civil War and the Constitution(s).” Even with the hectic schedule of a college president, McCardell still finds time for what first brought him into academia, his passion for Southern American History. Indeed, if such passion brought McCardell up to Lexington on the 18th , it also might have helped his 2010 move to Sewanee, TN: “I grew up in Maryland, close to Harper’s Ferry and Gettysburg and all these great battlefields. My grandmother even had - and I still have it - the bullet from a great-grandfather’s leg. So, yes. The move down south – it made sense.”