Senior Zach Alexander, center, drinks with Professors Chris Tanner, left, Holly Gorton and Bill Williams, right, at "The Pub", an on-campus bar at St. Mary's College. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

St. Mary’s College of Maryland wrapped up a year-long respon­sible-drinking campaign this month by turning a dorm recreation room into a campus bar with Natty Boh and Coors Light on tap.

The Pub is not meant to be a place where students get smashed, officials are quick to explain. Instead, they want it to be a spot where students can get to know their professors in a casual setting, chat up administrators and informally study drinking in moderation.

“I saw my history professor here. It was kind of weird at first,” Stephon Dingle, 23, a graduating senior from Baltimore and the class president, said this week. “The visual of your professor with a beer makes you feel like, ‘Oh, I can talk about whatever with you.’ ”

University-operated bars, often called rathskellers, were common a generation or two ago. But when the minimum drinking age was set at 21 in the 1980s, many of these establishments shut down because of decreased business or a fear that schools were promoting alcohol consumption. Lately, some colleges have been bringing the bars back in an effort to embrace and promote responsible drinking.

“What doesn’t work is telling them not to drink,” said St. Mary’s President Joseph R. Urgo, who is one of more than 120 presidents to join the Amethyst Initiative, which advocates lowering the legal drinking age. “Talking to them about drinking, as adults, helps.”

Urgo has sought to strike a balance on campus drinking. In August, he declared that the first week of school would be entirely alcohol-free to help ensure that freshmen make friends while sober at orientation instead of while drunk at parties.

George Mason University and the University of Maryland Baltimore County have long served alcohol in campus pubs, which are especially popular during basketball season and alumni events. Georgetown University plans a bar in a student center set to open in 2014.

Although finals at St. Mary’s had ended, a few dozen people gathered at the pub Wednesday night for dollar drafts, wings and popcorn. There were small groups of seniors, still on campus ahead of graduation on Saturday. A trio of philosophy professors toasted the end of the semester. A few administrators worked the room. Urgo himself had his driver’s license checked at the door. (He’s 56.)

“We’re preparing them for the real world,” said Sybol Anderson, an associate professor of philosophy who had a beer with colleagues. Earlier in the week, she took one of her upper-level classes to the Pub after their final.

“I thought we would be here for half an hour. We were here for hours,” she said. “It was just an easy, nice conversation. Who would think they would want to discuss more philosophy?”

The Pub opened and began serving food at the start of the school year, but the university’s food service provider was unable to secure a permanent liquor license until the spring. Students, especially seniors, grumbled that it took too long.

“There have been a lot of jokes like, ‘How many administrators does it take to get a liquor license?’ ” Urgo said.

But students of all ages have raved about the Pub’s late-night food. Although alcohol is usually only available Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays before 10 p.m. — this week, in honor of graduation, liquor was also served Wednesday — the kitchen stays open every night until 2 a.m. The Pub’s general manager says his bestsellers are nachos, wings and black bean burgers.

“It’s been a huge hit,” Dingle said. “It’s a madhouse in here at 1:15 a.m.”

Until the Pub opened, the closest place to get food after the dining halls closed was a gas station about five miles up the road. St. Mary’s is a public liberal arts school in rural Southern Maryland. Its campus is bounded by the St. Mary’s River, a museum dedicated to Maryland’s first Colonial settlement and dense woods — hence, the school’s student-given nickname of “Camp SMCM.”

St. Mary’s administrators say they are endlessly worried about students driving along dark, winding rural highways after too many hours of studying (or too many rounds of drinks). The university runs a free shuttle from the closest bar, the Green Door, so students can get home safely.

Urgo said the Pub is not trying to take away business from “the Door,” which has been a student favorite for decades and lately is known for its beer pong tables. Their motives and patrons are completely different, Urgo said.

Charlotte Boymer, a senior from Maine, would never dream of taking her mother and grandmother to the Door, but she did take them to the Pub for a Natty Boh, the onetime Baltimore-brewed beer formally known as National Bohemian.

“They loved it,” said Boymer, 22, who majored in political science and will graduate Saturday.

Boymer met her friend, Lauren Tucker, at the Pub on Wednesday to hang out with the assistant dean of students one last time.

“We had to get one more beer at the Pub,” said Tucker, 21, a math major from Annapolis who is also graduating. “I wish we could have had this earlier.”