[Paleopsych] Reason: Welcome to the Fun-Free University: The return of in loco parentis is killing student freedom.
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Mon Oct 18 17:24:47 UTC 2004
Welcome to the Fun-Free University: The return of in loco
parentis is killing student freedom.
[The Strauss-Howe theory of the coming civic generation is moving right
In April 1968, student activists at Columbia University schemed to
take over the deans office as a protest against the Vietnam War and
plans to build a new gym. More than 700 students were arrested, and
the uprising won national attention. But the schools buttoned-up
administrators hadnt wanted to involve the police, and the rioters
eventually were allowed to graduate. The mayor of New York, John
Lindsay, even arrived in December to address the students and applaud
"the urgent, authentically revolutionary work of this generation."
How much of that revolution has carried over to the Columbia of 2004?
Registered students who occupy a building would get a dialogue with
administrators, but the school wouldnt shy from expulsion. According
to Ricardo Morales, the schools crime prevention specialist since
1983, nonstudent radicals wouldnt make it into the campus buildings.
"If you want to bring a friend over," Morales explains, "you bring him
to the lobby and swipe your ID cards. The guest leaves a piece of ID.
If he wants to stay for a few days, you can apply for a guest pass."
Even when theyre not keeping their borders sealed so tight, college
administrators have been adopting harsh measures in response to
unapproved student behavior. Last fall, students at Southern Methodist
University saw their "affirmative action bake sale," a bit of
political theater in which prices were determined by the races of
buyers, shut down by the student center. They had failed to register
with the university as a "protest" or to go to the officially
designated "protest zone," on the south stairs outside of the
Hughes-Trigg Student Center.
Many college administrators throughout the country are taking great
pains to keep their students under tight control. Yet in the late
1960s and 70s, whether colleges could rein in students was an open
question. Previously, Americas universities had operated under the
doctrine of in loco parentis ("in the place of a parent"). By the
start of the 70s, thanks to a series of legal rulings and cultural
shifts, courts and colleges were tossing out that policy, and
universities that had been dealing with students as wards struggled to
find a new approach.
That didnt last. In loco parentis has been rejuvenated and returned.
Administrators have tapped into the devaluation of personal
responsibility illustrated by smoking bans and fast food lawsuits,
coupling it with bullish political correctness. The resulting dearth
of individual liberties on campuses would have seemed impossible to
college students of 25 years ago.
Double Secret Probation
The rights of schools over their pupils were codified before the U.S.
Constitution was written. In 1765 the legal scholar Sir William
Blackstone wrote that, when sending kids to school, Dad "may also
delegate part of his parental authority, during his life to the tutor
or schoolmaster of the child; who is then in loco parentis, and has
such a portion of the power of the parents committed to his charge."
Blackstone was writing about grammar school students, but 19th-century
college administrators liked the idea too. Wheaton College, five years
after its 1861 founding, denied students the right to form a secret
society. The students sued, but judges washed their hands of the
matter. In Pratt v. Wheaton College (1866), the Illinois courts said
judges have "no more authority to interfere than [they] have to
control the domestic discipline of a father in his family."
Courts took this hands-off approach well into the next century. When
public or private universities bought land, the state treated them
like personal fiefdoms. Students got whatever rights their school
administrators saw fit to give. At Harvard in 1951, the Administrative
Board could tell reporters that it would increase the punishment for a
window smashing -- by however much it wanted -- "if a students name is
on the police blotter or in the Boston press." That was the power of
in loco parentis.
Not until 1960 did this system begin to break down. That year, six
students at the all-black Alabama State College participated in
anti-segregation lunch counter sit-ins. The schools president sent
them letters expelling them for "conduct prejudicial to the school."
According to Stetson Law School professor Robert Bickel, the students
case cut to the root of in loco parentis: "The university actually
asserted the right to arbitrarily give some students [due] process and
deny it to others." When the students sued, federal courts sided with
Alabama State. But in the 1961 decision Dixon v. Alabama State Board
of Education, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit rejected
the schools claim of omnipotence. Suddenly, college enrollment was a
contract between the student and the school. Since kids didnt lose
their constitutional rights in their backyard, they couldnt lose them
on campus. State universities slackened their grip, and private
universities such as Columbia followed suit.
During the next few years, in loco parentis continued to collapse as
courts chipped away at it. In 1974 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in
Scheuer v. Rhodes that Kent State students had the right to sue the
governor of Ohio for damages incurred during the notorious 1970
shooting there. Chief Justice Warren Burger concluded the brief
decision this way: "We intimate no evaluation whatever as to the
merits of the petitioners claims or as to whether it will be possible
to support them by proof. We hold only that, on the allegations of
their respective complaints, they were entitled to have them
judicially resolved." Students had been handed the keys to their
By then, campus revolts were making national headlines, radical groups
had been profiled in Life and Esquire, and undergrads were helping
manage George McGoverns presidential campaign. By 1978, when Dean
Wormer in Animal House threatened his students with "double secret
probation," audiences recognized it as a knowing goof on a
dead-and-buried policy. As Stetsons Bickel puts it, "The fall of in
loco parentis in the 1960s correlated exactly with the rise of student
economic power and the rise of student civil rights."
Save the Children
In 1969 Sheldon Steinbach arrived at the American Council on
Education, the catchall coordinating body for universities, just in
time to weather the worst of the campus revolts. Elite schools such as
Berkeley, Columbia, and Cornell were acquiescing to radical students
and opening up their internal judicial processes. Students won seats
on some boards of trustees. Administrators appeared to have lost their
"The basic liberal arts education began to crumble," Steinbach says.
"Thats what it looked like. When the war ended, we could consolidate,
sit back, and look at how to save the system."
An unexpected boon arrived in 1974, the year of the Kent State
decision Scheuer v. Rhodes. Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and James
Buckley (Conservative-N.Y.) sponsored the Family Educational Rights
and Privacy Act (FERPA) in the hope of empowering parents to keep tabs
on their kids academics. Committees amended the bill into a
codification of student privacy rights, and Steinbach got a crack at
it before FERPA moved on to the Senate. When the bill passed, parents
could peek into the records of their children until their 18th
birthday, at which point those rights transferred to the student. But
FERPA created exceptions: Schools could release records to providers
of financial aid and to "appropriate officials in cases of health and
safety emergencies." If a student was hit with a subpoena or legal
charge, the school could peek into his criminal records. Yet college
administrators and their advisers, Steinbach included, kept the
champagne corked. It wasnt immediately clear what effect the law would
have, outside of giving parents annual notice of their new rights.
"It was a schizophrenic time," Steinbach explains. "We were moving
from segregated campuses to co-ed, affirmative action campuses. We
didnt have our feet on the floor in 1974."
Meanwhile, concern about the state of campuses was spreading. In March
1977, Newsweek ran a hand-wringing exposé titled "The End of
Expulsion?," which gave the supposed academic apocalypse some context:
"In just ten years, most of the rules that once governed student life
in loco parentis have simply disappeared. Even serious scholastic
offenses, such as cheating and plagiarism, seldom incur the harsh
penalties that were once automatic. Most college administrators admit
that they lean over backward to avoid expelling students." The irksome
rites of passage that had been mandatory -- core curricula,
single-gender dorms, class attendance -- fell away.
In the 1979 case Bradshaw v. Rawlings, the U.S. Court of Appeals for
the 3rd Circuit spelled out the universities weakness. When a Delaware
Valley College sophomore three years under the Pennsylvania drinking
age hitched a ride from a drunk driver and was injured in a car crash,
he sued the school. The court shrugged him off. "The modern American
college is not an insurer of the safety of its students," it said.
"Rights formerly possessed by college administrations have been
transferred to students." Expectations were pointless, because "beer
drinking by college students is a common experience. That this is true
is not to suggest that reality always comports with state law and
college rules. It does not."
The courts decision reflected the way students lived: They had a new
relationship with their deans, who should treat them like the young
adults they were.
How then, did the contemporary nanny university arise? Administrators
who got their degrees in the 1960s had a certain idea of how students
should be governed, and they found three tools for regaining control.
The first involved intoxicants, including the escalating war on drugs
and the mid-80s change in the drinking age from 18 to 21. The second
was an attempt to stave off liability for student mental health
problems by intervening with students who were seen at risk of
breakdowns. The third and most well known was a rigid enforcement of
political correctness that set standards for just how rowdy students
Just Say No
University administrators immediately started wringing their hands
over the "kids will be kids" philosophy of Bradshaw v. Rawlings. When
one of their wards was arrested, injured, or killed, whether a lawsuit
resulted or not, the school felt a blow to its prestige and sense of
community. Unchecked hedonism and recklessness among students
increasingly free to skip classes or make their own schedules were
perceived as a threat to the institutions reputation.
Brett Bokolow, manager of the National Center for Higher Education
Risk Management (NCHERM), estimates that colleges have been seeking
formulas to keep students out of actionable situations for 20 years.
In the 1980s, they were increasingly finding themselves liable for
providing services or sponsoring events that involved alcohol. After
only a few legal wounds, schools sought methods to put the
responsibility for drinking or drug use on the backs of students and
fraternities and sororities. Two weapons fell into their laps.
As the Department of Education opened for business in 1980, an
increasing number of students were turning to government aid and loans
to pay for their college bills. From 1970 to 1980, federal aid to
college students soared from $600 million to $4.5 billion. In 1978
Congress had passed legislation that entitled all college students to
federally insured loans. Suddenly, colleges had leverage to punish
students for misusing their leisure time. If they were getting money
from taxpayers, they were treated like any other employee found
partying on the job. Since students were making use of their loans
every minute of the academic year, all of their fun was suspect, and
much of the adult behavior that vexed administrators was happening on
the public dime.
Colleges became willing and able to shift some burden to Greek
organizations, which had grown again after a marked falloff in the
Vietnam era. Many schools created incentives for fraternities and
sororities to go dry, or at least disincentives for them to stay wet.
In one typical action in 1988, Rutgers University, which had just
banned bringing kegs into dorms, responded to a students death by
embargoing all Greek events. In 1997, after first-year student Scott
Kreuger drank himself to death at a pledge event, MIT banned freshmen
from fraternities. More responsibility was shifted to fraternity and
sorority members. By the mid-90s, universities had become so strict
that they were rarely found liable for student sins. Instead of
threatening to punish their kids if they came home late, schools
simply took away the car keys. If kids somehow got themselves into
trouble, it was a police matter.
Colleges found the rest of their arsenal in 1987, when Congress
threatened to withhold federal transportation money from states that
allowed anyone below the age of 21 to buy alcohol, with the result
that 21 became the de facto national drinking age (see "Age of
Propaganda" below). Across the country, the harshness many schools had
formerly applied only to drug offenses began to apply to drinking as
well, and the war on fraternities was ramped up. Finally, in 1998
FERPA was amended to make one provision clearer: Colleges could
sidestep their students wishes and inform parents whenever a drug or
alcohol law was broken. Before that, less than 20 percent of schools
had informed parents of such violations. Afterward, most of them did
In 2001 The Chronicle of Higher Education reviewed this phone-home
policy and found great success. Reporters spotlighted the story of a
University of Delaware freshman who pledged to quit drinking after
police stopped him on the street for a Breathalyzer test. After he was
caught, his parents began bringing him home each weekend and lecturing
him on his mistakes. The student stopped drinking, but not because he
worried about the effects of booze. If he was caught again, he would
be suspended for a year.
For Your Own Good
Keri Krissik transferred to Stonehill College in Easton,
Massachusetts, in January 1999, 10 years after she was first diagnosed
as anorexic. Krissik survived a heart attack four months after
arriving and finished her course work while convalescing. In September
the school refused to let her back in because, according to spokesman
Martin McGovern, "we couldnt monitor her." If she were allowed back in
and was injured, the school could have been liable. Stonehill dearly
wanted to avoid the risk.
Krissik eventually settled with Stonehill, but the courts neglected to
ask why, after theyd relieved colleges of the need to nanny their
students, the college wouldnt damn the consequences and let her study.
The lawsuit provides an answer.
Just as colleges have calculated the legal risks of letting students
get away with drinking or recreational drugs, they remain in danger of
being held responsible when students face mental collapse or attempt
suicide. If administrators had moved on and handed their wards more
lifestyle freedom after in loco parentis ended, theyd have room to
dodge these bullets. But since they had accepted responsibility for
keeping kids off the bottle, it was easy for lawyers to make them
responsible for the rest of the pressures of campus life.
Schools started this battle with a handicap. During the last decade,
more and more students have been diagnosed as overstressed or treated
for depression while still in high school. In February 2003, after
tracking student complaints from 1989 to 2001, researchers at the
University of Kansas found that the number of students diagnosed with
depression had doubled while the number of "suicidal" students had
tripled. The proportion of students taking psychiatric medication rose
from 10 percent to 25 percent.
In response to such trends, college administrators started making
pharmaceuticals and therapy sessions more readily available on campus.
Elite universities have been able to provide the most buffers against
mental illness claims. According to the May 2002 issue of Psychology
Today, 2,000 Harvard students had sought counseling in one year. Fully
half of them walked away with a prescription for antidepressants.
Students who lived on campus had access to free massages and an
ever-expanding mental health center.
The overarching goal of these programs is not to eliminate stress or
wean students off medication. Its to stop lawsuits, and the ugliest
lawsuits of the last decade have concerned students who killed
themselves while enrolled, even though studies (including one
conducted by the MIT task force appointed after Scott Kreugers death
from alcohol poisoning) have shown that most students who commit
suicide never seek counseling.
At the University of Illinois, counselors work with residential
assistants to monitor students who attempt or seriously consider
suicide. Such students are ordered into four weeks of assessment
sessions under the universitys watch. Those who refuse get the Keri
Krissik treatment -- theyre no longer students. The New York Times
Magazine called Illinois approach "a highly successful, model plan"
for colleges that want to keep their undergrads under control.
How to Think
As the protective mind-set returned, it jibed with administrators
desires to make their campuses placid in every possible way. Alcohol
and drug policies had emerged in a national context, justified by laws
beyond the universitys control, while mental health policies were
driven largely by the threat of lawsuits. But administrators didnt
need anyone to force their hands to insert speech standards and "hate
crime" prohibitions into campus life. In 1987 the University of
Michigan responded to a handful of anonymous racist fliers with new
campus regulations aimed at suppressing offensive speech. The speech
code, the first to end up in court, prohibited "any behavior, verbal
or physical, that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis
of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national
origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap, or Vietnam-era
veteran status." A university pamphlet, soon withdrawn, explained that
such "harassment" would include hanging a Confederate flag on your
dorm room door or being part of a student group that "sponsors
entertainment that includes a comedian who slurs Hispanics."
Ironically, a one-time member of Berkeleys Free Speech Movement seized
on this approach when she became an administrator. Annette Kolodny, a
dean of the University of Arizonas College of Humanities, used her
1998 book Failing the Future to explain why colleges needed to
regulate what students said. In concert with other administrators,
Kolodny had stiffened penalties for offensive speech and created
workshops in which new students could have their values certified or
corrected. Her bogeyman was "antifeminist intellectual harassment,"
and her polices were designed to bring contrary speech out into the
open, so it could be "readily recognized and effectively contained."
By the start of the 1990s, Kolodnys view of campus speech was the
norm. Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy told The New York Times in
1991 that speech codes made sense, and that their opponents were just
warring against 1960s values. Journalists had gotten some taste of
universities strange speech standards through The Dartmouth Review, a
conservative newspaper whose editors were punished for articles that
would have been protected anywhere else in New Hampshire. But they
didnt comprehend how strict the standards were until codes at
Stanford, the University of Wisconsin, and George Mason University
were challenged in court and overturned. Based on these cases, schools
learned how to design speech restrictions that were more likely to
pass legal muster.
The speech codes, increasingly unpopular but largely still in effect,
contain more than a whiff of the omnipotence administrators enjoyed
under in loco parentis. Students are not treated as the adults that
Dixon made them out to be. Instead theyre young minds that need
shaping. In most cases the bodies formed to govern speech -- student
judicial boards, special committees -- are uniquely able to adjudicate
without explaining their standards for punishment.
Universities speech restrictions, unlike their recreational policies,
do more to attract lawsuits than to repel them. NCHERM offers a
seminar on how administrators can thwart the Foundation for Individual
Rights in Education and the American Civil Liberties Union. But there
hasnt been any measurable trend toward saving face by scrapping these
rules. Theyre seen as too important to ditch -- and thats illustrative
of the way universities view their students.
Back in Control
Four decades after in loco parentis started to stagger, college
students would be hard pressed to name their new personal liberties.
Yes, they no longer fear "double secret probation." And when
administrators crack down, they will almost always at least provide a
reason. But todays students may be punished just as hard as their
predecessors -- often harder. Theyve discovered that social engineers
have a hard time turning down the opportunity to control things.
The expanding control over college students has had repercussions in
the rest of America. Campuses are proving grounds for make-nice public
programs. Theyve provided laboratories to test speech codes and small,
designated "free speech zones" for protests. (Such zones marginalize
and effectively silence dissent, which is one reason theyve been
adopted by the major political parties for their national
conventions.) The stiffening of campus law also illustrates the trend
toward greater control of adults personal behavior.
In loco parentis could be overturned only once. After 1974, students
should have had an arsenal of new rights. But parents never stopped
believing that universities were responsible for shaping their kids,
and schools have nervously assumed that too much freedom will bring
about the systems collapse.
It wont. College students will drink, despair, play loose with
hygiene, make dirty jokes. Before in loco parentis made its comeback,
they were thriving. Meanwhile, the changes that really worried
academics in the 1970s -- demands for new disciplines, shrinking core
curricula -- are settling into permanence. Its the most enjoyable
effect of the 60s student revolts thats being whittled away.
David Weigel is an editorial intern at USA Today and a 2004 graduate
of Northwestern University.
mailto:dave at davidweigel.com
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