I was talking briefly with students this morning about yesterday’s events (which hit close to home, as one student’s cousin attends Virginia Tech; they didn’t know she was O.K. until yesterday evening).
One of the issues we talked about was what authorities should have done after the first murders were discovered. One way of looking at it is to think about what the police force of a small city would have done after having discovered two bodies. I don’t think they would have "locked down" the city while they investigated.
But a college is different. We parents (I’m not quite there yet, as my kids have a few years to go before we ship them off) somehow trust or hope that the college authorities will look after our not-quite-kids/not-quite-adults in our absence. If a murderer might be on the loose in my neighborhood, I’ll lock down my house, wihtout any prompting from the authorities. Could I, should I, have expected similar caution and concern from the Virginia Tech’s administration?
I think that these matters are complicated, and that they’re bound up with the increasing freedom claimed by and granted to college students. In loco parentis, once the norm (and perhaps still the half-conscious expectation of many parents), exists only in odd ways. Consider, for example, this federal appellate opinion from the late 70s:
Our beginning point is a recognition that the modern American college is not an insurer of the safety of its students. Whatever may have been its responsibility in an earlier era, the authoritarian role of today’s college
administrations has been notably diluted in recent decades. Trustees, administrators, and faculties have been required to yield to the expanding rights and privileges of their students.
Consider, also, Justice William O. Douglas’ concurring opinion in this early 70s collegiate First Amendment case:
Many, inside and out of faculty circles, realize that one of the main problems of faculty members is their own re-education or re-orientation. Some have narrow specialties that are hardly relevant to modern times. History has passed others by, leaving them interesting relics of a bygone day. More often than not they represent those who withered under the pressures of McCarthyism or other forces of conformity and represent but a timid replica of those who once brought distinction to the ideal of academic freedom.
The confrontation between them and the oncoming students has often been upsetting. The problem is not one of choosing sides. Students - who, by reason of the Twenty-sixth Amendment, become eligible to vote when 18 years of age - are adults who are members of the college or university community. Their interests and concerns are often quite different from those of the faculty. They often have values, views, and ideologies that are at war with the ones which the college has traditionally espoused or indoctrinated. When they ask for change, they, the students, speak in the tradition of Jefferson and Madison and the First Amendment.
This libertarian article complains that a version of in loco parentis has made a comeback, driven largely by liability concerns and political correctness. I’m not as confident as the author that everyone intra the murales can and should take care of himself or herself, but I am willing to go along in deprecating the legalism that marks the contemporary university. Whatever the law may say, these not-quite-adults are still-our-kids, and we want them to be as safe as possible. Hence our uneasiness about the university’s response.
Update: For a more "citified" view, see this NRO piece.