Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Virginia Tech and in loco parentis

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.

Discussions - 8 Comments

I don't have anything to say about the larger point raised. I just had to say that Douglas always struck me as one of our worst Supreme Court justices, and the quoted passage displays all the reasons why. What sort of person believes, to pick one example, that that a student/teacher relationship should be one between equals, and that the teacher has an obligation to teach the "values, views, and ideologies" which the student holds dear?

I actually think if we are going to find "fault" beyond the just repository for our indignation - the monster who shot these people - it ought to be sought in the structure of the modern High School and especially University. The discomfort of a creative writing faculty member over what to do with this obviously disturbed student is very understandable. When I was at Behemoth State, I had a "cutter" - a young lady who slashed her flesh, sometimes down to the bone. When I realized what she was, I marched her immediately down to psychiatric services (after warning them I was coming), and got her in with a psych nurse. I forced her to go, I did not respect her rights as an individual, defer to her as a young adult, treat her as an autonomous and mature decision maker, honor her desire as empowered feminist decision maker, or any of that phony crap. I frog marched her to a physician. And a good thing - she was admitted to the hospital immediately and stayed for weeks after our meeting - due both to her injuries and to malnutrition. I have no idea if I violated school policy or not - I don't give a damn. THESE ARE CHILDREN. Sure, in the Hindu Kush 14 year olds are adults, already married with children, and to be sure, in premodern societies these kids would be considered middle-aged. But in our society, for better or worse, they are not.

This 70's vintage "colleges cannot be in loco parentis" doctrine treats kids as adults in all the wrong places - character development for example, which is supposed to be none of our "value-free" concern. Meanwhile it has had the effect of infantilizing their sexual, financial, and other choices by treating them as kids having a good time who should be shielded from "mistakes," rather than as adults who should be responsible for such things. By exempting colleges from acting in the place of parents, the courts have soothed the bad consciences of faculty at what Russell Kirk called Behemoth U, leaving kids who think they are adults to make bad choices without much of any interference and placing those of us who might forcefully intervene on the defensive, worried about being reprimanded or worse ourselves. We live in a confused and wicked society, and this is another wretched symptom of that sickness.

Wm., After the fact, it is easy to see that a person is "obviously disturbed". Could you have prevented that girl cutting herself? You did the very best thing once you knew what you were dealing with, but until her self-destruction was bloody-well out there, did you know that she might be contemplating such a thing? I am going to college workshops on how to deal with students in various types of trouble, and the next one is on the seriously disturbed student. Maybe such things will be evident as the mark of Cain on such students after that workshop, but I doubt it.

Last semester, I had a girl, still in high school, in our PSEO program, who wrote a story about burning her unconscious father alive in the back yard. It was a very vivid and completely compelling short story. I privately suggested counseling, but we are not supposed to do more, unless there is something obvious. What IS obvious? There was no whiff of gasoline about her person. There was no sign of anything at all troubling about her until the story came in. Was she merely venting typical teen angst? How would I know? She smiled and said it was nothing, really, nothing.

Yet, I do not see what colleges can do in any practical way to deal with what kids do. I sent my first son off to Hillsdale College, assured of their sound policies of student supervision. My son encountered every kind of bad thing there, and I did not and do not see how the college could have stopped or even have been expected to know about any of it. I have a 17 year old on campus at a state school, and I am assured that there is supervision, but he seems completely autonomous to me. I am glad he is not a complete fool. He seems to have gotten past that last year, when he was in high school and still lived at home.

What you say here: We live in a confused and wicked society, and this is another wretched symptom of that sickness. is quite true. For colleges to take more care about the little things, like NOT having co-ed dorms and being more careful about security, ought not be too much to ask. If there were more structure and formality to college life, perhaps there would not be so much disorder in the student body. That might be true in a wider social sense, too.

The difference between Hillsdale, Grove City, or such a place and Behomoth U is not that you cannot find the same bad behavior. I have been to both, of course you can! The difference is that at Behemoth U it takes place in co-ed dorms in a climate of "informed choices" (read, near-total permissiveness). This normalizes bad and self-destructive choices, and makes refraining from this behavior unusual. At Hillsdale or Grove City it may go on, but it is punishable in and of itself, it goes on quietly, and there is an atmosphere of disapproval that means those who do not want to behave badly do not swim in an ocean of alcohol and promiscuity.

Furthermore, at a school like Hillsdale or Grove City whose program is in part based on forming character, the bizarre behavior of this little monster would have been confronted head on and repeatedly, or (since he engaged in stalking and roughed up a young woman) he would have been expelled. At Behemoth U, I was not sure if I was on safe ground forcing a young woman in danger of killing or maiming herself to get help. The rhetoric of student adulthood and autonomy in such places makes a dramatic intervention very difficult.

wm, the rules at my community college are contradictory in that I am supposed to be kindly and do what I can, such as directing students to counselors for help, but I am also to remain uninvolved. In the instance of my PSEO high school student, I am not allowed to speak to the student's parents about the student, the minor for whom they are legally responsible, even if they call me.

I know what you mean about those smaller schools as one son goes to The Citadel, and, yes, bad behavior is done quietly and mostly off-campus. My oldest son went to Hillsdale eleven years ago, and perhaps the ocean has shrunk, like the Aral Sea, since then. At the semi-Behemoth state university my youngest boy goes to, he looks forward to living off-campus next year because he can't take the atmosphere in the dorm, that being of the near-total permissiveness (it sounds like a perpetual riot), that you mention above. I would insist on the dorm, if there
were some in loco parentis supervision there, but since not, he might be safer off-campus with friends.

your dilemma is awful... is there a third party you could involve?

Last night I received a short story by an immigrant student about a young man killing his girlfriend. In the end, the murderer is consumed by guilt and kills himself. There are improbable parts about a hand-held tape-recorder that turns itself on at opportune times for plot movement, but also vivid imagery like trees and shrubs standing as mute witnesses so that the murderer is compelled to hunt among them, looking for a real human observers.

I think I might not include creative writing in my composition course anymore. If I stick to essays, I may not be confronted with such things as the disturbing inner life of students. Then I need only watch for external signs of trouble.

If I read school policy correctly, I may not copy this paper and turn it in to the college's counselors without the student's permission. How do I preface that? "I am worried that you might be too close to your story's main character and would like you to allow me to give this paper to someone who might help you (or get you deported.)"

I will go for counseling and ask for guidance. School policy, as written, only seems to offer me, and the college, protection from liability of a legal, but not a moral sort.

School policy, as written, only seems to offer me, and the college, protection from liability of a legal, but not a moral sort.

Which tells you everything you need to know about the state of the modern university. I think maybe this week you could get away with making that copy, but you most certainly are in a bind.

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