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Isaiah Berg: In Loco Parentis?

In loco parentis floats uneasily upon the moat between the administration and the student body. This term refers to the legal principle of the College serving in place of a parent, being responsible to protect and empowered to regulate the lives of its students in their best interests. Historically, in loco parentis has focused upon improvements in safety and student culture.

To provide a historical example of in loco parentis at work, one might consider a case involving Berea College of Kentucky, a school remarkable for its good architectural sense and commitment to affordability. In 1913, the Kentucky Supreme Court upheld one of Berea’s rules that students were prohibited from “eating houses and places of amusement in Berea, not controlled by the College” — a restriction upon students’ freedoms justified by the college’s need to “pass rules tending to prevent students from wasting their time and money, and to keep them wholly occupied in study.” The legal history of in loco parentis in higher education is fascinating, particularly because in loco parentis as we knew it is dead.

Students today have never been more free. It was once common for private and public universities to enforce curfews, dress codes, and strict limits upon speech or political activities. Today these sorts of restrictions would be unthinkable at most American colleges and universities. Most have adopted a model of facilitation whereby administrators pursue a more nebulous approach of personal, professional, and academic development among students.

Freedom is now chief among our virtues, for both pragmatic and moral reasons. We cannot expect some hapless administrator to successfully control what students do on their own time in their own spaces across the College. And even if we could do so, this kind of paternalism seems incompatible with the autonomy and development of the modern student. How ironic is it that the sons and daughters of Dartmouth today are more free than they have ever been, yet the principal defect of the modern campus is the crippling of the individual?

Despite the solid heart that endures at Dartmouth, what ails us? In this age of personal liberation, students feel trapped by the dominance of some groups and the apparent self-segregation of others. Nihilism has embraced the modern Dartmouth man just as he has been released from the dead hand of tradition. Never before at Dartmouth have Greek houses been more progressive in their character — and simultaneously more corrosive for so many students. Never before at Dartmouth have student groups had more institutional support, recognition, and attention; never before have the members of those groups felt so alone. Where are the writers and the scholars among us? They are too busy to be anywhere in particular. Their D-Plans makes them transient, their college loans make them a mercenary, and the tired patterns of Dartmouth’s social culture make them miserable.

I do not wish to pile upon the old debates about student culture which have made all students so weary. I do not wish to overstate my case, either; the College is still a wonderful place for learning that most students love and cherish. Nor do I wish to cast fraternities and sororities in an unfair light; what ails them ails us all. The pathogen is far upstream of Greek rush weekend, the administration’s mismanagement, and even of matriculation.

I recently finished Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton and at one point he writes about social progress and to what form a good society might aspire:

“I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself. Complete anarchy would not merely make it impossible to have any discipline or fidelity; it would also make it impossible to have any fun…I should ask to be kept to my bargain, to have my oaths and engagements taken seriously; I should ask Utopia to avenge my honor on myself.”

I believe that what plagues the College and many of its peer institutions is unparalleled freedom paired with a vacuum of authority and shared purpose. The evil fringes of disrespect and sexual assault persist in this environment, while the creative energies of our students often wither. How do we move forward?

First, the attention of our administrative leadership and our faculty must be focused laser-like upon the undergraduate academic experience. Should President Hanlon ensure justice for the victims and perpetrators of sexual assault? Absolutely; but this is a realm that ideally would be ruled by a fiercely competent Dean of the College. Invigorating the College’s intellectual life, edifying the minds and pursuits of its students, is the surest way in my mind to improve campus climate and culture. I sense that President Hanlon gets this; yet still the administration sprawls haphazardly across the College. Focus on students’ writing, rhetoric, ethics, philosophy, and curriculum; behold the response in the ways that students commune, protest, love, write, and perform. Behind the scenes, pick the low-hanging fruit that this space has detailed for so long.

Second, students must understand their exclusive responsibility for campus culture. A thick set of social norms must be the responsibility of student leaders and handed down by the institutions that matter most: sports teams, Greek houses, campus publications, and all large student organizations. I wish I had understood this point better as an undergraduate. As early as 2011 we could see a model in Panhell’s boycott of fraternities that responded passively to violence or threats from among their members. A strengthened student culture might be far less libertine — in fact it would be profoundly conservative in its treatment of certain groups or traditions. This is a matter of respect, not political correctness. This sort of culture would suppress a great deal of harmful stupidity while facing the strong headwinds of laissez-faire within the College’s social scene.

There are good reasons for the death of in loco parentis in higher education. Yet the fundamental desire for authority, shared purpose, and deep community remains unmet for many at Dartmouth. Our great constellation of freedom dies without virtue; it is this void and wilderness into which Dartmouth must speak.

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