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The Ethics of In Loco Parentis
May 30, 2013 - 3:58pm

I was reading today about an alum of my current institution who is now mayor of Fortaleza, the fifth largest city in Brazil. He had advice for students: take advantage of every minute while you are at school, as you will never again be able to dedicate yourself full-time to learning.  This is pretty much what I said to my son when he went to Harvard. Take advantage of this amazing opportunity to explore widely; use the rich resources while they are available to you for this limited time; seek faculty time and they will give it, but it is up to you to go after what the university has to offer. And now as I write this last sentence I just received a text with a photo from my son saying he is at his 5th reunion. Today, apparently, is Commencement at Harvard.

Which reminded me of this article about the problems of hazing, drunkenness, and mean-spirited and other nasty behavior in Ivy League institutions, raising the question of how many students among the new graduates, at Harvard or elsewhere, have actually used their time at school wisely and well? And whose responsibility is it to make sure that they do?  I told my son he had to take charge of his own learning experience, but reading articles like that makes me wonder about what role colleges should play in helping students not only get the most out of their education, but also to make the transition to adulthood.

College students are still adolescents, and many, perhaps the majority, at residential colleges are, in addition, under drinking age.  Some, like my own son was at 18 (and I do consider myself as having been lucky on this point), are focused and mature for their age, and manage to balance educational and social opportunities; they have learned to make prudent choices, independent judgments, and control impulses within the context of their age and situation. I have had many students like this, who seem to arrive at college ready to be on their own and to navigate the new. Others, and I have had far too many of these, clearly remain in an earlier developmental phase of the adolescent-to-adult passage.  Should they not be in college?  Maybe. But they are, and college seems to provide them little support for moving on—or any reason why they should.

Instead, we see a lot of bread and circuses attitude at the undergraduate level, perhaps stemming from the student-as-customer mentality, perhaps just to keep revenue-generating students in their seats. It starts with admissions tours, where the biggest topics are sports, the gym, the food court, the dorms, the clubs and Greek life. We may hear in an information session how hard it is to get in, but the message is that once you’re in, you’ll have a blast.  And indeed, once you’re in, the only ones trying to toe the line on academic purpose are faculty, fighting the onslaught of “Dean’s excuses” and academic policies designed to maximize the likelihood that students who slack off all semester will never pay a penalty, the look-the-other way (or sweep under the rug) tolerance of behavior that should be antithetical to a place of higher learning or that sees itself as preparing students for life and work. It is unsurprising that those students who enter as immature and academically irresponsible remain that way: there is little pushback, and lots of accommodation.  There is little celebration of learning as the reason for being in college, leading to a kind of default view of college as a place to party. Not all students are pleased with this; I’ve heard many complaints from students who believe that over-accommodation of poor behavior encroaches on their own educational process.

There is a legal basis why colleges have moved away from the creation and enforcement of parent-like rules. But the old regulatory-style in loco parentis is not the only way for institutions to stand for good behavior, just like being a punitive or controlling parent is not the only way to raise a child. And “programs” to fight binge drinking and other destructive behavior have not worked well overall.  I’m suggesting the possibility of a different form of in loco parentis, one more structural and cultural, or environmental, where what is valued is clear and modeled, and becomes normative, and what is not is similarly clear, and clearly outside the acceptable. Instead of rules, we can set expectations, and we can model those. We can talk about and live them, consistently, across areas of the institution; we can help students meet, rather avoid, those expectations.

This would require something very difficult on the part of institutions:  putting students’ long-term interests in front of their own. It would also require more collaboration and integration by faculty and administration on how to make learning the focus of their time at college, and how to, well, make that a blast. I suspect it would not be that difficult to agree on what is important to support, so that is a good place to start: what do we value, and what do we clearly not (check the link to the above article for a start on discussing what is not)? Then there is the matter of the courage to say that out load, and to build a culture and environment that demonstrates, reinforces, and engages students in those choices, every day.  Now that is good parenting.

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