'The Dark Side of the Ivory Tower'

A new book on campus crime -- The Dark Side of the Ivory Tower: Campus Crime as a Social Problem (Cambridge University Press) -- looks at why campus crime has been viewed differently at different times in American history, and how various groups have defined the dangers facing American college students. The book also examines how different kinds of activists, such as feminists and family members of crime victims, have framed campus crime issues in different ways.

November 30, 2010

A new book on campus crime -- The Dark Side of the Ivory Tower: Campus Crime as a Social Problem (Cambridge University Press) -- looks at why campus crime has been viewed differently at different times in American history, and how various groups have defined the dangers facing American college students. The book also examines how different kinds of activists, such as feminists and family members of crime victims, have framed campus crime issues in different ways.

The authors of the book are John J. Sloan III, chair of justice sciences and associate professor of criminal justice and sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and Bonnie S. Fisher, professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati. They responded via e-mail to questions about their book.

Q: Your book notes that campus crime isn't new, but that public attention has been focused on campus crime only in recent decades. Why was there little attention previously and more attention recently?

A: The reason there was little attention previously and more attention recently was because, during the late 1980s and through the 1990s, four groups of advocates, whose messages were increasingly broadcast via a mass media driven by a 24-7 news cycle, came forward and identified campus crime as a "new" social problem. These groups independently made claims about some aspect of campus crime they viewed as especially problematic, but collectively their claims contributed to public acceptance of campus crime as a new social problem. First was a claim that college campuses had become violent and dangerous places which threatened the safety of millions of young adults who are pursuing college degrees. Second was a claim that colleges and universities, as a result of lax physical security, had violated their legal duty to protect students from criminal victimization. Third was a claim that campus officials were re-victimizing female students who came forward to report being raped or sexually assaulted while on campus. Finally was a claim that a "party culture" had become dominant on campus which encouraged students to abuse alcohol and as a result, they were dying. An overarching theme across the claims was that campus administrators – presidents, provosts, and deans in particular – were the new villains responsible for the terrible things happening to students. Thus, each group took ownership of one aspect of the campus crime problem and through their claims constructed violence, vice and victimization as the norm on college campuses – a norm that was threatening college students’ safety and well-being.

For example, Security On Campus, Inc. focused on lax security and the lack of transparency in campus crime statistics. Campus feminists focused on the plight of female students who had experienced sexual violence while on campus and then re-victimized by campus authorities when they reported their victimization. Victims and their families filed civil lawsuit seeking to persuade the courts that colleges and universities should be held legally liable for on-campus victimizations, while public health researchers focused on deaths and injuries arising from college students’ drinking behaviors. These advocates’ concerns were legitimized via continued mass media exposure and through professional publications and presentations. Advocates were then able to institutionalize the problem by convincing federal and state policy makers, in particular Congress, to pass legislation, such as the Jeanne Clery Campus Crime Disclosure Act, to address campus crime. They also identified new "villains" associated with the problem, in this case postsecondary administrators who failed to take appropriate steps to ensure their campuses were safe from violence, vice, and victimization.

Q: For much of the history of American higher education, the concept of in loco parentis was a key part of understanding the student experience. How has the end of that idea changed the way campus crime is understood? Is the recent attention an attempt to return to in loco parentis?

A: The end of in loco parentis on college campuses during the 1960s resulted in new freedoms for students, including the freedom to access on-campus contexts that have been shown to enhance the chances of experiencing criminal victimization (e.g., parties, drinking, relaxed sexual norms, etc.).

Over the past 20 years, as a result of the above-mentioned groups naming, taking ownership, legitimizing, and institutionalizing campus crime as a new social problem, colleges and universities, we argue, are readopting in loco parentis to protect students from harmful, if not life-threatening, contexts of victimization, and to protect their institutions from civil lawsuits. In addition, because competition for students has become so much keener, "safety" has become a buzzword and marketing tool used by postsecondary institutions via “annual security reports” and Clery Act statistics to attract students to their campuses. Emphasizing the safety of their particular campus allows schools to distinguish themselves as places that are "safe" from the violence, vice, and victimization (to wit, campus crime) advocates claim is rampant.

Q: How is social constructionism a useful tool for analyzing campus crime?

A: Social constructionism allows researchers to first identify, label, and describe the processes and strategies used by various groups to convince the public and policy makers alike a particular issue constitutes a new and serious threat to the health and welfare of the public and that something must be done to address it. In our case, the perspective helped us identify specific themes that we found ran through the claims made about campus crime by the four groups – Security on Campus, Inc., campus feminists, student crime victims or their families, and public health researchers – that successfully convinced first the media, then the public, and finally policymakers that campus crime was a new and dangerous problem that had to be addressed.

Q: How does the campaign for the Clery Act illustrate the themes of your book?

A: Howard and Connie Clery (co-founders of Campus Security, Inc. and the parents of Jeanne Clery who was murdered in her dormitory room in 1986 and for whom the federal Clery Act was named) wanted to establish that college campuses were not safe because of lax security and failing to "come clean" with their crime statistics. Their grassroots efforts – which began in Pennsylvania and resulted in that state passing the first pieces of campus crime legislation – eventually catapulted them into the halls of Congress and the public spotlight. Their notoriety enabled them to testify repeatedly before Congress about their concerns over lax campus security and the heinous victimizations of students (like their daughter) they claimed were routinely occurring on the nation’s college campuses. Combined with media coverage of their efforts and coverage of stories of on-campus victimizations that were coming from other people, the Clerys’ claims became credible and they became experts on campus crime.

In the book, we argue that in socially constructing a new social problem, advocates like the Clerys first name the problem – in this case, on-campus violent victimization. Advocates then take ownership of the problem. In the case of the Clerys, this was done via the brutal rape and murder of their daughter that occurred in her dorm room at Lehigh University in 1986. Advocates then expand the domain of the problem to include all campuses at all times and places. Combined with media coverage of such incidents, legitimacy is accorded the claims being made and thus to the notion that campus crime is a real problem that must be addressed. As advocates’ messages continued to be broadcast by media, the messages are given greater credibility, and ultimately help to institutionalize the issue as a "new" social problem about which something needs to be done (for example, Congressional passage of the Clery Act to help fight campus crime)

Q: Your book applies your framework to the debate over binge drinking. How does the recent debate over Four Loko fit into your theories?

A: The Four Loko case in particular and the issue of college students abusing caffeinated alcoholic beverages more generally fit quite nicely into the social construction framework we used to highlight the elevation of campus crime to the level of a new social problem.

What’s happened with the Four Loko case is similar to what we described as happening more generally in the social construction of campus crime as a new social problem. As with campus crime, you can identify new "villains" -- the manufacturer of Four Loko -- and advocates, including the federal government, taking steps to hold the manufactures of Four Loko accountable for their actions. It is also similar in that concerns about these beverages were first raised after the deaths and injuries of several college students resulted from abuse of Four Loko. As these stories broke, advocates came forward and named the problem – the potentially lethal effects of consuming caffeinated alcoholic beverages. Advocates then took ownership of the problem and legitimized it in the public’s mind via mass media messages and stories involving students who died or were injured after drinking the beverage. Advocates were ultimately able to convince a few colleges and universities (for example the University of Rhode Island) to ban the beverage altogether; convince legislatures in multiple states to ban sales of the beverage; and convince the Food and Drug Administration to consider a ban on the beverage as well. Same processes involved in both situations: name and take ownership of the problem, legitimize it, and institutionalize it, while also naming specific "villains" responsible for it.


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