Student life

'To Gather From the Air a Live Tradition'

At three in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, the voice of a lone chorister will rise from a small college chapel in the Ouse Valley of England, and from there it will encircle the globe. It will climb into the foothills of the Himalayas, skim across islands in the far South Seas, enter the equatorial villages of Africa, and emerge in hundreds of towns and cities across the United States.

This solitary voice will open the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, held each year in the chapel of King's College at Cambridge University. The King's Festival was first organized in 1918 by the chapel's then-dean Eric Milner-White, and since the 1930s it has been broadcast annually by BBC radio and its international affiliates.

Millions of people now listen every year, and visitors to Cambridge "from all over the world are heard to identify the Chapel as 'the place where the carols are sung.' "

I have a special interest in the King's Festival because I am an advocate for decentralized residential college systems like those at Oxford and Cambridge. Collegiate systems of the Oxbridge kind provide students and faculty alike with a wealth of opportunities for learning and service, and they can multiply the strengths that already exist within any university. The creation of residential college systems within larger institutions is a growing international trend.

But independent of its origins in a Cambridge residential college, the Festival of Lessons and Carols from King's is an example of the kind of rich cultural tradition that any college or university can aspire to develop and maintain, not only for its own members, but also for its city, its country, and the world. And it is young people in their teens and 20s who are especially strengthened by traditions, because traditions give them not only something to stand upon but also something to push against as they seek to define their own lives.

Do successful traditions require lots of money? They do not. It's true that few of us will have the resources of King's College available to us -- their chapel did take more than 100 years to build, after all. But successful traditions are about people and about social cohesion, they are not about money. If you begin by asking how you can use a tradition to make money, you'll never establish a great tradition.

Think first about what you can do for the members of your college or university in themselves, and forget about the outside world. If you do a good job, the outside world will eventually notice.

But how to do a good job? If we anatomize the King's College Festival, we can identify a number of structural features that can be replicated anywhere by people seeking to develop and maintain strong traditions within an educational environment.

First and foremost, a successful tradition must be regular and must never fail. If it follows the full moon, it must always follow the full moon. If it settles into Sundays at three, like tea in the college master's house, it must always settle into Sundays at three, even when people are few, the weather is bad, or the usual host is away. And if it's on Christmas Eve it must always be on Christmas Eve, at the same time, year after year.

The regularity of the King's Festival and its Christmas Eve broadcast was not even interrupted, the college tells us, "during the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel and the name of King's could not be broadcast for security reasons." Regularity inspires confidence and strengthens the desire of people to participate.

A successful tradition must also exhibit structural stability, and within that stability, variety. Stability gives comfort, variety gives delight. Something that is continually reinvented cannot, by definition, be a tradition -- a thing handed down. But if a tradition is to remain vital it cannot be wholly static either: it must adapt, like a gradually changing species, to its local environment.

The overall structure of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has remained stable for more than eighty years now, and people who heard it as children would recognize it today. In particular, it always begins in exactly the same way, with a solitary chorister singing the first verse of "Once in Royal David's City."

But within this pattern of stability the Festival exhibits annual variety. Most of the elements are carried over from year to year, but not all are, and original hymns and anthems are often commissioned specially for a given year's service. Each year we know how it will begin, and how it will proceed, but each year we also know there will be a few surprises in store for us to make the experience ever green.

Finally, a successful tradition must bind the members of the community together in all their diversity, and link them to other groups with which they have historical connections. This is the most important function of every tradition, and it deserves particular attention in educational environments today, environments that are often subject to terrible social fragmentation. One of our central obligations to the young people in our care should be to connect them with those who came before and those who will come after, and well-crafted traditions like the Festival of Lessons and Carols can do just that.

The scriptural lessons in the King's Festival are read by a range of people of different ages who are purposely chosen each year to bring the college and the local community together: a member of the choir, an undergraduate, a fellow of the college, a member of the college staff, the dean, the provost, a representative of the city of Cambridge, a representative of King's sister society at Eton, and several others. This conscious structure not only ties the college itself together, but links the college with its neighbors and its educational relatives as well. Through the act of participation, these many individual groups become one.

The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is a Christian religious service, of course, and the older colleges of Oxford and Cambridge were all originally Christian religious foundations. But the general social principles that are manifest here -- the regularity of the service, its stability and variety, and the way it binds the community together -- apply with great generality. And they apply not only to Oxbridge-style colleges founded within other religious traditions (Shalom College at the University of New South Wales and Mandelbaum House at the University of Sydney are Jewish foundations, and the colleges of the Universiti Putra Malaysia follow Islamic traditions), but also to fully secular colleges and universities across the United States and around the world.

So please join me in tracking down a local radio station to listen to on Christmas Eve, and we can all spend an hour together as virtual members of that ancient collegiate society along the Cam. As we listen we will have to concede that the chapel's magnificent stained glass windows are unlikely to be replicated elsewhere, and that its soaring Gothic architecture may never be surpassed. But we should also hold fast to the most important lesson the King's Festival teaches: that a college is built of men and women, and that the glory of every college resides not in its material fabric, but in the way it brings its members together and illuminates their lives.

Robert J. O'Hara
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Robert J. O'Hara is an evolutionary biologist and the author of "The Collegiate Way: Residential Colleges and the Renewal of University Life."

The Movie Industry's 200% Error

A week ago today, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) issued what had to be a hugely embarrassing news release acknowledging that an aggressively promoted and widely cited research report commissioned by the MPAA in 2005 significantly overstated the Internet-based peer-to-peer piracy of college students: "The 2005 study had incorrectly concluded that 44 percent of the motion picture industry’s domestic losses were attributable to piracy by college students. The 2007 study will report that number to be approximately 15 percent." The MPAA release attributes the bad data to an “isolated error,” adding that it takes the error seriously and plans to hire an independent reviewer “to validate” the numbers in a forthcoming edition of an updated report.

We should applaud the MPAA for going public with a painful press release about what some have tagged the “200 percent error.” ( Note: Here and elsewhere in this article, this percentage has been fixed from an earlier version -- our own little mathematical error.) Unfortunately, the MPAA has yet to release the actual reports that generated either the 44 percent or 15 percent claims about the role of college students in digital piracy; the public data are limited to PowerPoint graphics in PDF format on the association’s web site. Perhaps as part of its efforts to validate the numbers in the new report the MPAA will also make public the complete document, not just the summary graphics. (Academics do know something about peer review.)

We also have to admire the MPAA’s arrogance. The MPAA now asserts that college students account for 15 percent rather than 44 percent of the P2P piracy affecting the motion picture industry. However the press release says nothing -- not a word -- about the source of the other "85 percent" of the P2P piracy that affects the industry’s revenues, the activities of "civilians" who use consumer broadband services.

Consistent with past practice, the January 22nd MPAA statement continues to blast college students (and by extension campus officials) about the (now much reduced) levels of P2P piracy linked to college students: “Although college students make up three percent of the population, they are responsible for a disproportionate amount of stolen movie products in this country.” Additionally, the news release closes with a terse pledge that the MPAA “will continue to aggressively fight piracy on all fronts including working to forge alliances with other copyright organizations [and] deploying technologies that help combat piracy…”

The new (corrected) MPAA data affirm what many of us who follow this issue have said for several years: P2P piracy is primarily a consumer market issue. The enabling technology is not a campus network but the consumer broadband service provided by cable and telcom firms such as AT&T, Comcast, Earthlink, TimeWarner, and Verizon, among others. Of course you would never know this from last week’s news release.

The MPAA’s statement is also laden with errors and misrepresentations. Let’s begin with some basic facts and simple math. The MPAA’s release says that “college students make up three percent of the [U.S.] population.” In fact, “college students” ages 16-67, account for almost 6 percent of the US population. The Department of Education reports the projected number of full- and part-time college students in two and four-year degree-granting institutions for the 2007-08 academic year totals some 18 million students; the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the U.S. population as of December 2007 totals some 303,579,509 individuals. Do the math and you’ll find that 5.9 percent of the nation’s population could be classified as “college students,” a population that includes full-time undergraduate and graduate students, part-time students in undergraduate and graduate programs, commuter students in community colleges, and adults enrolled in online degree programs, among others.

But the population of college students that most concerns the MPAA are the undergraduates who live in campus dorms and who have 24/7 access to high speed campus networks: these are typically college freshmen and some sophomores in large public universities and the majority of undergraduates in small, private liberal arts colleges. The dorm residents total some two million students and account for 11 percent of the much larger population of 18 million college students, ages 16-67.

I and others continue to provide evidence that colleges have policies and impose sanctions on students who engage in illegal P2P activity using campus networks. Unfortunately, the MPAA and the Recording Association of America continue to press for costly “technology solutions” that campus IT experts have deemed both expensive and ineffective.

Now let’s turn the MPAA’s claim that college students account for a “disproportionate amount of stolen movie products.” The real metric for assessing “proportionality” should not be college students as a proportion of the total U.S. population, which includes millions of infants and the elderly who don’t go the movies or rent DVDs, but college students as a proportion of the movie-going population. Although the MPAA does not publish separate data for college students as a proportion of the U.S. movie-going audience, it does report that individuals aged 12-24 account for 28 percent of the “movie going” public. (Interestingly, the MPAA data seem to ignore all the “moviegoers” under age 12: this makes you wonder about Hollywood’s infamous accounting practices and suggests that no one under age 12 goes to the movies. But what about millions of kids under age 12 who went to see Pirates of the Caribbean, Cars, Night at the Museum, Superman Returns, Ice Age, Happy Feet, and Over the Hedge -- seven of the top 10 grossing films in 2006?)

Extrapolating from the MPAA’s public data on paid admissions (i.e., the number of purchased movie tickets) we see that individuals aged 18-24 accounted for 19 percent of the 1.332 billion movie tickets sold in 2006. Admittedly, a significant number, but not all, of the 18-24 year olds going to movies in 2006 were college students. But without condoning illegal P2P piracy, these numbers suggest that the proportion of downloading that the MPAA now attributes to college students (15 percent) may be roughly proportionate (or possibly even “under-proportionate”) to college students as a segment of the movie going public. (Perhaps the MPAA will offer up a grant for an independent study of the movie-going behaviors of college students, plus additional funds to find the millions of “missing” children under age 12 who are not included in their numbers about movie attendance.)

Then there is the news release’s closing statement about “deploying technologies that will help combat piracy,” which ignores the June 2007 Congressional testimony of both campus information technology officials and an IT industry executive that technology will never provide a comprehensive solution to stem P2P piracy.

At one time seemingly infallible in its continuing efforts to portray college students as digital pirates and campus officials as unengaged and unconcerned about digital piracy on campus networks, the MPAA now seems like the “association that can’t shoot straight,” a reference to Jimmy Breslin’s 1970 mob farce about a bungling Mafia gang. The January 22 press release is the second significant screwup for the MPAA on the P2P front in the past few months: in fall 2007, the MPAA released a software toolkit it said would help monitor illegal P2P activity on campus networks. Unfortunately, as reported by Brian Krebs of The Washington Post, the MPAA’s monitoring application posed a major risk to network security. In sum, it appears that the MPAA can’t count and also can’t do code.

But the MPAA’s press release also raises other interesting questions, some involving the backstory about the press release, some involving public policy questions now before Congress. With regard to the backstory, Inside Higher Ed's coverage of the MPAA press release reveals that members and staff of some key Congressional Committees knew about the errors in the MPAA data almost a week before the press release. Why did it take five days for the MPAA to acknowledge publicly the misleading data?

And then there are the issues involving public policy (and public posturing). Drawing on the MPAA’s widely publicized claims that college students accounted for 44 percent of the industry’s domestic loses due digital piracy, members of Congress have made public statements blasting P2P activity on college networks and by college students. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) who chairs the House Subcommittee on the Internet and Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology each convened congressional hearings about P2P piracy on campuses in 2007. These hearings, coupled with the continuing efforts of the RIAA and the MPAA, led to Congressional mandates intended to address illegal P2P piracy as part of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007.

Provisions of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007 intended to address P2P piracy on campus include reporting requirements and an implied mandate to acquire a “technology solution” to stem P2P piracy. Both will involve significant costs for campuses: at the Congressional hearing on P2P convened by Gordon last June, Arizona State University CIO Adrian Sannier testified that his institution had spent approximately $450,000 on P2P technology deterrent software over the past six years; Mr. Sannier also described illegal P2P activity as an “arms race” that neither side will win, an assessment affirmed by other campus CIOs testifying at the June hearing.

Congressional mandates to stem P2P come at an interesting time for nation’s colleges and universities. In the wake of the recent, tragic events at Virginia Tech and at other institutions, colleges and universities have been scrambling to develop emergency notification plans and acquire notification technologies – some that are simple such as alarms and sirens and others that are complex such as notification and messaging systems that send email, text messages, and voice mail. Concurrently, given the downturn in the economy in recent months, many institutions now confront both mid-year budget recissions and impending budget cuts for the coming year. In many cases, colleges and universities had little or no money in their budgets this year for either notification systems or P2P monitoring technology.

Will college leaders receive a formal apology from the MPAA for the consequences of its “200 percent error.” Will Berman and Gordon issue new statements in the coming weeks, toning down their prior criticism and also admonishing the MPAA for providing bad data that led to ill-conceived legislation - the costly P2P reporting and enforcement mandates in the College Opportunity and Affordability Act?

And what about the source of the “other 85 percent” of the P2P piracy that affects the movie industry? Much as the RIAA and MPAA have named the campuses where they allege P2P piracy occurs, will the two associations now go public with (hopefully accurate) data about the level of P2P piracy that occurs on consumer broadband services? (Are AT&T broadband customers more likely to engage in P2P piracy than Earthlink, TimeWarner, or Verizon customers?) Much as the MPAA and RIAA leadership has criticized campus officials for not engaging on P2P issues, will the MPAA and RIAA’s leaders now take cable and telcom industry executives to task for their benign efforts to educate their customers about copyright and to address P2P activity on consumer broadband services?

Let me affirm (yet again) that the campus community does not condone digital piracy and that I am not condoning the behaviors of either college students or “civilians” who engage in digital piracy . As I stated in a November commentary published by Inside Higher Ed, "illegal P2P downloading is a messy issue. But the swiftboating efforts of the RIAA and the MPAA to portray college students as the primary source of digital piracy will not resolve this problem, in either the campus or the consumer markets. Neither will federal mandates that ultimately will mean pass-through costs for students."

Next steps? Perhaps the MPAA’s press release acknowledging its “200 percent error” will set the stage for new, less rancorous private and public discussions about P2P piracy. Colleges and universities respect copyright; colleges and universities are engaged in serious efforts to inform and educate students about the importance of copyright. And MPAA and RIAA officials, beginning with MPAA President Dan Glickman and RIAA President Cary Sherman, should acknowledge, respect and strongly support the continuing efforts of campus officials to address copyright issues, in part by ending the public posturing that portrays colleges and universities as dens of digital piracy.

Kenneth C. Green
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Kenneth C. Green, a visiting scholar at the Claremont Graduate University, is the founding director of the Campus Computing Project.

What We Want to Hear at Commencement

As a graduating senior, I’ve thought about what I would like to hear while sitting under the Southern California sun waiting to receive my diploma, and have debated some pros and cons with my friends. Though we each have our own ideas, most agree there is a certain structure to an excellent commencement speech, which conforms to the following guidelines.


1. Know where you are and how to pronounce the college’s name.

A firm knowledge of the institution shows respect for everyone you are addressing. At my brother’s graduation from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., the graduation speaker consistently mispronounced the college’s name (it’s Will-am-ett, not Will-a-met-ee) even after grumbles and giggles from the audience and several corrections from students.

2. Engage your audience in a story.

Every grown-up child still loves a good story. Keep it relevant to the message you are trying to convey and make sure it doesn’t put us to sleep.

3. Make that story memorable.

Speeches are remembered for three reasons: the speaker who gave it, how they gave it, and what they said. While all three are important, you can make up for not having the first two by making what you say interesting and engaging.

4. Know your audience.

Keep in mind the people in front of you: graduating seniors, their families and friends, trustees, faculty, and staff. That is a pretty diverse group to cater to, but it is important to consider their probable responses if you decide to tackle sensitive subjects.

5. Make it applicable to every graduate.

Not everyone may get as excited as you do about government health policies or backpacking through Uganda. Scripps College’s commencement speaker for 2008 was a screenwriter and poet (Legally Blonde’s Kirstin Smith); instead of droning on about how fulfilling writing is, she focused on the graduating seniors, portraying their current place in life as it would appear in a movie, on the edge of the end of Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2. She nailed it!

6. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh!

We are freaked out enough about finding a job given the current economy and dreading that six-word question and likely three-word response (“What are you doing after graduation?”… “I don’t know”). We don’t need to be reminded of any impending world war, swine flu, or bank failure. Keep it light, keep it funny, keep it honest.


1. Plug your book, movie, re-election, or art exhibition.

While we are happy that you are so successful, we already know what you’ve done in life -- that’s why we invited you. This is the time to celebrate our success, not yours.

2. Force feed us propaganda on hot, touchy, or potentially politically incorrect topics.

While it is good to bring up questions that need to be addressed and challenge the status quo, please do so in a way that opens the topic for discussion and doesn’t enforce a specific agenda.

3. Use overused themes or clichés.

Avoid familiar quotes, phrases, sayings, advice, movies, songs or pop-culture themes at all cost. We already know that today is the first day or the rest of our lives and we are the future, so please don’t bring up that horrid Green Day song, refrain from quoting Gandhi or Churchill, and give your own advice in your own words.

4. Forget to have fun. This is a magnificent day. Enjoy it with us!

Whitney Eriksen
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Whitney Eriksen graduated Sunday from Scripps College, in Claremont, Calif., where she majored in psychology with a minor in biology. She will begin Act 2 working in a neuropsychology lab at the University of California at Los Angeles.

A System for Fighting Digital Defamation

Part I of this two-part series argued that it was inappropriate for colleges and universities to assume responsibility under in loco parentis for protecting college students from anonymous digital defamation, and that institutions should instead empower students by educating them on available strategies and resources.

In this essay, we discuss a disaggregated solution for addressing digital defamation and the resulting disaggregated harms it causes. By establishing a database-driven Web-based litigation system, we can empower students and level the playing field so that interested students can defend themselves, and hopefully deter future digital defamation.

The Digital Defamation Problem

Juicy Campus, the anonymous gossip site that closed its doors in 2009, and its replacements, such as College ACB and Campus Gossip, allow anyone with an Internet connection to post almost any content about a student, true or otherwise. The sites themselves do not necessarily target students. Instead, these sites become a clearinghouse for disaggregated, defamatory statements that cause emotional distress. The sites structure themselves by college and then by topic or victim, making it likely that the poster lives within a few miles of the victim.

Gossip may be posted freely and anonymously across these gossip sites, but it has actual victims and real costs. After reading degrading statements about themselves, victims often feel helpless, and some engage in, or consider engaging in, self-harming activities. Victims of cyber-sliming can fight back -- but for hundreds or thousands of dollars a month. Those with financial ability can hire Web services such as Reputation Defender (a service that, for a fee, minimizes the search ranking of negative postings about the client while boosting the search ranking of positive information) or specialist attorneys (who, for a fee, will investigate and file the necessary lawsuits to clear one’s reputation).

Lawsuits can be effective. Two years ago, two Yale students saw some success in identifying and pursuing those who smeared them on the Web site AutoAdmit. If they had not been represented by lawyers without charge, their partially successful pursuit would have come at significant cost. Recently, a model, represented by counsel, successfully sued Google in New York state court to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who called her a “skank” on a Google-hosted blog. With the blogger’s identity revealed, the model dropped her suit.

Yet many college students who fall victim to such anonymous defamation cannot afford high-priced reputation-clearing services or legal representation, and can fall victim to these brutal attacks with few options for fighting back. While the weapons for anonymously hurling invective across cyberspace have decreased in cost to where they are almost free, the solutions for, and protections from, defamation remain costly. To that end, we envision a system that allows victims of defamation to fight back, at a lower cost, with the hope that the market further lowers the costs of such protection to a level that deters anonymous cyber-sliming.

A Disaggregated Solution

Due to the disaggregated nature of anonymous defamatory attacks against students, even colleges who would welcome their role in loco parentis cannot take on these Web sites or their anonymous posters. Due to mirror sites and easy off-campus Internet access, blocking access to such sites is ineffective in the long term. Rather, the most effective and practical method is for colleges to educate students on how to protect themselves against digital defamation.

To that end, we propose a disaggregated digital solution to this disaggregated digital problem: a database-driven, Web-based litigation system that would allow students to file suit using fill-in-the-blank legal forms. When student affairs staff members are approached by student victims, in addition to offering counseling, they can direct the student to a system where the student can engage in self-help.

Establishing such a system will come at significant cost – a cost that can only be borne by a large organization possessing the funds to develop and host the site and the staff to keep it updated as laws and standards change, to provide technical support to student victims, and to ensure that it does not violate state rules against improper practice of law.

Possible candidates include the Anti-Defamation League, national student advocacy groups and national student affairs professionals groups. Other candidates include law school clinics whose students could design such a site and assist student victims in reclaiming their reputations. Likewise, for-profit private sector entrepreneurs may find an opportunity here.

The system’s goal is to educate students about the general laws of defamation, and guide them through the process of bringing a lawsuit in the proper court. While most lawsuits would be for false and libelous defamation, even true statements can sometimes be so vile that they qualify under certain state laws governing intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress (I.I.E.D.).The beauty of a database-driven system is that it could equally provide for an I.I.E.D. claim in those states where such a claim is allowed.

Defamation suits must be brought in state court except in rare, complicated cases. Which state’s court is appropriate depends on several factors. Since most of these claims will result from postings in forums dedicated to the college or university that the victim attends, that state’s courts will likely assert jurisdiction over the matter.

Gossip sites like Juicy Campus or College ACB “do business” in any state in which they establish a forum for gossip at a college located there. Further, the publication would occur in that state (among others) while the victim, and most likely the harasser, live in the same state. Like all lawsuits, these suits will not succeed every time, and some courts may decline jurisdiction. But, for many students, the system will take them down a path toward discovering the identity of their harassers and pursuing legal remedies against them.

The System for Fighting Back

The first step a student must take after viewing a cruel gossip post is to analyze the content of the post -- honestly. Although something is hurtful, it might not qualify as defamation. Truth is not defamation. Additionally, laws typically require that the poster had to know, or reasonably should have known, that the post was false when he or she posted it. Further, the post must be a factual statement; opinions are usually fair game. The student must differentiate between “John Jones is a drug addict” (claim of fact) and “John Jones acts like a stoner” (opinion).

Admittedly, this is a difficult line to draw for Constitutional scholars, and it will not be easy for college students without assistance. A well-designed system could include a “wiki”-style guidance document where those who bring successful cases or bring significant knowledge of defamation law can help students determine if a statement meets the definition. As cases progress, sharper definitions of defamatory statements may emerge. If the student concludes that the comments are really opinions, but they are “extreme and outrageous” enough to cause severe distress, the student might still have a claim against the poster for I.I.E.D.

The second step for a student is to see if they can determine who the poster is. If so, the path is easier. If not, the system would present them with a fill-in-the-blank “John Doe” lawsuit and subpoena for the gossip site hosting the comments. Using a database, the system can offer different forms and filing options depending on the state. Some states allow electronic filing while others require printing and mailing.

Once the victim sends the subpoena to the gossip site, the third step for a student is to provide some notice to the poster. One way is to post the subpoena in the same forum used for the defamatory post. If the site cooperates and releases the Internet Protocol (I.P.) address for the offending poster, the next step is to use the Internet “Who Is” database to determine the poster’s Internet Service Provider (I.S.P.), and subpoena that I.S.P. for the poster’s identity. If the I.S.P. cooperates and identifies the poster, the victim can amend the suit’s defendant to name the poster.

Some Reasonable Criticisms

It should be noted that this system is neither perfect nor free from criticism. For every success, there will be failures: paperwork lost, I.P. addresses destroyed or not captured, deadlines missed, and sites and I.S.P.’s uncooperative. It may be that few cases go to trial. Many will die on the vine due to technical or substantive problems. The successful cases, however, may result in large judgments, especially in the cases of the most malicious and untrue gossip. These cases, even if rare, may provide a deterrent against future libel. The examples of a few bright students who declare bankruptcy, cannot buy a home or have their wages garnished to pay a defamation judgment may dissuade future harassers.

A prime criticism to this system is the position that the Internet is a bastion of free speech and nothing should stand in the way of unabashed free speech. Yet, defamation and speech intended to inflict severe emotional distress is not First Amendment protected speech. States can and do regulate this type of speech. We are not seeking a new regime that silences free speech on the Internet; rather we hope to apply the same standards to the Web that govern in the real world.

Another criticism is that this system will only work to the extent that Web sites capture I.P. addresses and submit to jurisdiction. Further, some posters will use anonymizing software or post from locations that do not capture I.P. addresses. This criticism is valid, and admittedly, the system will not work entirely for every student.

However, while some sites may choose not to capture I.P. addresses, sites may begin to receive so many of these subpoenas that they comply for the sake of cost-saving efficiency. Alternatively, Congress or trial judges may begin to find bad faith in quickly deleting I.P. addresses simply to shield malicious posters from the legal system, and the legal and legislative marketplace may, thus, correct that difficulty.

Additionally, this system will not necessarily work for non-student defamation victims. The system is aimed at college students, because these sites construct forums for individual schools. Thus, it is likely that the poster and victim live in the same state (if not the same residence hall). It will not necessarily work for those targeted from other states or countries and may not help victims of attacks on personal blogs.

Further, contrary to the successful cases discussed above, courts in some states have declined to force anonymous posters to reveal themselves. Concurrently, the system will not protect against statements that do not meet the technical legal definitions of defamation or I.I.E.D., but nevertheless impose significant harm on victims. Of course, even if the system works and some victims win massive judgments, these suits may induce no more deterrence among students than did the music industry’s lawsuits.

Such a system also presupposes that a victim is willing to go on the record in suing the poster. The requirement to file openly may discourage some victims. The Second and Ninth Circuits of the federal court system, as well as many state courts, allow anonymous filing of lawsuits when, among other things, the matter is very sensitive or personal, there is a possibility of retaliation for filing suit, the prejudice to the defendant is less than the harm of identification, and when the public interest is served by such anonymity. Such a standard could be used in these cases, even recognizing the irony of filing an anonymous suit to expose an anonymous poster. At the same time, courts must be vigilant at the dismissal stage, to protect against those who seek to use the system as a weapon by filing false claims.

Establishing such a system will be expensive and difficult. It cannot be accomplished without the support of a large organization and volunteer attorneys or law students. Defamation cases are complicated and based on differing state laws. The same could be said about the thousands of pages of federal and state tax codes. Yet, companies like TurboTax and H&R Block offer database-driven Web services that allow most taxpayers to quickly and accurately file federal and state returns without ever opening the tax code.

Reclaiming a Reputation

We recognize that establishing such a system will not be an easy sell. Even considering the above, and other valid criticism, we believe that our system will empower the many student victims who have no method of fighting back against anonymous posters. It will not be perfect, yet we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Colleges and universities can educate students on ways to employ this and other disaggregated solutions; encouraging the development of this system and educating students on its use can be part of that mission.

The attractiveness of such a system is that it would help student victims help themselves. The individualistic nature of the Internet, where amateur journalists pen millions of blogs while Wikipedia entries outnumber traditional encyclopedia articles many-fold, is not well-served by a super-regulator censoring content to protect defamation victims.

Colleges cannot protect students from all of the dangers imposed by the Internet. Rather, student victims need an inexpensive, user-friendly tool to level the playing field. Developing and marketing such a system will grant victims a much-needed gift: the opportunity to take back their reputations and return to living their lives.

Benjamin Bleiberg and Joseph Storch
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Benjamin Bleiberg is a judicial clerk in the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Joseph Storch is an attorney in the State University of New York’s Office of University Counsel. In addition to campus representation, he concentrates his practice on the legal issues surrounding emerging technologies. The views expressed here are their own and do not represent the views of the State University of New York or the federal court system.

Learning From the Masters (Tournament)

My son and I recently went to the 2010 Masters, saw Tiger Woods come back to golf, and witnessed one of the greatest tournaments in decades. But what was most impressive to me about the Masters was not the amazing golf, or even the course itself (my son referred to it as an “outdoor museum”).

No, the most impressive thing was the actual running of the tournament and its concept of customer service. All college presidents would be well advised to attend the next Masters and study its management system. For what became crystal-clear to me as a nonprofit higher education consultant was the tournament’s very precise conception of who its customers were, compared to the very imprecise understanding by colleges and universities of who their customers are.

Here is the problem: Colleges and universities have a difficult time deciding whom they are serving. For a major golf tournament the choice is narrower: the corporate sponsors or the media or the patrons who come through the turn styles. Augusta National Golf Club, which runs the Masters very much like a nonprofit enterprise that is content to break even, views the fans who come to the course as their obvious customers.

All concessions are inexpensive (sandwiches: $1.50!); even the cost of golfware in the pro shop is reasonable. Bathrooms are strategically located, as are food stands, and every line of customers is designed to move quickly so fans can get back to the action on the course. Even the spectator locations are populated by movable chairs that the patrons over the years have bought ($29 this year) and placed where they want. Chairs are left there with one’s own marker on them, and no one sits in them but the owner, even at the most popular locations. When the day ends, you leave the course feeling cared for: You are a paying customer in the best sense.

Colleges and universities have more chaotic management systems because they are unclear about their preferred customers. Who is analogous to the fans at the Masters?

Here are the many choices for colleges, depending in part on the type of institution: enrolled students, their parents, state taxpayers, the local community, alumni donors, government granting agencies, even their Boards of Trustees -- increasingly dominated by corporate leaders. All are “paying” in one way or another.

Yet the principal customer on any college campus must be the student, and one statistic makes this fact obvious: the abysmal retention rate of students between their freshman and sophomore years. A third of all full-time college freshmen do not return for their second year. Very few have flunked out; some transfer for a major offered elsewhere or have to yield to family financial pressures. But my own experience has persuaded me that the freshmen who leave do so primarily because they were not treated as the school’s principal customers.

To take one example, colleges often treat distant parents who pay the bills as the principal customers when it comes to increasingly obscure fees -- but it is the students who must understand and rationalize those fees to their parents back home. We may think a $100 fee here or there is nothing to a middle-class parent (not true, of course), but it certainly is important to the student who wasn’t aware of it ahead of time, and does not appreciate having the issue minimized by a staff member to his or her face. If a student comes to an office on campus visibly upset about something, it should not matter how minor we think the issue is: it must be treated, for the student’s sake, as if it is major. It only takes a couple of calls home, after some insulting experiences on campus, to galvanize a family into leaving their school of choice.

In higher education, we do not know how to deal with 18-year-olds. Are they adults, despite being so needy and anxious, or are they just kids, despite being glad to be on their own for the first time? Even though sustained tuition income depends on their satisfaction on campus, we often treat them as spoiled and completely replaceable, like an object that is cheaper to throw away than to repair.

That might have seemed true when the baby boomers were sending increasing numbers of children to campuses. But in 2008 those numbers leveled off, and by 2012 they will be declining. By then, we had better figure out how to hold onto the students who, as customers, have chosen us, instead of treating them as lucky to have been chosen by us.

That has been our attitude -- that they were lucky to have been chosen by us. Perhaps that attitude is excusable at elite colleges that know their vaunted reputations will hold students on campus, even through their anxieties, for the prestige of the degree they receive. Those colleges -- only a few score nationwide regularly return 95 percent of their freshmen into the sophomore year.

But the numbers plunge from there for thousands of other colleges and universities that, until recently, have assumed there was no problem replacing the students who leave by the second year.

We must start treating freshmen as the adults they are -- but adults who are understandably apprehensive about, and sometimes irresponsible with, the freedom that college life gives them. Too often we view them as knowing how they ought to behave, even though we are less than clear about the regulations we do have and more than willing to reprimand them, condescendingly, for not knowing those regulations.

We think they do not want any rules when in fact they want our support and respect -- not permissiveness -- to mentor them on their way to the maturity they do desire It is going to be increasingly difficult to replace these young adults if we are disrespectful of them. It would be much wiser to help them manage the institution in which they have put their faith as a first step into maturity

Precisely because they are only going to be with us for a while -- as at the Masters -- we need to redouble our efforts at customer service from day one -- to take every student anxiety and complaint seriously, even if it turns out to be nothing more than normal freshman fear. Since it is reasonable for freshmen to be anxious, we must treat them as reasonable people, without being condescending or peremptory in our own attitudes.

We need to treat them as the Masters Tournament treats every one of its patrons: welcome, well-managed, and constantly appreciated.

David Stinebeck
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David Stinebeck, a former college president, is President and CEO of Concordant Consulting, LLC, a firm that specializes in managing personnel issues.

The 20-Something Dilemma

With large numbers of 20-somethings moving back in with their parents, taking unpaid internships, or bouncing from job to job seemingly without direction, psychologists, sociologists, journalists and parents have been asking the question, “Why are 20-somethings taking so long to grow up?” The New York Times Magazine recently devoted an 8,000-word cover article to this question. It used to be that by the time they reached their early twenties, Americans were beginning to settle down, work a steady job, and lead a relatively stable life, but that is no longer the case.

For most of the 20-somethings I know, which is an admittedly small group of graduates from some of the country’s best four-year colleges and universities, life’s third decade offers a disquieting mix of uncertainty and promise. Faced with friends scattering across the globe after graduation, the high stakes and complexity of modern life, a tough job market, admonitions to enjoy youth to the fullest, and a dearth of self-knowledge, many 20-somethings find themselves asking, “Now what?” For the first time the life script that so many have followed does not have a next page.

These feelings of uncertainty, hope, and confusion are, in part, rooted in adolescence and the over-structuring of American childhood. Amid the standardized tests, sports practices, extracurricular activities, and A.P. classes, there is little room for the self-exploration that used to characterize adolescence. Middle and high school seem to be less about discovering or deciding who one is and more about reaching the next benchmark. Today’s students know more factoids than previous generations, but they also know less about themselves. It is therefore no surprise that more American high school graduates than ever are taking a gap year to explore the world outside the academic structure.

The rigid scripting of childhood and adolescence has made young Americans risk- and failure-averse. Shying away from endeavors at which they might not do well, they consider pointless anything without a clear application or defined goal. Consequently, growing numbers of college students focus on higher education’s vocational value at the expense of meaningful personal, experiential, and intellectual exploration. Too many students arrive at college committed to a pre-professional program or a major that they believe will lead directly to employment after graduation; often they are reluctant to investigate the unfamiliar or the “impractical”, a pejorative typically used to refer to the liberal arts. National education statistics reflect this trend. Only 137 of the 212 liberal arts colleges identified by economist David Breneman in his 1990 article “Are we losing our liberal arts colleges?” remain, and an American Academy of Arts and Sciences study reported that between 1966 and 2004, the number of college graduates majoring in the humanities had dwindled from 18 percent to 8 percent.

Ironically, in the rush to study fields with clear career applications, students may be shortchanging themselves. Change now occurs more rapidly than ever before and the boundaries separating professional and academic disciplines constantly shift, making the flexibility and creativity of thought that a liberal arts education fosters a tremendous asset. More importantly, liberal arts classes encourage students to investigate life’s most important questions before responsibilities intervene and make such exploration unfeasible. More time spent in college learning about the self and personal values means less floundering after graduation. Despite the financial or, in some cases, immigration-status reasons for acquiring undergraduate vocational training, college still should be a time for students to broaden themselves, to examine unfamiliar ideas and interests, and to take intellectual risks. Otherwise, students graduate with (now dubious) career qualifications but little idea of who they are or who they want to be.

Combine this confusion with what is for many the first confrontation with life’s nonlinear, organic nature, and it is no surprise that 20-somethings are taking so long to grow up. Life stretches before them, endlessly promising, challenging, and exciting but simultaneously daunting, terrifying, and enigmatic as a single preordained path suddenly splits into myriad unknowable routes. And after watching their parents – typically both of them – work ever longer hours in an increasingly around-the-clock and competitive world, 20-somethings wonder whether their 20s will be the best time of their lives or will be spent doggedly climbing the career ladder. This period has therefore become a sort of extended gap year, a time to get whatever it is out of one’s system before the demands of graduate school, career, and family become inescapable. It may be an error of youth to believe that life ceases to be pleasurable after marriage, financial independence, or entering a profession, but it is an error that many young Americans make.

Our country is rearing a group of intelligent young men and women with lots of skills and enthusiasm but little self-knowledge. Unable or unwilling to deviate from the script during childhood and college, we have shifted to early adulthood the self-exploration that used to occur earlier in life and used to be the purpose of a liberal arts education. The resulting economic, psychological, and social strain on parents and kids is tremendous.

Only by breaking down the rigid structure of the middle-class American childhood can this situation be rectified. Children’s lives must cease to be packed with extracurricular activities, sports leagues, music lessons, and innumerable other résumé-building pursuits. In order to make time for exploration during high school, the influence of the college admissions process should be limited to the junior and senior years.

Because so much of the scripting of American childhood is driven by what the public thinks selective colleges and universities want, these institutions must reform and explain admissions. They must take the lead in ramping down the current admissions frenzy, which discourages high school students from taking the kind of productive risks that foster creativity and self-knowledge. And colleges and universities should require underclassmen to take a wide range of courses, including a heavy dose of the humanities, before declaring a major and should encourage students to delay such a declaration for as long as possible.

Finally, we all -- high schools, colleges, parents, teachers, and students -- need to change our attitude toward taking risks and learning from failure. These are not dangers to be avoided but opportunities to achieve and to grow through invaluable and formative experiences. Only by mandating broad exposure in and out of the classroom and encouraging the willingness to deviate from the script can we help high school and college students decide who they are and who they want to be. If we stay the course, we will continue to get the 20-somethings we are asking for.

Tim Henderson
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Timothy Henderson graduated from Middlebury College in 2010 and is now on the staff of the Green Mountain Valley School, in Waitsfield, Vt., where he coaches young ski racers and teaches SAT prep classes.

Living and Learning on the Third Shift

At about 8:15 every weekday morning I make my way to my office at the center of this small campus. I am one of several others arriving, and we walk alone, or in twos and threes, across East Main Street and toward the buildings in which most of us will spend most of our days. We rarely see a student. They are, for the most part, sound asleep in the residence halls and houses that spread out across campus. I sometimes pick up a beer can or cardboard French fries container, evidence that they have passed this way recently.

At 4:30 in the afternoon, most of those who arrived early that morning make their way back across East Main and to their cars. They may encounter students heading to or from an athletic practice on a nearby field, or walking from the more distant student parking lot back to their dorms and dining halls. My job usually keeps me here later — sometimes 6 p.m., sometimes 8 or 10 p.m. On my way out, I pass many more coming from their parking lot, students carrying pizza boxes, bags of groceries, six or 12-packs of beer, ready to dig in for a night of studying, TV-watching, or partying. As the clock ticks toward late evening, the third shift is about to begin.

Perhaps it’s because I spent the early part of my work life doing shift work that I’ve come to demarcate the day, and the world, into three distinct factions: first, second and third shifts. Though I’ve been out of the formal shift-based workplace for years, my circadian clock seems to be permanently divided into three eight-hour blocks of time, and when I look at my campus and think about my students, this place and these people are backlit by the glow of that clock.

The first shift is the one that begins just before or right around the time of that walk in each morning. Though our cleaning staff, our food service employees and some of our physical plant workers have been on campus since 6 or 7 a.m., we open for business at 8:30 a.m. During the next eight hours, classrooms will fill with students and faculty engaged in the formal learning that is our raison d’etre. In various administrative offices, phones will be answered, forms will be filled out, bills will be paid, students will be admitted, correspondence will be drafted, and e-mail will arrive, unceasingly, demanding a response. Meetings will be held, out of which plans will come for new buildings, new programs, student dismissals, tenure and promotion. It’s the five-day-a–week life of a campus. Not enough time to get it all done, but all the time we have on the first shift.

Sometimes the work of the first shift spills over to the second, and people in various roles, including faculty, go home to a few more hours of e-mail follow-up, report-writing, class-preparing or exam-grading. Back on campus, the second shift is a busy one. It’s when students are engaged in the semi-formal, as opposed to the formal, learning that goes on constantly.

Some are still in classrooms, as the class schedule here, like on most campuses, extends into the evening. They are on athletic fields and courts, participating in varsity, club and intramural athletics. They are in the campus coffee house meeting with a study group, or in the library studying on their own. They are attending lectures, singing in recitals, rehearsing with their a cappella groups, strategizing with fellow student senators to outwit the administration, writing stories for the student paper. They do some of this with us nearby; the second shift employees of student activities and programs, arts and cultural events, emerge from their offices and oversee the bustle of the 7 to 10 p.m. block. And in some instances, we are nowhere nearby, but will hear about their progress (or lack of it) in the morning.

Eventually, they close their books, end their rehearsals, file out of the auditoriums and study carrels, labs and coffee shops. Night, “smoky-scarv’d,” as Rupert Brooke described it, seeps in from the edges of the horizon. The third shift is beginning. It is the shift that is staffed primarily by the officers of the campus safety department and the residence life staff, and it is when some of the most intense, most harrowing, and most life-altering learning goes on. I know about it because one of my first tasks each morning is to review the reports from our Public Safety department. The formal, stilted language of the reports is a jarring contrast to the content, which usually involves emotional crises and physical manifestations of bad decisions (vomit and blood are often mentioned, as is damaged property).

Sometimes the reported situation is so bizarre as to be humorous (a residence hall room door completely covered in Pop-Tarts, for example; a naked senior picked up by Public Safety on a campus road; a first-year student who sat on a tube of Super Glue and required the services of the local rescue squad). Sometimes the names are familiar: students who have already established themselves as drinkers, partiers or hot-tempered drama queens. Sometimes this is our introduction to them, and our second date will be in one of our offices, sorting out and hopefully resolving the situation.

I was listening in on a recent student forum about alcohol policy changes and was struck by something one student, a senior resident adviser and one I know to be particularly observant, said about our campus. The issue on the table was damage billing — who pays for vandalism when the actual perpetrator cannot be identified. Gabrielle said to her peers, “But you can’t just figure out what to do based on what we’re like during the day, when the campus is all 'lovey' and nice. You know how different it is after midnight.” The others in the room nodded. Of course they know. Another student in the same forum said, “I think there’s a lot of damage because people are bored. There’s nothing to do between the hours of, like, 2 and 4 a.m., so just to have fun some people do stupid things like flip over the recycling containers and smash all the bottles, or unroll toilet paper all over the floor.”

I sat there silently deconstructing these statements. Gabrielle is absolutely right. Our students are different people late at night. In our classrooms and offices during the day or the library or practice rooms in the evening, they are smart, charming, ambitious, clear-headed and reasonably nice to one another. But like a collegiate version of Teen Wolf, as the clock ticks closer to midnight, they become unrecognizable to us.

These students whose company I enjoy during the day and evening live a second life, one so incongruent with the first that I would swear their bodies have been snatched and replaced with pod people. They cheat on their boyfriends and girlfriends (and then watch as a fistfight between the two “suitors” develops). They mix their prescription medications with vodka and strong coffee. They do damage to drywall that I simply can’t comprehend. These are some of the same students I’ve watched excel on the baseball field or in the swimming pool, create beautiful art, lead a meeting, reach out to a troubled friend.

Recently, a student I know was named on a Monday morning report. I saw his name and said it out loud to my colleague, a look of complete incredulity on my face (the permanent lines on my face caused by this expression are a hazard of my job). My colleague responded with a head shake: “No way.” This student is a senior, a recent winner of a prestigious national scholarship based on his public service plans and his impressive academic and service-related track record. Not an inkling of trouble in three years, and yet here he was, having been transported to the local hospital because he was passed out with a bottle of vodka in his hand. Teen Wolf, I thought. Full moon

And the second statement I heard from a student at the forum left me pondering as well. I didn’t say what I (and most people over the age of 23) would like to say, which is that a really great activity to engage in between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m. is sleeping. Or that, despite what they might have experienced growing up, life is not a constantly-scheduled play date, and sometimes you have to plan your own (non-destructive) fun. Instead, I wondered what they would actually like us to be doing to entertain them at that hour. Do we need to have 24-hour dining options available, as some campuses now offer? Round-the-clock programs and events?

But it’s not just alcohol and entertainment that they indicate would meet their third-shift needs. Based on written reports from Public Safety and conversations with professional and student residence hall staff, our students’ propensity to be in the midst of crisis is significantly higher after midnight. They are phantoms of a campus-based opera, and the music of their night is full of intrigue, pathos and revelations, each sensation sharpened, heightened. These are the hours when relationships end and hearts are broken, when reality crushes academic dreams (the pre-med student realizing she will never, ever do better than C work in chemistry), when roommate squabbles escalate into emotional battles that enlist others on the floor, when feelings of loneliness, anxiety, sadness and despair ratchet into the danger zone, when the big — the enormous, really — questions about life and death and meaning are tossed around in a residence hall conversation, and the same students who will appear to doze through an 8 a.m. philosophy class will come alive with intellectual excitement.

And where are we? Most of us, if we’re lucky, are sound asleep. But even if we are awake and dealing with our own crises or questions or just plain insomnia, we are not in the presence of our students. In what I’ve come to think of as one of the great contradictions of our work, we are furthest from our students at the times they might benefit most from our presence. The adults with whom they are most likely to interact are our campus safety officers, trained in many ways but not typically skilled or interested in wrestling with the great existential or personal dilemmas our students pose. The others on duty at that time? Our front-line residence hall professionals, most commonly our youngest and least-experienced staff members, many of them just a few years past their own undergraduate experience. And these staff are available only to the minority of college students, as many more live off-campus without even these resources nearby.

If we were to design a similar staffing structure in the retail world, we would be out of business in short order. Imagine a convenience store that closed at noon, a shopping mall that shuttered its doors on the weekends, a train schedule that ignored common commuter times. Imagine a restaurant that served exquisite dinners… at 2 p.m. Or a pub that opened at 8 a.m. and closed at 4 p.m. None would survive, and on the way to their demise, people would say, “Geez. What were they thinking?” But on our campuses, many of us miss the big stuff that happens daily (and nightly) for our students. Geez, I wonder, what are we thinking?

With any luck, we’re not thinking. We’re sleeping. Like many people in jobs similar to mine, I’ve done my share of work on the third shift and am happy to turn the work over to those who are younger and more able to recover from an all-nighter than I am. And of course, we have to be there during the day to interact with the rest of the world, including the parents of these same students. I’m certainly not proposing an academic or co-curricular schedule that offers classes or activities in the 2 to 4 a.m. slot.

That’s as unreasonable and unlikely as requiring my students to turn off their lights and computers and cell phones and go to sleep at 11 p.m. I liked staying up till all hours when I was young. I loved the fog of mystery and romance that descended on a campus after midnight — the change in mood, the edge of lawlessness and intrigue that could not be replicated during the day, and of course the emotional jitteriness that came with too little sleep and too much caffeine and provoked the intense and deeply meaningful conversations that we all remember from our college days. I have, as Frost wrote, been one acquainted with the night.

Rather than make a suggestion to turn our work schedule on its head, I want to find a way to validate the work of the third shift, work done by students and staff, and to seek ways to leverage it for deeper learning. I want my first-shift colleagues to know about and acknowledge the complex and sometimes fraught work that goes on after midnight and share the respect I have for my third-shift colleagues who keep our students safe when they walk closer to the edge than they ever do at two in the afternoon. And while students are not necessarily looking for us to watch over them through the night, any more than they want their parents hovering nearby, we do need to find ways to connect the deep and lasting learning that happens in those dark and mysterious hours with the education we work so hard to provide on the other two shifts. Somewhere, in the combining of these very different moods and methods, lies great potential for life-altering, career-directing, world-changing student learning. That possibility doesn’t keep me up at night, but it does send me off to sleep with a sense of anticipation for the start of the new day.

Lee Burdette Williams
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Lee Burdette Williams is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.

The Bias of Background Checks

A recent survey of college and university officials found that 66 percent of institutions now collect criminal justice information about would-be students, usually through self-disclosure on the application. The survey revealed that a wide range of offenses can get an applicant additional screening that can lead to rejection, and that less than half of the colleges that use this approach have written policies to guide admissions officers or train those employees.

As the head of the Center for Community Alternatives, the organization that asked the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers to conduct the survey, I am troubled by the survey’s findings. CCA’s core mission is removing the barriers to employment, education and full community reintegration faced by individuals who have been involved in the criminal justice system, and we know, from both the research literature and from our own experience, that access to a higher education can have a profound effect on individual lives. If past criminal convictions are preventing significant numbers of young people from going to college, then we all lose out.

That’s why these colleges’ policies concern us. Seventy-five percent of schools consider any drug or alcohol conviction negatively in spite of how common those offenses are among the college-age population. And one-third of schools consider pending misdemeanors or even misdemeanor arrests in a negative light.

Also disturbing is the ad hoc quality of the procedures used by many of the schools that collect this sensitive information. At the 40 percent of colleges that train staff on how to interpret criminal records, the training is most often provided by campus security or “other staff.” The lack of in depth-training is troubling because criminal records are often inaccurate and almost always more complicated than they may seem at first blush.

A major complication in interpreting criminal records is that state laws vary so greatly that two college applicants from different states, convicted of the same offense at age 15, could end up with entirely different criminal history records. One may end up with an adult record while the other will have no adult record whatsoever. In some states anyone older than 16 can be prosecuted as an adult and end up with a permanent record. In other states the cut-off age is 18, and those who are younger will be processed in the juvenile system, which protects them from a permanent conviction. Without training, admissions officers will not be aware of the vagaries of state criminal records and will be more likely to make arbitrary decisions based on inaccurate facts.

There are important public policy reasons to eschew the collection of criminal history information from college applicants. The fact that African Americans and Latinos are overrepresented in the criminal justice population is no longer open to question. Racial profiling and the heavy concentration of police in low-income, urban neighborhoods have led to high rates of arrest, prosecution and conviction among communities of color. An African American in the city of Los Angeles is seven times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, a misdemeanor, as a white person is. A Latino in the same city is twice as likely to be arrested for that offense as a white person. Yet government studies show that whites use marijuana more than either blacks or Latinos. Based on these facts, screening for criminal records cannot be a race-neutral practice.

Are there serious risks involved in not conducting criminal background checks? There is no empirical evidence that students with criminal records present a threat to campus safety. Only one study has investigated the link between criminal history screening and improved safety on campus; no statistical difference in campus crime was found between schools that screen and schools that don’t.

The U.S. Department of Education has concluded that “students on the campuses of post-secondary institutions are significantly safer than the nation as a whole.” The most horrific campus crimes, like the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings, are committed by students who don’t have criminal records. Rape and sexual assault are the only crimes showing no statistical differences between college students and non-students, and those offenses are most often committed by inebriated students who have no prior criminal records. Thirty-eight percent of the respondents in our survey reported that they did not use criminal justice information in their admissions processes, and none of them indicated that they believed their campuses were less safe as a result.

Colleges and universities can responsibly refrain from collecting criminal background information about applicants, and by doing so will be able to attract a diverse student body and maintain a safe and secure campus. But if criminal history screening is done, it should be done according to reasonable, fair and written policies and procedures:

  • Remove the disclosure requirement from initial application for admission and ask for criminal justice information only after conditional admission.
  • Limit the disclosure requirement to convictions for felonies (not misdemeanors or infractions) that were committed within the past five years and that were committed after the applicant’s 19th birthday.
  • Establish admissions criteria that are fair and evidence-based, e.g., remove barriers to admission of individuals who are under some form of community supervision and provide an opportunity to document personal growth and rehabilitation.
  • Base admissions decisions on assessments that are well-informed and unbiased by developing in-house expertise and performing an assessment and multi-factor analysis to determine whether a past criminal offense justifies rejection.
  • Establish written procedures that are transparent and consistent with due process. Applicants should be informed in writing of the reason for the withdrawal of an offer of admission and should be afforded the right of appeal.
  • Offer support and advocacy including on-campus support services for students who have criminal records.
  • Evaluate the policy periodically to determine whether it is justified.

There are great social benefits associated with a more educated citizenry — more informed voters, better parents, and a more skilled workforce, to name a few. A college education is a crime prevention tool: colleges and universities promote public safety in the larger community when they open their doors to people with criminal records who demonstrate the commitment and qualifications to pursue higher education.

Marsha Weissman
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Marsha Weissman is executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives. The organization’s full report, "The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered," can be downloaded from its website.

Risk Springs Eternal

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed reported the efforts that colleges and universities are making to put a stop to the ritualized mayhem on assorted campuses, typically as a rite of spring, that is as deeply embedded in campus lore as any sanctioned event. These range from a singular event, like Tufts University's Naked Quad Run, to a multi-day event like the University of Connecticut's infamous Spring Weekend, a four-day informal but well-known series of un-sponsored parties in various locations on and near campus that took place last weekend.

Each of these events leads to predictable results: multiple cases of severe alcohol poisoning and hospital transports, physical and sexual assaults, vandalism, increased personnel and equipment costs, embarrassing media coverage and cries of outrage from the general public about why colleges "allow" these things to happen. As far back as 1998, the higher education press was reporting on the intractable nature of UConn's Spring Weekend, chiding administrators for not doing enough to prevent the mayhem.

I spent four years as dean of students at the University of Connecticut, and thus had a front-row seat at both the multiple strategy meetings held by various administrators in advance of Spring Weekend and at the events of Spring Weekend themselves, and I can tell you with absolute certainty: "allowed" is not a descriptor that applies to these events.

Two years removed from that position, and now at a small college with its own Spring Weekend (and its own challenges), I've had the opportunity to ponder the lessons I learned during those four years. While I was not part of the conversations that led to the most recent request by UConn administrators for a moratorium (soundly rejected by the student government), I empathized with my former colleagues in their efforts to respond to demands that the event be "canceled." I can hear the familiar plaint now: "How can we 'cancel' something we don't put on in the first place?"

Spring Weekend at my current institution, despite having the same name, is on such a different scale as to not even warrant comparison to the behemoth that is UConn's event, but, as I often observe, students on most campuses are similar in some fundamental ways, and I've tried to apply what I learned at UConn to my understanding of this weekend. Some of those lessons are ones that some of my colleagues on other campuses learned long ago, and perhaps offer some insights into why the management, or, even more extreme, the cancellation of these events, is so problematic.

Observation 1: A lot of students like to drink.

Not all students like to drink, and not many students like to drink to such excess that they poison themselves, but a pretty darn high percentage like to drink to the point where they feel a little buzzed, a little uninhibited, a little more edgy than they feel during the day. Any current research on student alcohol use will tell you that drinking is a very popular co-curricular activity, and any student activities professional will tell you that the presence of alcohol is the flame to our student moths. If an “event” promises the availability of free or cheap alcohol, students will show up. You cannot fight this attraction with non-alcohol events, no matter how much fun they might appear to be.

Observation 2: Students like spectacles, especially dangerous ones.

Like most of us, students like big crazy events, even if it's more to observe them from a safe distance. I knew many students who attended Spring Weekend events at UConn not to participate in the mayhem and destruction themselves, but to witness it and to be able to say, "I saw this kid from my calculus class, butt-naked, standing in the bed of a pickup truck, pounding on his chest." Or something similar. And if they can capture that image in some way and post it on YouTube or Facebook, all the better.

The important distinction is that they don't want to be the butt-naked guy in the truck (well, most of them don't, but there are always a few who will accommodate the masses and the media). They just want to see him. They want to see the fights, but don't want to fight. They want to see the arrests, but don't want to get arrested. In this way, they are not unlike the general population. For me, one of my most unsettling experiences at UConn was when I found myself following another administrator through the crowd to stand on the edge of the medical triage area and observe the falling-down drunk and bleeding students being carted toward the medical trailer. I realized that the group I was with had the same rubber-necking motives as many of the students in attendance.

Observation 3: Students like to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Anyone who's ever attended a football game at one of the true "big houses" of NCAA football understands this. When you are one of a hundred thousand screaming fans at a Michigan or Alabama home game, you feel connected in a unique way to the rest of humanity (at least that part of humanity that roots for the Wolverines or the Tide). You are one of thousands dressed in the right colors, singing the right songs, cheering at the right moments, and it's simply transcendent.

It is this most basic human desire, to be connected to a cause and powerful with promise, that has led nations into battle. College students recognize that these are the moments they will carry into middle and old age, moments replete with color and noise and a level of outrageousness that no night in a campus coffee house or bouncing around, relatively sober, on an inflatable obstacle course will match.

Observation 4: Threats don't work.

In the recent Inside Higher Ed piece, an administrator was quoted as saying that students need to "understand how important the reputation of their school is to the integrity of their degree" and that these huge embarrassing events damage the value of their diploma. Nice try, but I don't think many students make decisions about attending or supporting these events based on this reasoning. I'm not even sure I believe it anymore.

Harvard and Yale have some over-the-top events that involve excessive drinking. Dartmouth has its famous Winter Carnival. I have not seen evidence that the bad behavior of some students has soured employers on these institutions. It's different, obviously, if a job candidate has an arrest record because of a campus incident, or if that student drank so excessively throughout college that he or she ended up with a mediocre GPA. But most employers are savvy enough to know that schools that have big spring weekend parties or nude footraces also produce capable employees and will not dismiss an entire institution out of hand because of the deeply rooted, though troubling, traditions of its student body. Besides, most employers were college students themselves, and some probably stood on the sidelines cheering on the butt-naked guy in the pick-up truck, and know it didn't destroy their integrity or work ethic.

Observation 5: Parents help. A little.

One of the things I love about my students, though it puts them at risk more times than I like to think about, is their ongoing love affair with immortality. Students rarely think about consequences. Recent research on brain development explains this as the not-quite-finished adolescent brain being unskilled at thinking through all the possible outcomes of specific actions. Students do not, like those of us of a certain age, make connections between things like, say, attendance at an event where there are a lot of law enforcement personnel and getting arrested. Or, maybe, attendance at an event where there are a lot of drunk people with beer bottles in their hands and ending up with 25 stitches in one's scalp. Frankly, they don't often see the connection between parking in a fire lane and getting a ticket.

So the students who attend this year's UConn Spring Weekend events are unlikely to think about the classmate who was killed last year by a random punch thrown by a drunk partygoer and connect that kind of risk to their own actions.

Their parents, however, think about all of these things, all the time. They read the press coverage of students' arrests, injuries and deaths on campuses all year long, and at the conclusion of each article, feel a wave of sympathy for the parents of that student and a flood of relief that it was not their child. So when Spring Weekend or a similar event rolls around on their child's campus, parents can, and do, say things like, "Come home." Or, "Here's a hundred dollars. Visit your high school friends on another campus." Or "I'm coming to visit that weekend. What do you have planned?" For many students, the executive function their brains lack can be substituted for by their parents, and that can literally be the difference between life and death.

Observation 6: It eventually gets old.

One thing we knew at UConn was that first-year students participated most heavily in Spring Weekend events, and that each successive year saw fewer students involved. For most students (not all, unfortunately), vomiting in front of friends, flashing their breasts to a crowd of drunk men armed with cameras, risking their scalp, and taking a ride in a paddy wagon to the local police station are not activities that warrant repeating.

And this is what comforts me, if anything does, when I think about these events: most students eventually figure out the difference between a buzz and alcohol poisoning, and learn to moderate their intake. What's frustrating for all of us — administrators, parents, law enforcement — is that there is very little we can do to speed up this process, or keep them out of harm's way in the meantime. Which brings me to my final observation.

Observation 7: They are better at taking care of each other than of themselves.

The best strategies, I believe, are those that focus on helping students identify the signs of alcohol poisoning in others and knowing what to do when they see those signs. Students believe themselves to be immortal. They don't ascribe such a trait to their friends. And you only need a couple of reasonably sober people in a group of drunk friends to realize someone is in trouble and then to get help.

That's where the second important strategy is important: help needs to be nearby. It is easy to criticize the staff members at campuses who are less aggressive about confronting students holding "open containers" during these events than they would be at other times. But personally, I would rather have my students within view, and have public safety officers within reach of those students if needed. We may be accused of “looking the other way,” but I think it’s actually the exact opposite: we are looking right at them, and I believe that kind of presence can change their actions in a positive way.

And the truth for me is, I can live with the accusations of hypocrisy and inconsistency more easily than I can live with the death or serious injury of a student. For that reason, I have supported the recent efforts of our alcohol task force to implement a policy they call "SAMM" (Safety Always Matters Most). On some campuses, this is known as a "medical amnesty" or a "good Samaritan" policy, but I asked the group to be as straightforward in its nomenclature as possible. These policies, under whatever name a campus chooses, are similar: get help for someone in need of medical assistance, and we'll mostly forgive whatever transgressions you might have also committed. I say "mostly" because we will, at the very least, have a conversation with you about the situation. But our message is clear: safety matters more than rules, policies, consequences.

If I can keep my students safe, I figure, through whatever version of Spring Weekend they choose to participate in, there will be time enough for them to figure out the ways adults are expected to behave in the world. This is a bargain I make that few outside my profession seem to understand. To those critics, I suggest that you trust we care more about our students than about liability, and that we understand them, from years spent up close observing them, in ways most people don't.

If there was a way to "cancel" Spring Weekend, Spring Fling, Fountain Day, Fool's Fest, or whatever a campus calls its out-of-control student-led party, we would have done it. Without that option, we will employ the strategies we think give us all the best chance of surviving a rite of spring as deeply embedded as commencement, another busy weekend on our campus, but one we want all of our students to be around to enjoy.

Lee Burdette Williams
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Lee Burdette Williams is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.

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