Last week, students and administrators at Yale University fought over a series of racial incidents. A fraternity at the university was accused of excluding nonwhite women from a party. Students and administrators also argued over whether it was appropriate to curtail potentially offensive Halloween costumes. That conflict escalated when students confronted a residential administrator and accused him of not being sufficiently interested in creating a safe environment for students.
Events at the University of Missouri reflect similar tensions -- there were multiple allegations that the system president and campus chancellor did not properly respond to bigoted incidents, which led to protest and the two men's resignations.
Observers and critics have been quick to label these incidents as more tales of overly sensitive students rubbing up against the demands of free speech. But that analysis misses the larger issue: colleges have two very different standards for student-administrator relations that are often in conflict.
The first standard might be called the procedural protection model. Emerging from the late 1960s, the idea is that students are responsible for their own actions and deserve due process in cases of misbehavior. This approach to students replaced an earlier legal doctrine called in loco parentis, whereby colleges and universities treated students as children. Professors and deans could punish students in nearly any fashion. Institutions could expel students at will. That system is now seen as harsh, but it was defended by many people at the time as an appropriate tool for quickly responding to complaints about student disruption and violence.
In loco parentis was overturned after federal courts argued that college attendance was more akin to membership in a union or other organization that had procedural protections. No longer could students be expelled on a whim. Since then, we’ve seen colleges and universities develop handbooks, speech codes and internal judicial processes for judging misconduct.
At the same time, colleges created an entirely different model for student-administrator relations that might be called the “cultivated community.” In this model, students expect a college to go beyond its basic mission of providing advanced instruction in various academic disciplines. Administrators should provide comfort and security for students. We can see this in the wide range of services that colleges provide, including health care, counseling and entertainment.
Furthermore, many colleges promote the idea that the campus is a place for collaborative learning -- that even though we may have heated debates, those disagreements serve to make students part of a larger intellectual community, not exclude them. Thus, the administrator interacts with students via his or her role as the manager of a community designed to improve student satisfaction and well-being.
Colleges reinforce this view when they recruit students. Brochures depict students happily talking with professors or smiling in a laboratory. They often show students in a well-furnished dormitory or relaxing on a lawn with friends. Rarely do they show students in anger with a professor or administrator who states a political view they disagree with. Nor do they show students learning the difficult lesson that freedom of speech protects virtuous speech and vitriolic speech.
Often, these two approaches to student life peacefully coexist. But at other times, they come into direct conflict, especially when the demands for procedural protection make it hard for a college to maintain the support that students expect as a normal part of their college education.
For example, the regime of procedural protection suggests that administrators should be wary of regulating student Halloween costumes. It is not the job of administrators to legislate dress. If it were, deans would need to develop a costume code and judge violations of that code. Not surprisingly, few, if any colleges, have such a code.
Yet what may seem intuitive from a procedural standpoint can seem inhumane from the perspective of the cultivated community. The lack of a widely accepted rule about offensive costume means that there is a real possibility that every Halloween a boorish student will dress as a Klansman, a Nazi or some other horrific figure. It is not hard to see how many students would not feel properly supported if they routinely see Klansmen and Nazis on the quad.
At the University of Missouri, someone painted a swastika -- apparently with feces -- in a restroom. Understandably, students would want swift action from the highest level of the administration stating that this was not tolerated. Rules designed to protect procedural rights could lead to a delay in the investigation and response, suggesting that administrators did not prioritize an atmosphere of safety.
It might be tempting to dismiss these concerns as matters of free speech. This misses the basic point, however, that colleges, like businesses or churches, are allowed to ask their members to adhere to certain codes. Given that is the case, colleges have to recognize that they have standards for student-administrator relations that are occasionally in conflict. The administrator who tolerates a wide range of behavior and investigates violations with all due process is not the administrator who can promise that students will always feel comfortable on the campus.
Until we in higher education acknowledge that basic truth, we will continue to have disputes between administrators who want to let students say what they please and students who demand that college provide a wholly supportive and nurturing experience.
Fabio Rojas is associate professor of sociology at Indiana University at Bloomington.
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