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Far from Full Circle

Julia Lipman

“Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” the 60s adage goes. I’m not sure whether reporter Ethan Bronner is over thirty years old, but the New York Times certainly is, 148 to be exact. So maybe that explains why Bronner’s recent article, “In a Revolution of Rules, Campuses Go Full Circle” completely misses the point about the “greater supervision” of undergraduates which he claims U.S. colleges have begun to practice lately.

Bronner’s article prompted a good deal of debate. Katie Roiphe, of “The Morning After” fame, wrote that a return to more restrictive rules is positive because it feels so deliciously naughty to break them. A college administrator countered that he didn’t spend his time laboring over codes of conduct just so the likes of Katie Roiphe could enjoy violating them. Present and former college students weighed in as well. But no one questioned the basic assumption of Bronner’s article: that colleges are uniformly imposing stricter regulations on students now than in the recent past. For example, he reports that Lehigh University freshmen meet weekly with a faculty member for their first semester. And the University of Wisconsin has two residential colleges in which faculty and students take part in activities like “bicycle trips, pumpkin carvings, and dinners.”

None of these examples as much as suggests “an updated and subtler version of in loco parentis,” the pre-70s policy under which colleges could act as parents. The Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley was sparked by a 1964 administrative decision that students would no longer be permitted to engage in most on-campus political activity relating to off-campus issues; even postering for candidates was not allowed. Faculty supervision was required at debates about controversial topics. Policies relating to student political activism were by no means limited to Berkeley. Colleges also had curfews and rules about visiting other students’ dorm rooms. These restrictions would be unthinkable now.

Of course, there are other, less benign, examples of supervision cited by Bronner’s article, mainly in the area of alcohol and party policy. The University of Virginia is planning to begin notifying parents of student alcohol violations. Lehigh has required all student parties to be supervised by a staff member. And we’ve all seen what can happen with such restrictions on this campus.

Even though he’s right about alcohol policy, Bronner gets it exactly wrong when he tries to explain the causes of these restrictions. He points out that “some analysts see the new structured environments as a continuation of the day care centers and summer camps that became far more prevalent after women began entering the work force in large numbers in the 1960’s.” He quotes a California State University professor as saying that parents have “abdicated their responsibility.” Paradoxically, he also cites greater parental involvement as a cause: “Parents stay in much closer contact with their college-age children than did those of a generation ago.” And he even discusses the view that today’s alcohol restrictions and greater student-faculty interaction may be evidence of “the imposition of a liberal orthodoxy.”

By lumping together truly draconian alcohol policies with voluntary, get-to-know-your-faculty programs, Bronner has succeeded in muddling the issue. Alcohol policies stem from a fear of litigation, not a desire to impose political beliefs on students. Bronner fails to recognize that alcohol policies and “community building” activities are very different concepts with very different causes.

What about here, at MIT? We’ve seen a great deal of changes in the past few years with regard to alcohol and party policies. But the 1980s may not have been the freewheeling era that we think we remember now. Residents of many dorms were on mandatory meal plans in the 1980s. Student activities wishing to show a sexually explicit film on campus were required to get prior permission from something called the Ad Hoc Pornography Screening Committee, which no longer exists. The only significant changes in the Residence Handbook between 1979 and now have been in the areas of harassment policy and Athena rules of use. Some might say that such changes are a good thing; while hazing was merely “strongly discourage[d]” by MIT in 1979, it’s against Massachusetts law now.

Overhyping positive programs for students and faculty as a return to in loco parentis only distracts from the real issues. Such an approach either paints honest efforts to open communication at universities as the work of overbearing administrations, or it trivializes the really troubling assaults on students’ rights by viewing them as a needed end to the 80s fend-for-yourself approach characterized by Wisconsin chancellor David Ward as a “Darwinian experience.” There is indeed a “revolution of rules” on some campuses, but it’s a lot more complex than Bronner makes it out to be. We are a long way from going “full circle.”