How far off campus should universities be responsible for?

Attention conservation notice: In loco parentis arguments always come up around colleges, but I very much doubt colleges ever were the innocent places that they are in prelapsarian narratives about higher ed. However, if we aren’t going to see our mission as shaping young lives (I do, but that’s me), then other influences will step in. But: when dealing with risk assessment and privileged young men, why aren’t we confronting that privilege and belief about personal invulnerability just as much as admonitions to universities that they shouldn’t allow students to live off campus?

My own beloved USC has been caught up in this question, as they were sued by the parents of two students fatally shot off campus. The case is heartbreaking, but I keep bumping up hard against the fundamental problem that the murders happened off campus, in my neighborhood, West Adams. If the students had been shot in Venice (it happens), then would USC still be perceived as at fault? USC doesn’t own my house or belong to my neighborhood association. Perhaps they should, but…where would the geographic boundary of their perceived responsibility end?

These students were from China, and I think there is a lot going on culturally as well;as one of my brilliant students pointed out, gun violence in the US really has no analogue anywhere else, and students should know this before coming here.

In our case, it’s particularly confusing because at the same time the parents were suing USC, it was signing very expensive community benefits agreement for a relatively small development north of campus. So the parents were suing the university for…failing to gentrify a neighborhood that was accusing it of gentrifying. When you are big, powerful, relatively wealthy institution, these contradictions form the world, and my heart is not bleeding, really, for anybody but the family and friends who are devastated, but I am having trouble wrapping my head around what USC should do and should have done differently.

I find myself thinking about these issues this morning because I read Caitlin Flanagan’s yucky piece of commentary in The Atlantic Cities on the Dark Power of Fraternities this morning in the Atlantic. Clearly intended to be one of those long forms that everybody fawns over for its insight, it’s incoherent and self-indulgently long, and I almost gave it up at various points. The piece begins with droning on and on for paragraphs about a set of stupid injuries that occurred at a frat party, exploiting exactly the lurid and puerile details that she supposedly wants us to worry over. She claims that fraternities are shaping America’s leaders, which is a point, but there are many issues at play in that, like the self-selection of families who want to send their sons into that and the upbringing/acculturation that occurs before frat life.

In any case, the violence and lawlessness that Flanagan so gleefully relates is not the fault of parents, the fraternal organizations, but universities, their “knock-knee’d overlords” (wtf does that even mean?):

To begin with, the fraternities involved themselves very deeply in the business of student housing, which provided tremendous financial savings to their host institutions, and allowed them to expand the number of students they could admit. Today, one in eight American students at four-year colleges lives in a Greek house, and a conservative estimate of the collective value of these houses across the country is $3 billion. Greek housing constitutes a troubling fact for college administrators (the majority of fraternity-related deaths occur in and around fraternity houses, over which the schools have limited and widely varying levels of operational oversight) and also a great boon to them (saving them untold millions of dollars in the construction and maintenance of campus-owned and -controlled dormitories).

Yes, but, erhm. These are comparatively affluent students, by Flanagan’s own assessment. I’m pretty sure there are developers who would have served the demand for nice off-campus housing.

That said, if the universities annexed those houses and then leased them to the frats, at least the houses would be to university safety standards. Of course, there’s always the chapter getting national permission to buy another house off-campus, but the university could refuse to allow any off-campus house to affiliate with the university.

I do wonder about Flanagan’s perception that on-campus housing is the be-all and end-all. If college is adulthood with training wheels, then living off-campus has a role to play in that. I do understand the point, but we have moved away from company town ideas about institutional responsibility. If a Google employee gets drunk and falls off his balcony in a tony San Francisco apartment complex at a party with other Google employees, is it Google’s fault for not supplying housing on its campus for its workers? She discusses this as a matter of choice:

The answer to this question has been steadily evolving ever since the 1960s, when dramatic changes took place on American campuses, changes that affected both a university’s ability to control student behavior and the status of fraternities in the undergraduate firmament. During this period of student unrest, the fraternities—long the unquestioned leaders in the area of sabotaging or ignoring the patriarchal control of school administrators—became the exact opposite: representatives of the very status quo the new activists sought to overthrow. Suddenly their beer bashes and sorority mixers, their panty raids and obsession with the big game, seemed impossibly reactionary when compared with the mind-altering drugs being sampled in off-campus apartments where sexual liberation was being born and the Little Red Book proved, if nothing else, a fantastic coaster for a leaky bong.

American students sought to wrest themselves entirely from the disciplinary control of their colleges and universities, institutions that had historically operated in loco parentis, carefully monitoring the private behavior of undergraduates. The students of the new era wanted nothing to do with that infantilizing way of existence, and fought to rid themselves of the various curfews, dorm mothers, demerit systems, and other modes of institutional oppression. If they were old enough to die in Vietnam, powerful enough to overthrow a president, groovy enough to expand their minds with LSD and free love, then they certainly didn’t need their own colleges—the very places where they were forming their radical, nation-changing ideas—to treat them like teenyboppers in need of a sock hop and a chaperone. It was a turning point: American colleges began to regard their students not as dependents whose private lives they must shape and monitor, but as adult consumers whose contract was solely for an education, not an upbringing.

Welcome to neoliberalism where all institutions, including public ones, are supposed to be run like businesses.

Another point strikes me as worthy:

Moreover, fraternities tie alumni to their colleges in a powerful and lucrative way. At least one study has affirmed what had long been assumed: that fraternity men tend to be generous to their alma maters. Furthermore, fraternities provide colleges with unlimited social programming of a kind that is highly attractive to legions of potential students, most of whom are not applying to ivy-covered rejection factories, but rather to vast public institutions and obscure private colleges that are desperate for students. When Mom is trying—against all better judgment—to persuade lackluster Joe Jr. to go to college, she gets a huge assist when she drives him over to State and he gets an eyeful of frat row. Joe Jr. may be slow to grasp even the most elemental concepts of math and English (his first two years of expensive college study will largely be spent in remediation of the subjects he should have learned, for free, in high school), but one look at the Fiji house and he gets the message: kids are getting laid here; kids are having fun. Maybe he ought to snuff out the joint and take a second look at that application Mom keeps pushing across the kitchen table.

This is the sort of paragraph that makes me want to send both Flanagan and her editor back to college themselves. The first is an assertion that frat members are generous with alumni donations. She states it confidently. So she must have numbers. Where are those? Why isn’t that a whole paragraph itself? It strikes me as a very important point.

The second is a pretty good, vivid, colorful image that again strikes me as somewhat confused. Let’s dispense with one problem with focus–the digression about what he should have learned in high school. Damn straight–I’m 100 percent with Flanagan there. God how I wish that public schools were teaching for free what they could be, but they can’t because of so many issues it makes my brain catch on fire to think of them. (And many of them unrelated to things that school administrators and teachers can control.)

Then there’s the real point she makes: frats sell college to Stoner Steve. But what does that mean? Stoner Steve is ill prepared for college, lazy, and unmotivated. We get that.Ok. But I’m not sure it’s a terrible idea for him to go to college. I could see his story turning out a lot of ways. He gets in with other stoners and gets worse and sets himself on fire. (Bad.) He gets in with guys whom he respects, and whose approval therefore craves, because they contain all the manly man misogyny he has harbored for years of having a mother tell him what to do while bitches withhold sex he deserves by right, and his peers exert influence on him in ways that his mother and a college prof never could: get drunk and party, but make sure you get an A in intro to marketing or you won’t get into B school and your life of treats, toys, and sex will come to an end. The social mores coming out of that are a problem, but not necessarily for Steve himself. Loathsome, yes, but not entirely bad for Steve himself.

So the college does not admit him because he’s a lazy stoner, and he stays home and gets stoned with the same friends he gets stoned with now, or by himself since that is possible, too?

Should a college town like Iowa City or Blacksburg just give up having a mayor and city council and have their universities just run the whole show? A company town. Why not? It’s not like those universities don’t have, by far, hegemony in local politics anyway.

I’m puzzled, and I don’t know what I think. I do know that I haven’t been persuaded by Flanagan’s mess of an article, which makes me angry largely because I think she had the opportunity to write something important and she went for cheap shots with labored jokes to be all-too-clever instead. Her core point, which is that when people were more controlling of young people, fewer young men set themselves on fire. I suppose that is true. But one does wonder about the state of the world when an institution has to be responsible for dashing the bottle rocket from an 18 to 22 year-old’s hands. Shouldn’t, at some point, his friends and his own sense step in?