Minding one’s own business

A recent article in the Connecticut Mirror covered Senator McCaskill’s concern about how colleges are (mis)handling allegations of rape. There is a planted assumption here, which really merits being pulled out and examined. A little history is necessary.

Historically, tension existed between universities and the towns in which they were located. This “town-gown” dynamic led to universities establishing their own police forces. These university police had a dual role: maintaining order on campus; perhaps more importantly, protecting university members from local authorities.

Within living memory, colleges were expected to act in loco parentis, that is, in the parents’ place. Colleges had rules governing contact between the sexes, and the use of alcohol, among other things. Many colleges were segregated sexually; those that weren’t certainly had dorms that were.
While certainly not perfect, this combination of police and parent powers gave the universities the tools needed to maintain some level of order and civility within their walls. This system was dismantled in the 1960s and 1970s. Administrations ceded their “parental” responsibilities. Schools and dorms went coed. Any remaining regulations on alcohol went unenforced.

What remained was the adversarial relationship between town and gown, with college administrators still feeling a vestigial duty to “take care of their own”. This means keeping government police off campus. Powerless to set policies that might prevent problems on campus, universities now find themselves burdened with the need to adjudicate problems after the fact. The problem is that colleges have no judicial structure, no training or skill in sorting out facts and determining culpability.

How then is it a surprise that colleges are performing poorly a task for which they are utterly unsuited? Expecting them to enforce “town” laws on “gown” members is to ask them to violate an ethos so deeply ingrained that the colleges may no longer even be aware of it.
The solution seems fairly obvious: don’t ask colleges to be courts. When a crime has been alleged, engage the criminal justice system. As long as universities are powerless in exercising parental rights, they should be held blameless in student misconduct. Maybe, if we let the police do the policing, judges do the adjudication, and universities do the educating, all three jobs will be better performed.

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