A Better Idea Has Replaced 'In Loco Parentis'
--a Chronicle of Higher Education article with reference to the "Wheel Project" and college houses at Penn

November 1999

A few months ago, an article on the front page of The New York Times announced a "revolution" in undergraduate life, reporting that colleges and universities are bringing back in loco parentis with a regime of rules and regulations. The Times claimed that students now seem less hostile to guidance by college officials, and that baby-boomer parents are increasingly insisting that faculty and staff members do more to supervise students outside the classroom.

According to the Times, many institutions now ban parties on the campus if an adult is not present, prohibit students from rushing a fraternity or sorority in their first semester, and have established "living and learning communities," with professors residing in the dorms.

The Times is only partly right: In loco parentis is not really making a comeback, but living-and-learning communities may be changing students' lives.

In the 19th century, the golden age of in loco parentis, academic regulations covered virtually all aspects of students' lives, from libido to laundry. For instance, in 1885 the Princeton University faculty resolved that "should any students continue to have their washing done in town as heretofore, it must be done under the supervision of the College office."

Although surveillance of students became less extensive in the years that followed, the regime of moral tutoring persisted into the early 1960s, with curfews, dress codes for classrooms and dining halls, and parietal rules -- including the requirements of "three feet on the floor" and keeping the door open when a male student visited the dorm room of a female student, or vice versa.

In loco parentis is hardly back in vogue today, not even in what the Times describes as "an updated and subtler version." Supervision of the personal lives of students in 1999 remains as it has been for 30 years -- virtually non-existent. Student-life handbooks contain no rules for deportment, as they did in the past, and deans of students no longer strike terror in anyone's heart. Some institutions, such as the University of Michigan, have even repealed their speech codes, arguing that students should be free to say just about anything. Student workshops -- such as Duke University's "How to Avoid Dating Hell," "Self Image, Body Image, Eating & Weight," and "DWI -- See Your RA Drunk" -- continue to be offered on hundreds of campuses, but their concerns are the exploration of personal identity and the discussion of racial, sexual, and gender differences. They are neither subtle nor updated versions of in loco parentis; the values they promote are neither enforced nor enforceable.

The ballyhooed return of in loco parentis, it seems to us, is little more than a series of new rules -- adopted to minimize liability and litigation -- to regulate the consumption of alcohol on campuses. Significantly, since such rules have been on the books, drunken students have virtually never been disciplined, dorm rooms have almost never been inspected, and binge drinking has reached epidemic proportions.

However, we believe a much more important, and more positive, development in higher education is occurring: the proliferation of living-and-learning communities, which aim to eradicate the boundaries between the life of the mind and recreation, between intellectual and social life. The University of Wisconsin at Madison has established the Bradley Learning Community and Chadbourne Residential College, both of which offer personal-development and multicultural programs as well as faculty-led discussion groups on such subjects as the rise of democracy in ancient Greece.

In 12 new college houses at the University of Pennsylvania, students find academic-support services in mathematics, writing, and information technology. Faculty members also offer free, non-credit, short courses in the houses, on topics including "The Constitution in Everyday Life" and "Sinatra and the American Pop Singer"; the courses have long waiting lists. It turns out that both students and faculty members enjoy intellectually stimulating interaction in formats where no one has to worry about meeting the requirements for a major or the credit system, with its constraints of Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 10 a.m.

At Cornell University, where we teach, a new initiative to reconstruct and reconceptualize the residential environment is under way. A committee of faculty members, administrators, and students has been charged with devising ways to create a unified living-and-learning experience for sophomores, juniors, and seniors, regardless of their major (freshmen will soon be housed together on a separate part of the campus). The idea is to give undergraduates opportunities for close daily contact with faculty members and graduate and professional students, by offering residence-based classes, seminars, class sections, and study groups, as well as advising and career services in the residences. Faculty members and graduate students will live and eat in the dorms. The goal is to have students realize that learning and intellectual inquiry are not limited to classroom interactions.

A consensus is emerging in higher education that dormitories, along with fraternities and sororities, should not be "intellect-free zones." Faculty members at Cornell seem to agree with that view.

Yet, although Cornell professors have agreed to discuss with students subjects that the faculty members know about, are interested in, or are beginning to investigate, they have made it clear that they are unwilling (and unqualified) to be moral tutors, let alone moral police, in undergraduate residences. In raising the issue, many cite as an ominous portent the Cornell administration's effort each spring to enlist faculty members to patrol the campus during the Slope Day celebration of the end of the academic year, and to separate students from the liquid refreshments they carry. Few faculty members answer that call.

We doubt that Cornell is the only institution where in loco parentis, in fact, poses a threat to the implementation of a living-and-learning community, by scaring off professors unwilling to take on such supervisory responsibilities.

Students do not want or need substitute parents. A codified set of rules and regulations will not modify undergraduates' behavior any more than posting the Ten Commandments would have prevented the shootings at Columbine High School.

Interring in loco parentis while offering settings where both living and learning take place can free colleges and universities to do what they do best: foster intellectual inquiry as a fulfilling, and often enjoyable activity that can and should occur. At the same time, such communities can promote relationships that originate in an exchange of ideas and that may lead to personal growth -- and sometimes even a friendship that endures long after a student has graduated.

Glenn C. Altschuler is a professor of American studies and dean of the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions at Cornell University. Isaac Kramnick is a professor of government at Cornell.


Document URL: http://www.english.upenn.edu/~afilreis/wheelstory.html
Last modified: Monday, 01-Nov-1999 12:50:31 EST