Letter to the Editor: Cultivating moral fiber

Undergraduate Gary DeVercelly Jr.’s death from excessive alcohol consumption at Rider University — his blood-alcohol content was 0.426, which is more than five times the legal limit for operation of a motor vehicle — placed the issue of unregulated student drinking under close public scrutiny. What is more, the legal pursuit of other students and even administrators has brought university responsibility under similar scrutiny. Rider University has, to its credit, taken some remedial measures, including the prohibition of social events with alcohol in residence halls and Greek houses.

But the source of the problem is much deeper than these measures suggest. The real problem is the complete abdication by colleges and universities of their obligation to foster sound character in undergraduates. Historically, higher education enthusiastically embraced this task as integral to the mission of education. These schools practiced a doctrine known as in loco parentis (“in the place of the parent”) and regulated the personal conduct of the students over whom they had responsibility. Starting in the 1960s, in loco parentis was almost universally abandoned in colleges and universities, with the predictable riot of drunkenness and sexual indulgence taking its place.

In 2005, The New York Times reports, the University of Wisconsin began the long road back to sanity in this matter and instituted a parental-notification program for drunken undergraduates. Students who are found drunk must meet with a dean, who in many cases is then required under the school’s policy to notify the students’ parents of the incident. “We’re not calling home to tattle,” said Tonya Schmidt, an interim assistant dean of students at the university. “We’re calling to ask parents to be partners with us. We are saying that we’re concerned, and want to work on your child making better choices for the future. We do want the students to know there are consequences, but our goal isn’t to be harsh and punitive. It’s to make sure this behavior doesn’t happen again.”

The University of Wisconsin does not just employ parental notification in trying to change the pervasive culture of inebriation. University Chancellor John Wiley has met with tavern owners in the area to request that they not promote such drink specials as free shots with beers. The Times quotes Wiley proffering this rationale for the policy: “Unambiguously, alcohol abuse is the No. 1 health and safety problem on every college campus. I don’t even know what would be No. 2. Just about every unpleasant incident, every crime, involves alcohol abuse by the victim or the perpetrator. The question is, what do you do that’s effective to prevent it? And there’s no magic bullet.”

Of course there is no magic bullet, but this policy is a very prudent start. What is curious, however, is Wiley’s observation that alcohol abuse is the primary “health and safety problem” on campuses. A health and safety problem it is, to be sure, but more pressingly it is a moral problem that strikes at the heart of undergraduate character development. The concern comes down to a very basic proposition: All colleges and universities, whether public or private, have a serious obligation to prepare young men and women for responsible citizenship in a regime of ordered liberty. Self-government is predicated on a citizen’s capacity to govern himself, and that means he must develop — through family, church and education — the capacity to regulate his antisocial impulses and drives.

The notion that young men and women who have spent four years of unrestrained indulgence are ready to participate in a self-governing society is laughable.

It is not clear whether the admirable restoration of a limited but important form of in loco parentis at the University of Wisconsin will encourage other colleges and universities to recognize their gross dereliction in this area and adopt a similar approach. According to The New York Times, “The Wisconsin approach to problem drinking has been studied by other universities, including Minnesota and Penn State … St. Lawrence University … and Ohio Northern University have developed similar parental-notification policies.”

It is hard to see how the party can continue. With the average cost of public universities at approximately $20,000 and private universities at $35,000 (and up), higher education needs to do more than produce debt-laden, self-absorbed hedonists. Colleges and universities earn their astronomical tuition when they produce young men and women fit for life in civil society.

— Gregory J. Sullivan,
Attorney, Hamilton, N.J.
Reprinted with permission of
The Times of Trenton

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