The Apparatus of Responsibility: Post-In Loco Parentis American University World  
Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at 10:48AM
David H.K. Nguyen

The late legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin wrote in his book, Justice for Hedgehogs, that “[r]esponsibility is an indispensable concept across our intellectual life.” Dworkin reasoned that there are two forms of responsibility, one concerning personal virtue and the other related to liability. Though distinct, Dworkin and other leading legal philosophers have argued the need to not ignore either when applying legal and political interpretations. Dworkin, like many others, believed that morality has a place in our legal and political framework. Though people differ on many bracing issues of the day, take to heart the need to apply a moral lens. In this case, applying a moral lens to higher education in terms of that personal virtue of responsibility in a post-in loco parentis (in the place of a parent) world.

In American colleges and universities today, students are suffering. This is not merely an alarmist quip about the harsh realities of life when in fact problems are not as bad as they would seem. Indeed, they could be worse, but people ought not to wait for things to get worse before taking actual notice to problems. Take one example, suicide. The CDC has reported that from 1999 through 2014 the suicide rate, for all ages (10-74) and for males and females, has increased by 24%. While suicides committed by college students are significantly lower than the general population, there has been a growing trend called “cluster suicides” on campuses which is when one suicide occurs and others follow. Yet, according to a CBS News report, most public colleges do not even track suicides. But this is more than just about suicides, as disheartening as it is, but about the responsibility of college students, parents, and the institutions themselves. It is about moral responsibility when it comes to drug and alcohol use, rape and sexual assault, and other immoral behaviors or unfortunate events that often cascade and affecting other individuals, including parents of other students and the colleges and universities who are or are not responsible.

In loco parentis, a common law doctrine whose origins can be a bit murky, is generally attributed to the English judge Sir William Blackstone who in 1769 wrote, in what is known as Blackstone’s commentaries, “[The father] may also delegate part of his parental authority, during his life, to the tutor or schoolmaster of his child; who is then in loco parentis, and has such a portion of the power of the parent committed to his charge…” In loco parentis would be adapted to the then more autonomous, early American universities as the new nation adopted its English Common Law principles along with its new found liberties via rebellion against the British Empire and the creation of the nation’s newly formulated constitution. It was clearly understood by the courts that colleges by right had the authority to discipline, tutor, and dictate the lives of their students pre-1960. Several cases illuminate the views of the nation’s courts concerning students and their respective colleges.

In People v. Wheaton College (1866), a student at Wheaton College, Edwin Pratt, joined a secret society and was suspended by the college for doing so. The Supreme Court of Illinois ruled in favor of the college finding that, “discretionary power has been given [to college authorities] to regulate the discipline of their college in such a manner they deem proper,… .

In North v. Trustees of University of Illinois (1891), the University of Illinois expelled a student for refusing to attend chapel and again the Supreme Court of Illinois ruled in favor of the college stating, “By voluntarily entering the university, or being placed there by those having the right to control him, he necessarily surrenders very many of his individual rights.”

This common law practice remained until the 1960s court case, Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education (5th Cir. 1961), where the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Black students who had been expelled by Alabama State College for participating in civil rights demonstrations. The 5th Circuit ruled that public university students were obligated a 14th amendment right to due process, therefore in context, a prior notice and hearing concerning expulsion. Dixon signaled the end of in loco parentis. The responsibility of moral discipline by higher education ironically became sterilized in the process of newer, nontraditional liberties recognized to adult college students. How a practice that lasted decades ended so matter of factly without consideration of making increment adjustments is worth further review. By losing the parental authority of in loco parentis, the balance and clarity of responsibility has tilted.

Since the Dixon decision, new programs like FERPA and HIPPA sought to serve and protect students and their parents in various capacities in hope of filling the hole of in loco parentis. Nevertheless, parents have felt the need to know more in situations where their children, even as young adults, are facing dangerous or problematic issues. A revised, responsible doctrine of in loco parentis could be the solution. But should colleges handover information about their students’ private lives when they harm themselves or others? What is harm? What about adulthood? What are the responsibilities and consequences concerning actions as an adult? So many questions need to be asked and reconsidered before making long-term decisions. What is certain, however, is that college students and the institutions that serve them have a responsibility of great importance.   

This post was authored by Edward "Kyle" Richey, a masters student in Higher Education Administration at The University of Texas at San Antonio. 

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