Last November, student protests over claims of racial discrimination and insensitivity erupted at Yale and across the country. The protests were sparked by an email sent by Associate Master of Silliman College, Erika Christakis, which criticized the university administration for issuing guidelines to regulate students’ Halloween attire. While the ensuing debate revolved primarily around political correctness, free speech, and institutional racism, most of her supporters and critics alike missed Christakis’ central intended point. Her email was not, at its core, about race or speech, but about power, and it raised a simple but fundamental question: Who gets to define the boundaries between the permissible and the impermissible?
To Christakis, the answer was clear: The university, with its massive bureaucratic structure, should not have the power to set the bounds of what is or is not morally acceptable conduct. Such judgments ought to be left to the students.
As a result, Christakis and her husband were relentlessly pilloried, resulting regrettably in their resignations a few weeks ago. Yet in articulating this critique of university power, Christakis’s language was actually deeply resonant with the radical spirit of America’s first wave of 1960s student activism. The Berkeley protests of 1964, known ironically as the “Free Speech Movement,” were intended not to empower campus administrators to combat social inequities, but rather to demolish the invisible instruments through which the university exerted control over students’ lives and ideas.
This resistance to university power found intellectual expression perhaps most notably in the writings of Michel Foucault. Through a series of historical studies, Foucault argued that modern liberal society had not brought about the emancipation it promised. Operating through new forms of “pastoral power” and "normalized judgment," mass society inaugurated a new kind of social control, in many respects even more dangerous than that of the illiberal past. As the student activists of the ’60s well understood, the university’s power to regulate behavior often through implicit instruments was one of the most dangerous forms of this distinctively modern means of social coercion.
It was for these reasons that the radical left fifty years ago set out to destroy universities’ power over students’ lives. And it was for these reasons that in her email, Christakis warned students of “the consequences of an institutional (which is to say: bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.”
Traditionally, university policies regulating student behavior have been closely associated with in loco parentis, or “in the place of a parent.” The doctrine holds that having taken students away from the home—the natural locus of moral development—the university inherits the ethical responsibilities of the parent. To this end, universities were historically charged with cultivating a certain kind of character in their students by promoting traditional scripts of life and by enforcing behavioral codes of conduct (including most notably for recent post-pubescents stringent standards of sexual morality).
With this historical perspective in mind, Yale’s campus turmoil reveals two sets of awkward allies across the last half century of university politics. In articulating a skeptical critique of university power and in denouncing administrators’ right to uphold norms of conduct, the radicals of the ’60s (and Associate Master Christakis) find themselves the intellectual bedfellows of contemporary campus conservatives. And in demanding that administrators do more to promote a holistic account of student welfare and in calling for clearer moral guidance from the university about how students should responsibly interact with their peers and with society at large, today’s student activists use language that would have been intensely familiar to mid-twentieth century conservative defenders of in loco parentis.
Having all but abandoned their radical skepticism toward the controlling power of mass social judgment and the implicit power of entrenched hierarchical elites, today’s campus activists are quite explicit in their appeal not to demolish the power of administrators, but to expand it. Of course faceless bureaucrats should be allowed to issue behavioral codes of conduct, of course mandatory sensitivity training is needed to instruct students and faculty how to act appropriately, and of course new administrative appendages are indispensable in the moral guidance of university life. Each of the remedies called for at Yale and elsewhere is symptomatic of a new-found faith in university administrators as responsible guardians of social justice and as legitimate moral authorities.
Nowhere is the call for a restoration of in loco parentis more clearly seen than in debates over the proper purpose of the residential college. Student activists have rejected the charge that they are hostile to intellectual freedom and free speech by pointing to the language Yale herself uses in describing the residential college system—language that is itself a relic of an older campus commitment to students’ moral development. Silliman College is not the Yale Political Union and the master is not the facilitator of debate. Instead, the colleges’ central purpose is to nurture and support students as they grow and develop.
This language of nurture and care quite plainly flows from the sphere of the household. The college’s role is to protect students and to aid their growth. These idioms of personal safety and security are certainly quite different from the language of moral development and character formation more traditionally associated with in loco parentis. Yet all this reveals is the limitation of a heavy insistence on the distinction between negative freedom (the protection from harm) and positive freedom (the formation into a “free” individual). As we rightly expand our conception of “harm” beyond brute physical violence to include forms of emotional and psychological suffering, it becomes clear that proper protection requires a broader administrative commitment to the promotion of certain behavioral mores. As has become increasingly clear over the course of the last year, there is no conceptual distinction between protecting students from harm in the broad sense and promoting their holistic wellbeing just as advocates of in loco parentis have always demanded.
Contrast this insistence on the college as an essentially nurturing space with an alternative conception of the role of a university education—that expressed by the 1974 Woodward Report on intellectual freedom at Yale. The report opens by declaring that “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching.” It continues that the university “is not primarily a fellowship, a club, a circle of friends, a replica of the civil society outside it. Without sacrificing its central purpose, it cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect.”
Though now official university policy, the report quite clearly embodies much of the radical spirit of the ’60s. The university’s primary role is not the formation of a certain kind of student or the promotion of a particular moral vision of the good, but rather the relentless pursuit of truth. Though ideally these ends will not conflict, when they do the university cannot forget its primary commitment is to scholarship, not parenting.
There of course remain important differences between traditional advocates for in loco parentis and today’s student activists that merit lengthy explication. But it remains striking that the contemporary campus left seeks to enforce its social morality through the same informal and institutional controls traditional societies have always used to enforce theirs—and against which liberals have traditionally chafed.
In making these observations, I have not intended to pass normative judgment on the character or aims of recent campus protests—though I have plenty of judgments to pass. Rather, I have attempted to point out a curious historical transformation in the contours of campus politics over the last fifty years. This transformation isn’t hypocrisy, but is merely the natural outcome of the cultural left’s dialectic with social reality. Accordingly, conservatives must do away with their stale critiques of a relativistic, nonjudgmental left and should grapple instead with the substantive conception of the good today’s campus radicals wish to enforce.
Indeed, the explicit revival of in loco parentis is in some sense a salutary development. For the last half century, universities have pretended to administer value-neutral, technocratic reforms while in reality they have vigorously embraced a thick moral vision of the kind of people their students should become. A frank acknowledgment that Yale does wish to shape (and perhaps can't help but shape) the moral lives of her students would be an honest improvement to contemporary campus discourse. We would do well to drop the facade that Yale remains agnostic between competing visions of the good life and to grapple instead with what values Yale ought to enforce upon her students.