Most college undergraduates are between the ages, approximately, of 18 and 22. By most legal standards, they count as adults.
Yet college is often a transitional stage, when students navigate new responsibilities and freedoms. This raises the question: How much responsibility should the college or university face when students make mistakes – or commit crimes – outside the classroom?
Slate columnist Emily Yoffe rekindled a longstanding controversy recently when she suggested teaching college-age women that binge drinking dramatically heightens the risk of sexual assault. Critics accused Yoffe of victim-blaming, and argued that we should focus on teaching students, especially young men, not to rape their peers and ensuring that those who do are punished. Yoffe’s defenders countered that we live in an imperfect world, and so it is irresponsible not to educate young adults about the risks associated with their behavior.
One journalist, however, reframed the question. Keli Goff of The Washington Post wrote of the controversy: “Well here’s another idea. How about blaming colleges?”
Goff’s column posits that colleges have often turned a blind eye to underage and excessive alcohol consumption on campus, and that they have faced no real pushback for doing so. She also discusses a Title IX complaint that seven women filed against the University of Connecticut, alleging that the university did not properly handle their sexual assault reports. (Four of them, along with a fifth plaintiff, have also filed a federal lawsuit against the school.)
Gloria Allred, the lawyer representing both the seven women in the original Title IX complaint and the five plaintiffs in the lawsuit, spoke with The Post and declined to comment on the role of alcohol, if any, in her clients’ assaults. She did, however, comment in a more general way, saying, “I do think there is a correlation between abuse of alcohol - especially among minors but not limited to minors - and injury, victimization, violation against students.”
Leaving aside whether UConn properly addressed the complaints that these particular women lodged, there have been many widely reported cases in which students (usually but not always women) offer specific, highly credible accounts of the difficulties they faced when they sought protection or justice, or both, from administrators who seemed to simply wish the complainants and their complaints would just go away. I have no doubt that there is a serious problem in how colleges handle reports of abuse, sexual and nonsexual alike.
But Goff’s column goes further, suggesting that colleges generally do not do enough to control binge drinking and minimize the risks of sexual assault by and against students. Though she observes that some suggestions, such as raising taxes on alcohol, are out of the schools’ control, she still makes the case that colleges could do more to prevent these issues before they arise.
Yet here’s the rub. Nobody, to my knowledge, is advocating that we restore the voting age to 21. We still allow 18-year-olds to make binding multi-year commitments to serve in the military. An 18-year-old can go to prison for engaging in sexual relations with someone more than a few years younger. And even juveniles below the age of 18 can be prosecuted as adults for a wide array of offenses.
So why are colleges responsible for the choices, especially off-campus choices, of students 18 or older?
Sexual assault is a serious offense, and it seems to get more serious by the day. Parents of young adults, college-bound or otherwise, need to have an equally serious talk with their children about unanticipated consequences. No means no, and making any assumption to the contrary can ruin your life. Putting yourself in a situation where you can’t say no, or where you are among people who may disregard your wishes, is dangerous and can be devastating. Both messages can apply to either gender, notwithstanding that most of what we hear relates primarily to boys in the first instance and to girls in the second.
What responsibilities should universities have? They must provide reasonable security within their facilities, of course, including respectful and thorough follow-up of any reported crime. Schools also are, or should be, responsible for reporting crimes of all sorts - sexual and otherwise - to the proper authorities, to cooperate with any subsequent investigations, and certainly never to hinder them. That means making evidence and witnesses freely available.
Colleges would be best served by dropping the pretense that a campus ought to be a law-enforcement island, subject to its own policing rather than that of the jurisdiction in which it resides. Administrators fearful of bad publicity may prefer to close ranks against allegations of wrongdoing. Yet taking such a course not only will poorly serve their students, but can open schools to larger scandals down the road.
And, of course, colleges must take any complaint of assault and harassment seriously. In many ways, a school functions much like an employer, and that model should guide how allegations of crime are handled. A student who violates school policies, for example those regarding underage drinking, ought to face the same penalties as an employee in the workplace: namely, if the offense is serious enough, forfeiture of one’s place in that organization. If a student engages in sexual assault or other serious crime, schools should call cops and prosecutors, not university provosts and presidents. School administrators are not law enforcement officials, and we should not expect them to be.
Attorneys like Allred have much to gain, both from the standpoint of publicity and compensation, from filing lawsuits that blame the universities. The rest of us, however, should focus on more reasonable expectations of what a college can do, and reject this effort to stick yet another set of hands into the pockets of the tuition-paying public.