‘In loco parentis’: invasions of privacy or moral formation?

by Joanna K. M. Bratten

A couple of years ago a 23 year-old student of Thomas Aquinas College was expelled for breaking the college rule prohibitingits unmarried students to spend nights outside their dormitories, unless first granted permission in writing. Not only did she repeatedly commit this violation, but compounded it, by spending these nights in her boyfriend’s off-campus apartment, in flagrant disregard of the school commitment to basic Christian moral principles. After warnings, which went unheeded, TAC took action and expelled her. She responded by suing the college for violation of privacy.

From a legal and moral perspective her case appeared to have little merit. TAC’s policy on the matter was well documented, the student was fully aware of the policy and of the consequences of violating it, and she had been given fair notice. TAC had every right, in these circumstances, to do what it did. And indeed, the suit was eventually dropped. Still, the case has opened up a whole can of worms by invoking the concept of student “privacy.” What should a college or university regard as “private” in the lives of its students?

As Susan Fischer recently pointed out, the purpose of a university is to educate the whole person. Education cannot be restricted to a classroom; most university students mature not only intellectually but emotionally and—especially at universities such as Franciscan University and TAC—spiritually, even morally. But should the moral life be taught outside of a class in Christian Moral Principles or Ethics? And if so, how? This is where the debate begins.

Many universities, even Catholic universities, allow their students to “learn the hard way,” leaving them free to dabble in petty—and not so petty—vices during their formative college years. Many students, living for four years or more in such an environment find themselves entrapped for the rest of their lives by vicious habits developed in college. Some universities go too far in the opposite direction, making incoming students sign contracts upon arrival which state that they will not smoke, drink, or even date while they are students at that institution. What happens to a young person in such a situation is perhaps best left to the imagination. Obviously, neither end of the spectrum is the best way for a university to help its students mature emotionally and morally. But where is the golden mean?

An educational institution such as TAC seems to have all the best motives in demanding that its unmarried students live on campus and not spend unapproved nights off campus. By restricting the freedom of the students, they hope to instill in them a very clear knowledge of how best to behave as a human person, made in the likeness of God. “Sleeping-over” regularly at one’s boy/girlfriend’s is a practice which any “dynamically orthodox” Catholic university would wish to discourage in its students. However, is it meet that an academic institution act in loco parentis to ensure that such practices do not occur? Or is it indeed a violation of an individual’s privacy when an academic institution insists on keeping an omnipresent eye upon his or her behavior?

Without condoning premarital sex or other such “private” sins, I would like to argue that a university should not require itself to expel a student for fornication. TAC, not having expelled the student in question for this moral offense, is quite in the right in expelling the student for violation of university policy, but is that policy altogether fair in the first instance? Compared to the policies of private institutions such as Bob Jones University, alluded to earlier, TAC’s policy seems to offer enough room for its students to live, move, breathe and sin. But when each individual student—as an individual and as a student—is considered, such a strict policy might do more harm than good.

The best parents learn early on that if a young person is forbidden to do something and is given a pat answer as to why this thing should not be done, more often than not the child goes right ahead and does it, getting hurt in the process. But if a parent explains why a thing is not the best choice and can point out reasonable alternatives and then lets the child go forth and put his own judgments to work, sooner or later the child will come around and see the issue as the parent sees it. I think students can be looked at similarly.

In the best of all possible worlds all college students would be reasonable enough to learn to behave in a manner which becomes a true student, a true seeker of truth. In this utopia of sorts students could be expelled for only two reasons: failure to meet academic standards and violation of any university policy which damages other students, staff, faculty, or the reputation of the university itself. But, as Voltaire has wryly reminded us, we are not living in the best of all possible worlds. The moral and intellectual waste land which is our world today sends students into college who are in need of not only education, but complete reformation on a moral and spiritual level. So, many universities are forced to tighten their grip on the personal lives of their students, just to prevent the entire institution from being sucked into the flow of post-modern materialistic amorality.

It is rather a fruitless inquiry to ask if universities have the right to attempt to reform the moral lives of their students and invade their privacy. It would seem that restricting the actions of the students would prevent all those little sins at midnight which keep the students from jaunting down the straight and narrow, yet we must acknowledge the fact that these college students are, like it or not, adults. As adults they should be given the freedom to make adult choices, some of which may be personally detrimental. And above all, if college students are not treated like adults and given at least one chance to prove their capacity to make rational, healthy choices, they will never have the room or the motivation to grow.

Privacy is a word which is flung around with little discretion in this day and age, particularly in the abortion debate, and other “rights” debates. In this particular context, however, privacy should be regarded as not so much the right of the individual to do whatever he wants to himself, but as the right of the individual to be permitted to exercise his own judgment within reason. If a student is suspected of being suicidal, or suspected of substance abuse to an extremely dangerous degree, then perhaps the university powers-that-be do have the right, as fellow human beings, to investigate and help the student as they can. But this is a very different sort of intervention than preventing a student from sleeping off campus when he chooses.

Perhaps the best answer to the problems which our colleges and universities face is found in the family, in the rebuilding of the family. We know that if children went through moral formation in the home, academic institutions would not have to worry about amorality running rampant. But since the family has deteriorated as far as it has, we must be realistic and determine how to treat the problems as we can. It is generally found that it is best to give a person too much room to act than too little room. God is generous enough to have granted us free will; only by exercising our free will can we ever learn why we were given it.

Joanna Bratten graduated from FUS in 1997 with a BA in English Drama and is presently a teaching assistant in English, working as a Resident Assistant in an undergraduate hall and writing a PhD in English Lit at the University of St Andrews in Fife, Scotland.