BY AARON BARLOW
Somewhere around 1970, I walked by a wall on a college campus that had been plastered with a huge poster of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Below, someone had splashed the words “loco parentis.” That was exactly how we students felt in those days about college and university power over our lives. Then, it was the administrators, wielders of the “in loco parentis” concept, who were our enemies. Faculty were our allies in our fight to be fully adult, to make our own decisions—and mistakes.
Faculty, in fact, were more than allies. Aside from being our teachers, they were our friends, our neighbors and, yes, sometimes even our lovers. We were part of a single community, one that did not extend to administrators—or not very far (those who had been faculty were admitted; the rest were merely tolerated).
There were power dynamics within our community. Faculty did hold sway over grading and various perks, but all of those were seen as fleeting. Sometimes, there were stand-offs. I remember a fellow undergraduate who, when told by the professor that anyone who smoked in the classroom would automatically fail, lit up a cigarette. He smoked throughout the semester and accepted his F graciously (though his work had been of a high level). Both he and the professor made their points.
Sometimes, sex was used inappropriately, as it is throughout American culture. This was a major problem at the time, just as it is now.
That professors could be as human and even abusive as anyone else, however, was an accepted part of the landscape of that earlier time. Fellow students, after all, could be as bad—or worse. So could the people we encountered elsewhere (bosses, anyone?). We all wanted to change the world, but singling out professors as our oppressors seemed self-defeating to most of my friends and to me. Our teachers, for the most part, were on our side. We knew this. There was real safety among them on our university and college campuses.
Yes, ours was a privileged environment.
We appreciated that, and knew that, and also knew that not even privilege kept out tragedy. But our professors mourned when we did, mourned with us—not for us and not because of us. Once a semester, if not more frequently during my undergraduate years, a student I knew at least slightly died, many in auto accidents, one murdered, others for a variety of reasons. Rape happened, but most of the incidents I recall were off campus. It was our professors who helped us through grief and pain, not paid professionals on the college staff but caring members of our community, people we interacted with daily.
Life could be hellish even for the privileged young in the late sixties and early seventies (remember Vietnam, anyone? Not every middle-class white boy got a deferment). Worse, possibly, if you were black, Hispanic, a woman, a person with a disability, from a class under-represented at your college or even from a distant region or country. What we had that others in American culture did not, however, was a non-judgmental (outside of their professorial duties) body that, for the most part, gave us unquestioning support. Telling us when we were wrong, sure, but never turning away from us.
This was most apparent in the aftermath of the Kent State (and then Jackson State) killings in the spring of 1970.
It is hard, today, to imagine or even remember the breadth and depth of the horrified response on American college campuses to those killings. Even at Utica College, the unheralded, conservative school I was then attending, we students insisted that life not go on as usual. Classes were cancelled—basically because we refused to attend. An emergency session of the Faculty Senate ended with full support for the students.
Such a thing could not happen today.
The wedges pounded between faculty and students have split the trunk of the tree they together once grew. The wedges, and the sledgehammers that drive them, were created for a number of reasons, some of them even laudable, some (like the attempt by the right, led by David Horowitz, to demonize the faculty for purely political reasons) not so much so. The effect, the often unforeseen consequence, has been to make the faculty into the enemy of the students, who now see themselves protected, instead, by the administrators who, in my day, were the ones seen as oppressors. Who, today, serve the agenda of the neoliberal university and not (though they claim otherwise) the wellness of the college community.
What, particularly, happened?
Perhaps it started during my time in college when Congress passed and President Nixon signed the Education Amendments of 1972. Their Title IX states that:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
Wonderful. At least I thought so, and every person I knew thought so—including my professors.
We had no idea what this would become. Forty years later, “Title IX” sounds less like progress than like the title of a horror movies. Perhaps it has done some good in erasing some sexual discrimination and predatory behavior (I don’t know) but, today, it is used as a jackhammer to break up the cement that once held faculty and students—our real college communities—together.
Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University who began her own Title IX nightmare by penning an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, writes about what she then experienced:
Perhaps you’re wondering how an essay falls under the purview of Title IX, the federal statute meant to address gender discrimination and funding for women’s sports? I was wondering that myself, and continued to wonder during the seventy-two-day “investigation” that followed. I’ll have plenty more to say about the Title IX process, but the answer, in brief, is that the culture of sexual paranoia I’d been writing about isn’t confined to the sexual sphere. It’s fundamentally altering the intellectual climate in higher education as a whole, to the point where ideas are construed as threats— writing an essay became “creating a chilling environment,” according to my accusers— and freedoms most of us used to take for granted are being whittled away or disappearing altogether. Sexual paranoia has converted the Title IX bureaucracy into an insatiable behemoth, bloated by its own federal power grab, though protests are few because— what are you, in favor of rape culture or something? Also, paranoia is a formula for intellectual rigidity, and its inroads on campus are so effectively dumbing down the place that the traditional ideal of the university— as a refuge for complexity, a setting for the free exchange of ideas— is getting buried under an avalanche of platitudes and fear.
That’s from her Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus (Harper).
The scuttlebutt on this new Kipnis book is that, in it, everyone will find something to hate. The author doesn’t mince words and in no sense is trying to bring people together, to create one happy campus family by papering over its differences. She’s trying, instead, to force audiences within college and university communities to stop avoiding grappling with very real problems—not just of predatory sexual behavior but of alcohol abuse and a system of Title IX enforcement that is out of control. Like B. F. Skinner used to do (much to the detriment of his own reputation), she pokes people hard in order to generate responses, to get people talking and examining what they had just been walking by in ignorance or avoidance.
She succeeds in that, admirably. She shows just why we no longer have campus communities where there is any feeling at all of safety. She writes:
rampant accusation is the new norm on today’s campus; the place is a secret cornucopia of accusation, especially when it comes to sex. Including merely speaking about sex…. And those in the know are too terrified to speak out because the complaints typically arrive with demands for confidentiality and threats that speaking about the complaints will result in potential job loss or expulsion.
The rise of the corporate university over the past several generations has only made it easier for Title IX to become a tool for the powerful who want to cut to pieces the remaining shreds of faculty power:
Encouraging students’ sense of fragility is swelling the ranks of potentially jobless professors while bolstering the power of administrations over faculty. As more of us get charged with newly invented crimes, more administrators get hired to adjudicate them, administrators whose powers blossom the more malfeasance they can invent to ferret out. Which means that in a situation already prone to projection and fantasy—teaching—faculty are sitting ducks for accusations made by emotionally troubled students.
This is a forceful accusation and a needed warning. Who, one should ask, is taking advantage of whom? Kipnis goes on:
The reality is that a set of incomprehensible directives, issued by a branch of the federal government, are being wielded in wildly idiosyncratic ways, according to the whims and biases of individual Title IX officers operating with no public scrutiny or accountability. Some of them are also all too willing to tread on academic and creative freedom as they see fit. Not long ago I spoke to a creative writing teacher who’d been grilled by his campus’s Title IX officer about why he’d taught poems with sexual content in a writing workshop. I also read the lengthy self-defense he prepared, which included a defense not just of his teaching methods, but of Walt Whitman, a previous era’s sexual renegade and, according to many, America’s greatest poet. (Whitman had come up in the investigation; it wasn’t clear if the investigators knew of him.)
Not to sound like a doom-monger, but this is the face of something gone incredibly wrong in higher education.
And she is right.
Something has gone incredibly wrong.
Toward the end, Kipnis relates the story Jessica Wilson in relation to a Title IX case dealt with extensively in her book:
Wilson’s boyfriend (now husband) had been a junior professor in the same department when she was a grad student, and she hadn’t suffered any particular consequences. “In fact, I think I held most of the power in that relationship. Still do,” she said, laughing. They’d been married thirteen years. Of course, her then-boyfriend had been a mentor to her, she told the faculty panel, because they were all in an intellectual community together. Mentorship isn’t a top-down enterprise, she said; it’s a community held together by a lot of late-night socializing and drinking and gabbing.
Such communities are being blown apart nationwide, and Title IX, especially in the hands of the bureaucrats now commanding our universities, is one of the explosives.
Agree with Kipnis or not, her book is well worth reading. There is much more to it than I have described here, though it is a slight volume. If nothing else, whether we agree or not with everything Kipnis says (I tend to agree), this book can help us understand the tragedy that has been unfolding around us, now, for 45 years in what were once our campus communities.
Loco parentis, indeed.