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From In Loco Parentis to Leviathan

The sexual liberation of college students led inexorably to the protective intervention of the state.

One of the fruits of the sexual revolution was the rejection of longstanding rules and guidelines governing behavior of students at the nation’s colleges and universities. Known as in loco parentis—“in place of the parent”—these institutions were understood to stand in for parents, and hence dictated rules regarding dormitory life, dating, curfew, visitations, and comportment. Adults—often clergy—were charged with patrolling the dormitory halls and campus grounds, seeking to discourage any opportunity for young people to do what teenagers and young adults have always sought to do—engage in a bit of hanky-panky beyond the watchful eye of their elders.

Some 50 years after the liberation of students from the nanny college, we are now seeing not a sexual nirvana, but widespread sexual confusion and anarchy, and a new form of in loco parentis—the Parent State.

An article that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times entitled “Fight Against Sex Crimes Holds Colleges to Account” describes how a number of universities are now under federal investigation for claims of mishandling cases of alleged sexual crime, abuse, and harassment. It details how the federal government is becoming more aggressive in compelling universities to doggedly pursue accusations of sexual harassment under provisions of the Title IX nondiscrimination statues. It also tells of reporting requirements mandated by the Clery Act, which requires all institutions of higher education that receive federal financing to disclose the number of sexual assaults on or near their campuses each year. This, and an increasingly aggressive Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, are putting colleges and universities on notice that they had best doggedly investigate any and all accusations of sexual assault, lest they fall afoul of federal authorities and put their federal funding in jeopardy.

As a member of the faculty at Notre Dame, I recently received an email from our campus security officer reminding me that I am considered to be a “Campus Security Authority” and that I am therefore required under the Clery Act—a federal law passed in 1990—to report any and all incidents of possible sexual assault that I might encounter. This requirement applies whether I am told directly, or overhear accidentally discussions of such incidents; whether I have been asked to keep the incident confidential (perhaps even by someone who does not want to file a claim or accusation); whether they happened on or near campus (what is “near”?); whether they are rumor or third-hand tales; whether they are happening now or happened at some point in past (no evident statute of limitations, so be careful what you brag about on your 50th college reunion weekend). The email lets me know from the campus’s “Clery Manager” that am required/obligated/it is my duty/responsibility under federal law to report anything I might hear that would then be subject to further investigation.

The lifting of in loco parentis rules on college campuses was done in the name of liberating students—adults—from the watchful and even invasive eye of campus authorities. It has led to a condition of sexual anarchy in which young women especially seem to be vulnerable (“compounded by a culture of binge drinking”), according to the New York Times article. But one must speak of their safety, not vulnerability.

As a consequence of that liberation, campuses are now being required by the federal government to be more aggressive in investigating and bringing forward for prosecution those who have been accused of various forms of sexual assault. Having gotten out of the business of overseeing and seeking to guide the behaviors of young people, universities are now being required by the government to investigate and potentially punish offenders after incidents have occurred.

In this one corner of our nation’s activities, we see a microcosm of the trajectory of liberalism. Longstanding local rules and cultures that governed behavior through education and cultivation of certain kinds of norms, manners, and morals, came to be regarded as an oppressive limitation upon the liberty of individuals. Those forms of control were lifted in the name of liberation, leading to regularized abuse of those liberties. In the name of redressing the injustices of those abuses, the federal government was seen as the only legitimate authority for redress and thereby exercised powers (ones that often require creative interpretations of federal law to reach down into private institutions) to re-regulate the liberated behaviors. However, now there is no longer a set of “norms” that seek to cultivate forms of self-rule, since this would constitute an unjust limitation of our freedom. Now there can only be punitive threats that occur after the fact. One cannot seek to limit the exercise of freedom before the fact (presumably by using at one’s disposal education in character and virtue); one can only punish after the fact when one body has harmed another body.

In effect, this immorality tale is Hobbes in microcosm: first tradition and culture must be eliminated as arbitrary and unjust (“natural man”). Then, we see that absent such norms, anarchy is the result (“the state of nature”). Finding such anarchy unbearable, we turn to a central sovereign as our sole protector, that “Mortall God” who will protect us from ourselves (“the social contract”). We have been liberated from all custom and tradition, all authority that sought to educate by habit and within the context of ongoing communities, and replaced it with a distant authority that punishes us when we abuse our freedoms. And, now lacking any informal and local forms of authority, it’s virtually assured that those abuses will regularly occur, and that the role of the State in ever more minute personal affairs will increase (“Prerogative”).

In place of the parent we now have a distant power which, perhaps like a parent, seeks to punish us when we act against decency and civilization. But, unlike a parent, it does not educate or seek to cultivate its wards into self-governing adults. It infantalizes us by saying that we don’t have to grow up—just don’t get caught. Of course, know too that your professors and every adult on campus—while we can’t speak of norms or character or morality or virtue (and most don’t even believe in such things) will be acting as “agents” and reporters. You are free, but Leviathan is watching.



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