A warning to college parents and grandparents

August 11, 2011

If you’re a parent or grandparent with a child heading off to college later this month, beware: College isn’t what it used to be.

Whether your own college experience was more like The Paper Chase or Animal House, you can be sure that today’s campuses are neither. Instead, your tuition and tax dollars are funding an ever-growing army of bureaucrats that police everything from free speech to dating. Administrators now outnumber faculty on our nation’s campuses, and even students’ innermost thoughts are subject to their oversight. Each year, the college experience gets closer to that of a TSA line at the airport — but one that you have to live in for four years.

One popular approach colleges take is to write policies so broad that virtually every student on campus is guilty of something. Not coincidentally, that leaves college administrators free to choose to punish anyone that they have reason to dislike.

Speech codes are one example of this. Columbia, for example, deems “offensive conduct or comments” to be sexual harassment. Is it possible for anyone to live in one place for four years without making a comment that someone could find offensive? Northern Illinois University bans “Intentional and wrongful use of words, gestures and actions to annoy, alarm, abuse, embarrass, coerce, intimidate or threaten another person.” NIU’s students, if this absurd and unconstitutional code were widely known across campus, would most likely respond with their own annoying or alarming gestures. But most students don’t find out about a college’s speech code until they’re brought up on charges for violating it.

Sex and dating can also land students in a world of trouble that few students would ever suspect exists. While campuses are rightfully concerned about sexual assault, some colleges have decided to define even normal (if perhaps unwise) collegiate behavior as a kind of “sexual misconduct.” Princeton, for example, absurdly says that you can’t consent to sex if you are merely “under the influence” of alcohol. Not drunk — just “under the influence.” This goes for both partners, rendering huge numbers of students the unwitting rapists of one another. Even married students, if they both drink a glass of wine before a romantic interlude, are guilty under Princeton’s rules of sexually assaulting one another. These kinds of rules are not only foolish; they are damaging the credibility of campus administrators working to stop actual sexual assault.

In April, the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights made the situation even worse by mandating that campus courts use a “preponderance of the evidence” standard — meaning that it must be only slightly more likely than not that a person is guilty — to determine if students are to be punished for sexual harassment or assault.

Unjust policies like this can ruin a student’s academic career. Take Caleb Warner, a student at the University of North Dakota who was accused of sexual assault and found guilty by the university based on that “more likely than not” standard. But when the local police finished their investigation, they charged not Warner but his accuser with lying to them about being assaulted, and issued a warrant for her arrest. Despite this development, UND refused to even reconsider the guilty finding for an entire year.

Stanford University recently lowered its evidence standard from “beyond a reasonable doubt” (the standard used in criminal cases) to “preponderance of the evidence” right in the middle of a student’s sexual assault case. He was found guilty of violating Stanford’s Princeton-like rule about drinking and sex. The verdict was unsurprising considering that Stanford’s “training” for student jurors included advice that acting “persuasive and logical” is a sign of an abuser, and that “everyone should be very, very cautious in accepting a man’s claim that he has been wrongly accused of abuse or violence.”

Stacking the deck like this would never pass muster in a real court; imagine how unfair it is when the jury only needs to be 50.01% certain someone is guilty.

Your sons and grandsons are particularly targeted by administrators. At Hamilton College, male freshmen were required to attend a seminar called “She Fears You,” which was billed as a “cognitive and emotional intervention” that would address male-driven “rape culture” on campus and make clear what beliefs were “no longer acceptable.” Only after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) exposed Hamilton’s plans did it make this creepy exercise optional. One has to wonder: If Hamilton truly believes that it has a “rape culture” on campus, isn’t it morally bound to warn incoming female students about it before they pay their tuition?

And the federal government has recently made the campus kangaroo courts even more marsupial. April’s mandates from the Department of Education not only required a low standard of evidence for sexual misconduct charges, but also that both sides have equal rights of appeal. This sounds fair enough — until you realize that even those cleared of transparently bogus accusations can now effectively be tried all over again. There’s a reason both sides aren’t allowed to appeal in the real criminal justice system.

Both this provision and the requirement to use the “preponderance of the evidence” are also part of a bill that has been introduced in Congress called the Campus Sexual Assault Violence Elimination (“Campus SAVE”) Act. If it passes, these unjust requirements will not simply be a matter of federal regulation, but the law of the land.

You might ask, “Is that so bad? Aren’t these students in the hands of the most intelligent and educated people in our society? Can’t we expect them to administer whatever rules they have fairly?” Quite simply, no, you can’t. Who can forget the Duke lacrosse case, where, early in the process, 88 professors signed a statement, published in the newspaper using university dollars, that presumed the three falsely accused lacrosse players guilty? Not one of them is known to have recanted his or her support for that rush to judgment. Many of them, in fact, have been promoted or gone on to more prestigious jobs. Here’s a question worth asking your loved ones’ college administrators, should you meet them: Would you agree to be tried for a crime using the same rules you provide for your students?

What can you do to help protect your child or grandchild from the perils of today’s campus justice system? Make a copy of this article for them. Look up your campus on FIRE’s website at thefire.org and study up on student rights. And if a student you care about should run afoul of the campus speech or thought police, contact us.

Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of FIRE.