Freedom of Association Questions for the ‘Gentlemen’ of Wabash College

November 25, 2008

Wabash College, a liberal arts college for men in Indiana, famously has only one rule of student conduct, the "Gentleman’s Rule": "The student is expected to conduct himself at all times, both on and off the campus, as a gentleman and a responsible citizen."

It is implied that faculty members and administrators (including some women) are gentlemanly, too, and that they should act accordingly. Such a rule as the Gentleman’s Rule would be unconstitutionally vague at any public college. The tradition at Wabash, however, is to interpret the rule as providing a great deal of freedom for the students, and until recently, students and faculty members have trusted that the rule would not be enforced arbitrarily or unjustly. There seems to be no explicit due process protection for students, just an expectation of basic fairness. (I think the college could easily state some protections and give students some due process guidance without interfering with the Gentleman’s Rule as a rule of student conduct.)

Nevertheless, it may well be that students at Wabash are freer than their counterparts at most other schools, many of which have speech codes, "free speech zones," wildly unconstitutional anti-harassment policies and "zero-tolerance" policies against hate speech, or even "bias incident" reporting systems, where students can report (sometimes even anonymously) on each other’s so-called unacceptable biases. Wabash has none of these.

But when I was on campus last Wednesday, I learned a lot about an issue that has roiled the campus, engendered distrust among students and faculty members who do not understand what is going on (and seem to be getting contradictory accounts from various parties involved), and put the status of the Gentleman’s Rule in a bit of jeopardy.

The issue began when some students, or at least one student, broke the law and engaged in underage drinking, possibly while students over 21 looked the other way. The student returned to his Delta Tau Delta fraternity house after drinking far too much and subsequently died. While a police investigation was underway, a number of senior leaders of the fraternity were interviewed by the administration. Within weeks, the college disbanded the fraternity and required the students over 21 to leave the fraternity house and live elsewhere. The whole student body was notified of these punishments and was told, as one would expect, that administrators had found "a culture and practice of ungentlemanly behavior and irresponsible citizenship" at the fraternity.

So far, so good; this outcome is more or less what everyone I talked with on campus was expecting. Although many questions remaindid the fraternity really need to get shut down so quickly, and was it just for the seniors to be told on Thursday that they must leave their fraternity brothers and find new housing by Sunday?and those I spoke with expressed concern that they are not getting the information they want, the general feeling is that people on campus can see how this result seems fair enough. What has raised serious questions, however, is the next step taken by administrators. Apparently, at least two of the student leaders of Delta Tau Delta were told that they were so unfit for leadership that they must resign their leadership positions in other student organizations. Thus, the Sphinx Club (a spirit and leadership club) andof all thingsthe Cooking Club both lost their presidents. The students involved are keeping silent and seem to be pretty scared of retaliation, but the universal understanding on campus appears to be that the students were forced out and that they did not "voluntarily" leave their positions.

Does the administration have the right to decide who is fit to be a leader of a student organization and demand that student leaders step down? Because the rules at Wabash are so vague, nobody is quite sure, but the move seems unprecedented to those I spoke with.

In any case, the students themselves don’t buy the administration’s actions. In fact, last year, the Student Senate passed a resolution asserting that student groups will not tolerate outside interference in their leadership choices. That legislation has been invoked again this year by both student government organizations on campus, the Student Senate and the Senior Council, both of which have passed resolutions demanding that the administration stop "interfering with the right of students of Wabash College to select the leaders of their student organizations." In addition, the student newspaper, The Bachelor, has taken sides, publishing a front-page editorial to express "the level of concern the student body has towards the Administration’s most recent actions." The editorial argues:

Forcing student leaders to resign from their positions doesn’t follow any semblance of logic. Many students continue to have deep feelings of mistrust and anger. Club members have privately expressed their disillusionment, outrage and bewilderment towards a coerced exit of those that they selected as their leaders.

Wabash College is a private college, and it is free to set its own rule or rules of conduct, so long as it follows them. I mention the case here because it provides a wonderful example of an alternative to the rule of law, exemplifying a regime characterized by trust in one’s leaders. That is, at Wabash everyone is simply expected to act like a gentleman, and the citizens expect that their leaders will know what’s ungentlemanly when they see it and will respond appropriately. At the same time the case of Wabash is a wonderful example of a drawback in such a regime: When the leaders are no longer trusted as much as before, the fear of arbitrary abuse of power rises and a culture of fear begins to replace the culture of trust.

I saw that fear during a campus forum at which I spoke last Wednesday. It was not a very rational fear, given that both student government organizations and two student newspapers all felt strong enough to voice concerns without expressing any fear of retaliation. Nevertheless, the fact that all the people who know the truth aren’t talking in detail has clearly raised questions about transparency and trust in the Wabash administration. It is clear to me that the Wabash administration needs to take action to regain the trust it has earned over decades of gentlemanly enforcement of the Gentleman’s Rule.