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Mark Yudof: A Warning To Students Who Want Universities To Act as Parents

college students sitting in a circle studying and discussing

Mark Yudof, former president of the University of California, has a warning for college students asking for increased university supervision: Be careful what you wish for.

In a recent op-ed for The Dallas Morning News, Yudof condemns universities for trampling due process rights and protecting students from ideas and they find disturbing. FIRE shares these criticisms and works every day to protect individual rights for students and faculty. Our “strong student” model similarly posits that students should be presumed strong enough to handle contentious and uncomfortable rhetoric and debate.

Yudof, in “Students Want Universities to Act as Parents, But They Won’t Like The Results,” seems to share this sentiment, explaining how students’ calls to reinstate the in loco parentis doctrine is deeply misguided. He argues students today don’t realize that they are veering into dangerous territory where school authorities are given the same rights as parents to make rules for them.

When students call upon administrators to discipline speech that is perceived as offensive or hateful, they give universities broad moral authority that is ripe for abuse. Well into the 1950’s, Yudof writes, “school leaders were expected to make moral judgements for students and enforce them.” Administrators could regulate political speech and police student sexual behavior, even if it was consensual. (Sound familiar?) Yudof reminds modern university students how the post-WWII era and the Free Speech Movement changed all that—for the better. Students demanded that they be treated like adults and their rights respected. But recently, censored comments, the implementation of bias response teams, and administrators’ intrusion into students’ sex lives suggest that we are drifting back to that older “paternalistic” model of the university.

Yudof provides an alternative vision for empowering students to act as responsible adults, admonishing, “universities are not homes, administrators are not parents. University students are not children.”

The piece ends with a triumphant vision of what a university education is ultimately for:

We live in an era in which people can easily isolate themselves ideologically. . . But universities are one of the few places where one encounters others with different points of view and engages in robust debate. Universities should seek to undermine confirmation biases. Effective democracy requires reflective, critical and well-informed participants. Universities should be educating for democracy.

As student rights are increasingly jeopardized on campuses across the country, we at FIRE hope that college students heed Yudof’s thoughtful warning.

You can read his piece in full here.

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