Students must assert autonomy, take responsibility

When a young life is lost, there are always questions. Why them? Why now? And, sometimes, who’s to blame? Such was the case with Brandon Hall. Although the precise circumstances of Hall’s death are rare at the University, the underlying question of responsibility is not. As the University begins another academic year with a new class of incoming students, it is beneficial to reflect on what role parents and students expect the University to play in their lives.

Until the 1950s, universities across the country accepted that the school stands to some extent in the role of the absent parent, or “in loco parentis.” Parents, wanting their children to be protected, expected the universities to care for and to watch after their offspring. But in the 1960s, students across the country rebelled against such institutional paternalism, fighting for their rights to be autonomous, responsible individuals.

Now, however, some of this responsibility has shifted back to the institutions of higher learning. The same adults who fought for their right to be independent have begun to fight for the right of control of their children. Parents demand to be fully informed of students’ grades, living situations, university policies, counseling received and whether their children have received any drug or alcohol violations. In a well-publicized case in 1997, parents of a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who died of alcohol poisoning alleged that MIT was at fault for not having proper housing and alcohol policies. They eventually settled with the school for $6 million. This January, the family of another MIT student filed suit after she committed suicide, alleging university negligence. And just this July, the family of a freshman from Old Dominion University settled, for an undisclosed amount, a $5.35 million lawsuit against his fraternity after he died of a night of heavy drinking.

Such lawsuits are examples of a disturbing trend. Being a student at a university – especially one such as the University, located in a major metropolitan area – can be an exciting, liberating time. However, it also means there is a limit to the influence and oversight that the University can exert and that parents should expect. After the death of Brandon Hall, Minnesota coach Glen Mason was quoted in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, saying, “other than saying, ‘OK, fellas Ö I’m going to lock the doors and you’re not going out,’ there’s not a darn thing I could have done.” And he was right.

Is this to say that universities and their organizations assume no responsibility if they somehow fail students? No. But what it does mean is that it is time for students to reflect upon the amount of personal responsibility they assume in their actions and the consequences if they do not.

Part of the current increase in demand of accountability is that students are not often independently accountable for themselves. Today, students search for meaning beyond the traditional paradigm of success. The career at 22, followed shortly by the suburban dream of a two-car garage and white-picket fences is becoming less common than it once was. Although a search for greater meaning is not a bad thing, the prolonging of adolescence can foster a longer period of dependence on parents. Parents, in turn, expect a greater level of dependence from the university. This does not necessarily have to be the case.

Students can now revive the revolt their parents once led. Students can assert once again that they are responsible adults. But this involves more than merely setting a curfew. It entails accepting financial and legal responsibility. It entails paying rent, paying for the cell phone, filing your own taxes. It entails living up to the adage of, “If you want to be treated like an adult, you must act like one.” Once this occurs, society as a whole will begin to recognize again the autonomy of students as young adults and begin to treat them accordingly.

It is not Brandon Hall’s fault he was tragically slain that night. However, neither was it the responsibility of the coach or the University. A student’s time at the University is up to each individual. In addition to asserting their independence and individual responsibility, though, students must also understand what these concepts truly mean.