Wednesday, August 15, 2007
Drinking and Deaning
According to this article, Anthony Campbell, the Dean of Students at Rider College (N.J.), has been indicted on charges of “aggravated hazing” in the alcohol poisoning death of a student, Gary DeVercelly, who died while pledging a fraternity.
It's always heartbreaking to hear of an 18 year old dying. As a parent, stories like these scare the hell out of me. But I'm having trouble connecting the dean to the death.
Nobody alleges that the dean was present at the hazing, and nobody alleges that the dean had anything to do with the hazing. In fact, the dean had required frat members to attend anti-hazing workshops.
According to the article, the prosecutor, Joseph Bocchini, stated (correctly) that “Rider University is involved in this today, but it could have been any college or university across the United States.”
There are times I'm glad that my cc doesn't have dorms or frats. By virtue of being a commuter campus, we're spared some of the ugly scenarios confronted by colleges that have students living on campus.
All of that said, there was still something eerily familiar about this story. It was the “what would you have had him do?” that went unasked.
What, exactly, is the dean alleged to have done wrong? He required the frats to go through anti-hazing and alcohol education workshops, he wasn't present at the hazing, he didn't serve anybody anything, and nobody has even suggested that the hazing met with his approval. Yet the prosecutor declares in public that the indictment “sends a clear message.”
The bane of the administrator's existence is the ever-present and always-frustrating “responsibility without authority.” I'm accountable for the performance of faculty who have life tenure and across-the-board salary increases, and are therefore not accountable to me. I'm accountable for policies that I've inherited, and lack the power to change. I'm accountable for the fallout of decisions made at higher levels than my own, without my input, and against my judgment. All of that I accept as the cost of doing business.
But taking Mr. Bocchini's logic, my accountability apparently goes well beyond that.
I know that the whole “students are adults” argument has fallen on hard times, especially in the age of helicopter parents, but there's a persistent truth to it. Unless we're willing to move to a level of surveillance that would make Dick Cheney blush, students are going to have plenty of time away from deanly supervision. That's as it should be. Sometimes, students will use that freedom to make stupid, or even criminal choices. When they do, by all means, hold them accountable. (If there's evidence showing that DeVercelly's drinking was the result of coercion, then I'm all for throwing the book at whoever coerced him.) And if the prosecutor can show that the dean failed to do something he was actually supposed to do, then have at it. But I'm at a loss to say what the dean did wrong.
I've seen some voices compare this overreach to the Duke prosecutor's, but I don't buy it. In the Duke case, the allegation was of an actual crime. Yes, it quickly turned out to be false, and the prosecutor wound up looking ridiculous, but that's a different issue. At least in that case, I could understand what the defendants were charged with, even if the case never seemed all that strong. In this case, I don't understand the charge. The dean is charged with, if I'm getting this right, failing to persuade a fraternity to grow up.
If 'failure to persuade' is a crime, we're all in trouble.
I'll admit upfront that more facts may come out later that will render this post moot. But from all that I've seen so far, this is an appalling, egregious abuse of prosecutorial power. Deans aren't gods, and we shouldn't be expected to be. We can do only what we can do. I don't control what my faculty do at home, and I don't want to. Should I start trying?
I think that such a prosecution wouldn't pass the laugh test in UK/Australia/NZ. Would be thrown out at depositions.
Some official making a political point in election year?
DD has pointed to the usual actions which the Dean could and had reasonably taken. However DD also pointed out that this problem is not uncommon on college campuses. It is probably not even uncommon on this particular campus.
What if, it had been suggested to the Dean that additional steps need to be taken or considered with regard to this issue and suggestions or alternatives had been provided for additional or alternative steps since the usual ones don't seem to be effective, but they were dismissed for whatever reason.
Could/should somoene be held accountable for not changing tactics in the face of a problem, when those tactics appear to no longer be effective in addressing that problem, and this is the only way to force the institution to reexamine what they are doing?
That's all true, but also true is that there is plenty of campus drinking going on that is not discovered.
Since it is not discovered, in the case of some awful alcohol incident in the dorm, has the school left itself open to arguments that it was negligent and should have done more to quash the drinking it knew or suspected was happening: it could have deployed more RAs, it needed bag searches at all entrances and random room tosses, and so on?
To which I would add: the prosecutor, and many a faculty member, wound up looking ridiculous.
You are exactly correct, which is what makes this parallel with the Duke prosecutorial misconduct case. We have virtually no checks on this power, and some supervision of prosecutors is long overdue.
Holding the Dean accountable seems like an offshoot of the insane Zero Tolerance policies, which are actually zero thinking policies.
The above comments to the effect of "maybe he could have done more" are, to me, completely unpersuasive.
But on a more serious note, the only thing I can think of that the dean might not have done is what bibkit mentioned about not changing tactics. There's no evidence that it's relevant to the case as currently presented, of course... but that's the only thing that ever springs to mind for me in conversations like these.
I have a hard time thinking that anti-hazing and alcohol education workshops would do much good in cases like this - much like motivational speakers, diversity workshops, and sensitivity training tend not to work. It's one of those 'bandaids on internal bleeding' situations. Not only is it not effective, you don't even know if it's in the right area. So yes, continuing to do that if/when it became apparent that it wasn't working would be... if not actually breaking a rule of some kind, certainly not approaching the problem in the best way.
That said, I'm all for the 'students are adults' thing. My SLAC treated us like grownups,* and I'm thankful every day for it. (We also didn't have anything greek, but we did have lots of drinking... but since they treated us like grownups, nobody died even when people were really, really dumb.) It's been a bit of a shock to get out into the 'real' world and find, well, the attitudes I complained about in my link.
* It is one of my biggest pet peeves that many people, students and non-students alike, seem to think that this approach means letting everyone do whatever they want. The Honor Principle doesn't mean that. Being grown-up doesn't mean that. Boundaries and rules and responsibility are all part of the package. The important part is that you're treated as a being with agency and the ability to make good, independent decisions when you have the information available to you. And while one might argue that's dealt with by the workshop approach, I think it misses the mark by miles.
Only worth discussing if there are actually tactics known to work to solve the problem....that is, you can't blame the dean for refusing to switch from Large U's failed method to Small U's failed method, I don't think.
Another Duke similiarity--I suspect "campus culture" is going to be a topic of discussion. Because at one school, the same workshops may be taken seriously, but jokes at another school, and that's all down to campus/team/frat culture, no?
I anticipate much input from expert witnesses on these issues. I hope you keep us posted, DD.
(Not saying this is or isn't a good argument, but it's one the prosecutor might be trying.)
What the administrators probably did was publicize the rush party and explicitly allow alcohol at the party. The first is a no-brainer guess (a college usually publicizes activities of official campus organizations), the second is based on the news story (they have since banned alcohol at on-campus events). Those actions could be construed as "facilitating" what happened on their campus in an organization under their control.
Now why the D.A. kicked it up above the level of the "director of greek life" to the Dean, but not above the Dean to the President, is the open question.
It is well known that a D.A. can indict a ham sandwich, so this might have been his way of getting the attention of the college for their role in what might be a major local problem.
I hope so, because I agree that criminally charging administrators for not being omniscient and omnipotent is just going to take us down a bad road. I think at my U they talk about "in loco parentis"? The campus recently bought a couple apartment high rises and converted them into dorms because they were being held liable for what happened in them even though they were not university dorms or on campus.
Still, this whole affair must send a chill through administrators around the country. Can they get insurance for this sort of problem?