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.”

Saying what?

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?