Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Thematic—Missing Character

The Coddling of the American Undergraduate

The infantilizing social control of the university.

Rita Koganzon

College students enjoying a comfortable space for learning; iStock Photos.

When I was a graduate teaching assistant at Harvard University a decade ago, one of my students missed a final exam because he forgot to set his alarm. I didn’t learn about this because he told me, in person or even by email; nor did he apologize for his oversight or ask if he could make up the exam. Instead, in the manner customary at Harvard, I was informed by a message from his “Residential Dean,” a faculty member living in the dorms whose job was to liaise between delinquent students and their professors, in part by composing their excuses for them:

As you may know, [Student X], who is enrolled in your course, reports that he inadvertently missed your exam. Ordinarily a student who has missed a course exam and who does not have a medical excuse…is not allowed to take a makeup exam. The Administrative Board of Harvard College can make occasional exceptions to this policy and permit makeup exams to students, however, provided certain conditions are met.

He proceeded to outline these exceptional conditions, noting that one was “honest inadvertence,” and to request that the professor offer the student a makeup exam. It was all exceedingly polite and professional, and the issue was quickly resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, or so I assume, because I never saw or heard from the student again.

To have such solicitous faculty on hand to advocate for students’ interests is, depending on how you look at it, either wonderfully supportive or repulsively infantilizing. If ever one sought examples of the cosseting of college students alleged by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind,11xGreg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (New York, NY: Penguin, 2018). Harvard’s dormitory system, which assigns students to a “house” in their second year in which they will live, eat, receive their academic advising, even attend some of their classes, and have their letters of both recommendation and exculpation written for them until graduation, would qualify as a prime case study. A small regiment of graduate students, staff, and faculty advisers live in and administer each house, creating a complex bureaucratic hierarchy that facilitates and supervises many aspects of students’ daily lives.

This is not some recent, overzealous response to the outsized demands of student activists; it is, rather, an old model that Harvard and only a few other very selective colleges have long followed, but which other schools all over the country now strive to imitate. The formation of robust so-called “communities” through residential campus life is what distinguishes a “good” (better yet, “elite”) school from a negligible “commuter” school in the public imagination, so that even predominantly commuter institutions like the one where I now teach aspire to become increasingly, perhaps eventually completely, residential and self-enclosed.22xMaster Plan, University Center Complex and UC Satellite, University of Houston, August 2008, https://www.uh.edu/thenewuc/historical-backround/_files/master-plan.pdf.

The same desire animates every other institution at which I’ve studied and taught. The University of Chicago, where today about 40 percent of students live in off-campus housing, has spent years agonizing over its inability to get and keep students on campus. The former dean of the college lamented in a 2008 report that “the University of Chicago now ranks as the lowest among top private universities in the United States in its rate of housing undergraduate students in our own residential system…. Our academic peers offer a much denser and more engaging residential experience than we do.” He proposed that the university aim to raise its rate of on-campus residency to nearly 90 percent.33xJohn W. Boyer, “The Kind of University That We Desire to Become”: Student Housing and the Educational Mission of the University of Chicago (Occasional Paper on Higher Education no. 18), College of the University of Chicago, October 28, 2008, https://humanities-web.s3.us-east-2.amazonaws.com/college-prod/s3fs-public/documents/Boyer_OccasionalPapers_V18.pdf. It began moving in that direction in 2007 by requiring all first-year students to live on campus; the university expanded that mandate to second-year students in 2019. At the University of Virginia, which has a more limited endowment and an even smaller stock of dorm rooms than Chicago, around 60 percent of students live off campus, and it, too, has committed to drastically cutting that proportion in similar ways, by requiring first- and eventually second-year students to live in dorms and embarking on an ambitious plan of expanded construction to accommodate them.44x“A Great and Good University: The 2030 Plan,” University of Virginia Strategic Plan, August 2019, https://strategicplan.virginia.edu/The2030Plan.201908.pdf.

The idea of a totalizing “residential community” like Harvard’s where “learning occurs all the time, whether in the dining hall as students share a meal with faculty and visiting scholars or in House tutorials and seminars,” as the university’s promotional materials boast, promises to unify the disparate threads of student life—studying, socializing, recreation—into one cohesive, edifying whole.55x“The Houses,” Harvard College Dean of Students Office, accessed November 9, 2023, https://dso.college.harvard.edu/houses. It also offers the inverse benefit of sealing students off from the distracting if not outright dangerous world outside the university. This idea fuels the fervid imaginations of bright high school students who grind away their adolescences for the opportunity to live among the blessed for a few years, in what they imagine will be a continuous experience of the life of the mind. But is this what really goes on in these bubbles of integrated and fully facilitated living and learning?

Paternalism and In Loco Parentis

At their best, these totalizing residential communities are perhaps like Cornell University’s Telluride House in the 1960s and ’70s, a weird and intense seedbed for future scholars, political leaders, and public intellectuals that was home to Francis Fukuyama, Eve Sedgwick, William Galston, Paul Wolfowitz, and dozens of equally distinctive others. The faculty residing there in those years was no less impressive, with Frances Perkins, Allan Bloom, and Richard Feynman among its members. If one’s vision of a college idyll involves brilliant students living together with faculty, absolutely absorbed in their studies and desirous of living them out, debating philosophy all day and all night, perhaps the Telluride House was the closest existing approximation of that dream. But Telluride was and still is unusual in being entirely student run. Everywhere else, university administrations manage student housing and residential life, with quite different results.

The Telluride House at its peak perched precariously between two superficially similar but, at bottom, quite opposed paternalistic approaches to managing student life. The first approach, characteristic of the twentieth century before the student revolts of the 1960s, was a paternalism that imposed temporary restrictions on students that were intended to facilitate their postcollege independence. The aim of student life policies was to shape student character, but mainly in ways that would facilitate independence from such strictures once students became adults. The second approach, pursued beginning in the 1980s, after a decade of student freedom or anarchy, depending on how one judges the immediate post-1960s period, was a paternalism that imposed restrictions intended to be internalized by students and become the basis of lifelong attitudes and behavior. As this second approach, with its web of rules, norms, and administrators, has more and more extensively cocooned student life, it has become clear that no one is really supposed to graduate or move on from the experience of contemporary college life.

In its first iteration, before the late 1960s, college paternalism aimed at the sexual restriction of students, or as the administrators would no doubt have preferred to describe their intentions, the maintenance of propriety and morality. Curfews, parietals, dress codes, and sex-segregated dorms and campus spaces were all conceived to minimize unsupervised mixing of the sexes. (Married students, a phenomenon now limited to freaks and Mormons, but previously a mainstream occurrence, were typically assigned to special housing or resided off campus.) No doubt most college students today, and even their parents, would view this institutional paternalism as oppressive, and in many respects it was, but such restrictions had as their aim not the permanent suppression of sexual activity but only its delay, for the sake of the preservation of students’ characters and options for the life of marriage and family that was supposed to occur after graduation.

By the 1960s, spurred by growing enrollments that inspired reconsideration of residential life, college administrators were already beginning to make noises about the need for campus life, and housing specifically, to facilitate students’ “personal growth.”66xBeth Bailey, “From Panty Raids to Revolution: Youth and Authority 1950–1970,” in Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America, eds. Joe Alan Austin and Michael Willard (New York, NY: New York University Press), 191–92. They began to call for training for dedicated student life professionals to oversee such growth. But these efforts were abruptly cut off by the student protests and the concessions to student freedom that came in the protests’ wake.

The administrators who returned to this work in the 1980s were the very students who had revolted in the 1960s. By then, sexual restriction was out, the new program being incubation of a multicultural progressive elite. Moreover, as college admissions had grown increasingly competitive and tuitions increasingly costly over the intervening years, applicants and their families were being courted with more expansive promises about the “college experience” students could expect to enjoy on campus.

The result was the re-emergence of the rhetoric of the college as a home and family. The old in loco parentis paradigm had also implied a familial relation, but a hierarchical one: Students were the children, faculty and administrators were the adults with punitive authority. The new paradigm emphasized the egalitarian, nurturing, and intimate elements of family relationships, while downplaying the hierarchical aspects. The new college experience was like home, but this time with cool, permissive parents instead of overbearing, restrictive ones. It would combine the freedom won by the student activists of the late ’60s with comfort and a sense of belonging for every student. Indeed, it would do so by institutionalizing student activism as one of the essential features of the “college experience,” the vehicle through which comfort and belonging in the college’s “community” would be attained. What could go wrong?

The new paradigm burst into public consciousness during the campus culture wars of the late 1980s and early ’90s—conflicts over affirmative action in admissions, “political correctness,” and multiculturalism. In response to student protests over campus racial incidents, several elite colleges implemented “speech codes” designed to enforce sensitivity toward racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, and created group-based “affinity houses” for these groups. It became clear that universities saw it as their mission to craft elaborate social spaces and experiences to cultivate an identitarian social (if not political) consciousness. They preserved a modicum of student independence by allowing, even facilitating, ritualistic student protests against the status quo, always conceding some ground to activist demands while withholding the rest for subsequent generations to win. But with the vast majority of American college students still living off campus, either with their families, in independently owned Greek or other organization-based housing, or in local housing of their own arrangement, the effectual reach of this mission was diminished and substantial space remained for spontaneous and self-directed socializing.

The End of Independence

Today, the “college experience” centered on a residential life that promises to envelope students in a warm, intimate community has hardened into something more totalizing than even the blundering late-twentieth-century project of enforcing political correctness. An expansive definition of “harm” has fueled the prioritization of an equally expansive definition of “safety” as the aim of student life. The newest iteration of campus paternalism, or perhaps its terminal acceleration, was precipitated in 2011 by a wave of campus activism in response to concerns about sexual assault. It culminated in the Obama administration’s demand for revisions to Title IX policies, which prohibit gender-based discrimination in federally funded educational activities. Contained in the US Department of Education’s infamous “Dear Colleague” letter of that year was a central aspiration that has ruled over student life ever since through permutations of Title IX policy under subsequent administrations: the goal of eliminating “hostile environments,” for which the federal government had threatened to hold universities accountable.77x“Dear Colleague Letter,” US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, April 4, 2011, https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201104.html. A note later added to this document states, “This document has been formally rescinded by the Department and remains available on the web for historical purposes only.” Accessed November 28, 2023.

The “hostile environment” was a repurposing of a concept from labor law to the new goal of measuring student perceptions of their safety and comfort. In the law, “hostile environment” describes the compromised working conditions created for the victim of serial or severe harassment, but in the hands of the university officials who received its letter, it was construed to mean that individual acts of sexual misconduct harmed not only their direct victims but the whole school, by creating a pervasive atmosphere of fear.88xDiane L. Rosenfeld, “Schools Must Prevent the ‘Second Rape,’” Harvard Crimson, April 4, 2014, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2014/4/4/Harvard-sexual-assault/. Even punishing individual perpetrators of misconduct would not be enough to alleviate a hostile environment, since the feelings of insecurity their crimes generated could persist if students perceived the university’s response to have been insufficiently rapid or decisive. Alleviating a hostile environment instead requires assuaging fears about the possibility of misconduct in the first place. To that end, the Department of Education emphasized surveillance and education: “providing increased monitoring, supervision, or security at locations or activities where the misconduct occurred; providing training and education materials for students and employees; changing and publicizing the school’s policies on sexual violence; and conducting climate surveys regarding sexual violence.”99x“Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence,” US Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, April 29, 2014, https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/qa-201404-title-ix.pdf. This document has also been formally rescinded by the Department of Education. Accessed November 28, 2023. All of this required more extensive control of student interpersonal interactions than colleges had previously attempted to exercise.

To enforce a nonhostile environment, the new policies encouraged (and in many instances required) a campus culture of reporting on private interactions in which sexual misconduct was revealed or just suggested—overheard conversations, social media posts, rumors, confidential confessions—even if the information was unverified or the alleged victims declined to make a report. The Title IX model was easily extrapolated to race-related offenses, with the creation of mechanisms that permitted anonymous “bias reporting” of slights based on race and other group identities. Campus climate surveys, which regularly solicit anonymous student reports of real or perceived threats to one’s sense of safety on campus, all but ensure a regular stream of complaints that could be evidence of a hostile environment, and thereby license ongoing intervention into students’ interpersonal relationships.

As universities have increasingly come to view student life as an arena to be policed for hostility, their behavior-monitoring paternalism has given way to the behavior-prohibiting paternalism it was meant to replace. After information technology groups at Stanford University launched an “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” discouraging the use of such offensive terms as “walk-in” and “you guys” in 2020,1010x“Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative,” Stanford CIO Council and People of Color in Technology, December 2020, retrieved November 9, 2023, https://s.wsj.net/public/resources/documents/stanfordlanguage.pdf. and the university imposed draconian restrictions on student gatherings, many complained, even forming a group called “Stanford Hates Fun.”1111xDouglas Belkin, “‘Stanford Hates Fun’: Students Revolt After Tree Mascot Suspension, Wall Street Journal, December 22, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/stanford-tree-mascot-suspended-11671720777. (After much criticism and even ridicule, Stanford removed the language initiative document from the university website in January 2023.1212xSusan D’Agostino, “Amid Backlash, Stanford Pulls ‘Harmful Language’ List,” Inside Higher Ed, January 10, 2023, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2023/01/11/amid-backlash-stanford-removes-harmful-language-list. )

Stanford has perhaps gone further than its peer institutions in its heavy-handedness, but efforts to bring campus (and off-campus) social life under increased administrative control have been occurring in many of them, as when Harvard attempted to abolish single-gender social organizations in 2017 after Wesleyan University succeeded in enforcing such a measure in 2014. (Harvard backed down in 2020 after stiff legal opposition.)1313xGinevra Davis, “Stanford’s War on Social Life,” Palladium Magazine, June 13, 2022, https://www.palladiummag.com/2022/06/13/stanfords-war-on-social-life/; John S. Rosenberg, “Harvard Imposes Single-Gender Social Club Sanctions,” Harvard Magazine, December 5, 2017, https://www.harvardmagazine.com/2017/12/harvard-college-implements-social-club-sanctions; Lauren Rubenstein “Residential Fraternities Required to Become Co-Ed,” Wesleyan Connection, September 22, 2014, https://newsletter.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2014/09/22/coedfraternities/.

When COVID-19 arrived on campuses in 2020, universities tried out panoptic social control for the first time. They instituted regimens of constant testing, masking, quarantining, restrictions and prohibitions on travel, movement, and social gathering, and exhorted snitching on violators of these rules, in many cases even long after vaccines became available. The pinnacle of these policies—confining infected students to special isolation dorms where food and supplies were delivered by people in hazmat suits—seemed frequently to result in comical incompetence,1414xMalachy Dwyer, “What Actually Happens Inside an All-Male COVID Isolation Suite,” Cavalier Daily, March 15, 2021, https://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2021/03/what-actually-happens-inside-an-all-male-covid-19-isolation-suite. but the effort itself was an unprecedented flex.

In tandem with this control of campus social life through surveillance and prohibitions, universities have increasingly formalized previously spontaneous student-faculty relationships like advising and mentoring, and even romance (where it is still permitted at all), bringing these too under their administrative purview. One does not happen on a mentor now through a shared intellectual interest or disposition; rather, one signs up for a campus program that assigns mentors to students, arranges a number of meetings with this appointed official, and terminates the relationship at the end of the contracted term. Such programs are often organized around sexual, gender, and racial identities that intend to pre-establish commonalities between mentor and student, but whether any given pair forges a real personal connection is impossible to predict or gauge, and seems hardly to matter. As Blake Smith, a writer and sometime academic, has pointed out, even if mentors and advisers wanted to establish a real friendship or personal connection with students, the warren of rules and restrictions on student-faculty interaction would disincline them against getting too close.1515xBlake Smith, “Our Students Don’t Need Identitarian Paternalism: Colleges Have Co-Opted Queer Mentorship,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 18, 2022, https://www.chronicle.com/article/our-students-dont-need-identitarian-paternalism?cid=gen_sign_in.

Romantic relationships are now tinder boxes of risk. Relationships between faculty and students, as well as students of different ranks (e.g., graduates and undergraduates) are almost universally prohibited. Students of the same rank are still permitted to pair off, but only after numerous mandatory orientations and trainings in the mechanics of consent designed to direct the course of their relationships. In 2013, Yale even went so far as to provide a detailed, step-by-step manual for having sex.1616x“Sexual Misconduct Scenarios,” Yale University, September 9, 2013, https://smr.yale.edu/sites/default/files/files/Sexual-Misconduct-Scenarios.pdf. In the rare circumstances where cross-rank relations are allowed, they are so intrusively overseen by the university as to be effectively administered by it. Agnes Callard, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, recently reported on X (formerly known as Twitter) of being required to attend a series of therapy sessions arranged (and presumably monitored) by the university to demonstrate that her pending marriage to her (adult) former graduate student met the school’s standards for a healthy relationship before it could be approved to proceed.1717xAgnes Callard (@agcallard.bsky.social), “A thread on faculty-student romances,” X (formerly Twitter), March 16, 2023, https://twitter.com/AgnesCallard/status/1636394491228692480. Ironically, it seems that the bureaucratic gauntlet a couple must run to win approval for their relationship would likely squelch all further desire for it.

The new imperative to avert hostile environments is different from the old paternalism. Like the old paternalism, it directs students’ personal interactions with faculty and each other, it surveils their speech, and it restricts their freedom of association. But under the old in loco parentis dispensation, such restraint was temporary, intended to prepare students for a future independence in which they could freely do what was prohibited on campus. The new paternalism holds out no such future independence. Instead, students are being prepared for a life of continued monitoring and restriction in professional and social life, a lifetime of dependence on the adult analogs of student life administrators and grievance officers, located in human resource departments and even in Facebook group moderation policies.

“Really Irritating People and Their ‘House Spirit’”

There was always plenty of sex to be had after graduation in the 1960s. But graduation will not make it acceptable to say “you guys” today, or perhaps even to have sex, once one accounts for all the rituals of consent and the restrictions on coupling. In the earlier era of paternalism, universities upheld, for a few extra years, the norms of the homes from which students came. In the present era, universities generate and impose new norms they hope students will absorb and use to transform the rest of the society into the indefinite future. As Nick Burns, a writer and editor at Americas Quarterly, has written:

Students are taught in the university to expect things that American society is not set up to give them. This involves not just college students’ familiar insistence on certain moral assumptions about political issues, but also material things: a walkable living environment, for example, or work that follows no set hours…. As a critical mass of university graduates now populates the highest echelons of corporate and political life, pressures grow to introduce reforms to make society at large more closely resemble the university.1818xNick Burns, “America’s Medieval Universities,” American Affairs 6, no. 2 (Summer 2022), https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2022/05/americas-medieval-universities/.

But the problem is not just that the “college experience” creates unrealistic expectations for postcollege life, though it does that. It is also that student life at residential colleges, as it is currently arranged, breeds passivity and dependence on adult authorities to manage interpersonal conflict and secure highly subjective feelings of belonging to a social group that is neither self-chosen nor self-governed. This desire for continued university-like authority is, in turn, at least partly to blame for the tendency diagnosed by Burns: “The habits of the university have become generalized through society.”1919xIbid.

Much of this effort at social control is centered on residential life. The ideal of the college as a comprehensive community, even a family, has collided with this totalizing agenda to turn residential life into a site of constant tension and outright conflict. When Yale University students got into a heated exchange with a residential dean in 2015 after his wife sent an email suggesting that students not worry too much about offensive Halloween costumes, one of them framed her objection in precisely these contradictory terms: “I give tours every day…and have to stand here in the courtyard and say ‘This is my home…’ And I can’t say that anymore because it’s not a home. It is no longer a safe space for me…this was once a space that I was proud to be a part of because of the loving community.”2020x“Yale University Students Protest Halloween Costume Email,” Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, video transcript, https://www.thefire.org/research-learn/yale-university-students-protest-halloween-costume-email-video-2. Accessed November 28, 2023.

The problem is, Yale is not anyone’s home. It is not a “loving community.” It is not a parent, or a therapist. It is a university, and its purpose is not to make students feel safe or to love them. But this student’s assumptions were not stupid or naive; they are exactly the illusory hopes Yale and every other such student life–oriented university tries to inculcate. They are straightforward expressions of the ideal “college experience.”

The vision of the insular residential college like Harvard or Yale, with its multigenerational traditions and intellectual frisson and commitment to the life of the mind, is undoubtedly attractive. And in other times and under other circumstances, it might even facilitate it. But in this time and under these circumstances, the university campus is rapidly becoming a locus of infantilizing social control that any independent-minded student should seek to escape. This doesn’t mean forgoing attendance, but since much of this social control is an outgrowth of residential life, it should mean resisting mandatory on-campus living requirements and moving off campus as soon as possible.2121xNick Burns, “Elite Universities Are Out of Touch. Blame the Campus,” New York Times, August 2, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/02/opinion/elite-universities-campus.html.

A dorm is not really your family and the university is not a loving community, but your friends are really your friends (until they use up your shampoo without replacing it), and of all these relationships that the university holds out to students, friendship is the only really achievable one. Collegiate friendships are, or at least have the potential to be, some of the most open, unencumbered, and truth-seeking relationships available in contemporary American life. If we cannot trust universities to provide any salutary guidance to students about how to live, then the best alternative is to let them figure it out with their friends. The Telluride House model of complete residential student self-government can lead in some cases to lunatic extremes, but by now it should be clear that putting adults in charge is far from a guarantee of sanity and moderation. Telluride House simply got it more right.

When I attended the University of Chicago as an undergraduate, as the dean was busily scheming to force as many of us to remain in dorms as possible, more than half of the students moved off campus with our friends to apartments in the adjacent student slum after our first or second year. Off-campus apartments were cheaper than dorms, and more importantly, they gave us some freedom and distance from the university. It was not really independence when we depended on monthly checks from our parents, but it wasn’t enforced perpetual childhood either, and we never imagined asking a university-appointed surrogate parent to write our plea bargains for oversleeping to our professors.

While the dean asserted to administrators and donors that “we have strong evidence that our students love the College’s housing system and that they warmly remember it after they have left the College as young alumni,” Chicago students themselves reported a different sentiment. As one told the college newspaper in 2003, “I’ve decided to leave housing because it’s too expensive, and you’re constantly surrounded by really irritating people and their ‘house spirit.’”2222xJennifer Bussell, “Tired of Dorm Life, Undergrads Search for Off-Campus Housing,” Chicago Maroon, April 24, 2003, https://chicagomaroon.com/10934/news/tired-of-dorm-life-undergrads-search-for-off-campus-housing/.

Opposing house spirit is, at least for the time being, the right spirit. When universities instituted pandemic policies to control student movement and social life, the main opposition to and limitation on their reach was the students living off campus, whose movements were beyond their control. It was at schools without commuter students or any substantial off-campus housing, particularly the older northeastern colleges offering what were previously the most enviable “college experiences,” that COVID-19 restrictions proved most intense and long-lasting. Despite their terrible reputations and serial misconduct, it was probably the fraternities, along with other maligned party people, who did the most to save genuine student life from the student life administrators during the pandemic years. Inadvertently and unconsciously, what they did was, as the anarchists say, to “become ungovernable.” If genuine education is to remain possible at institutions that seem increasingly intent on strangling every spontaneous interaction within them, becoming a little more ungovernable might unfortunately become the means of attaining it.