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Introduction: Raiders of the Lost Archives

by John Thelin - 2014

Introductory essay for the three subsequent manuscripts that providing historical analysis since 1865 of In Loco Parentis as a legal, institutional, and social feature of the American college and university campus. I characterize my Introduction as that of a senior scholar who endorses and supports the original and related essays of three younger, new historians of higher education.

Seldom does the history of higher education match the drama of a Hollywood movie. But once in a while it does, especially when the topic is in loco parentis. A team of three new scholars—Scott Gelber, Christopher Loss, and Philip Lee—have dared to question the conventional wisdom about the courts’ alleged deference to campus officials in oversight of student conduct as an indelible, undeniable historic precedent. In taking on this challenge, they deserve our attention as no less than the “Raiders of the Lost Archives” who have individually and collectively exhumed records and historical documents that would elicit the respect and perhaps envy of their legendary and adventurous scholarly colleague, Indiana Jones.

One difference is that whereas the fictional Professor Jones dealt with arcane, ancient topics that really were often outlandish, our trio of historians deals with historical cases and data that have real-world consequences for governance and the round of life in colleges and universities. The standards and ideals of the “collegiate way” associated with the residential campus have been at the heart of the saga of American higher education for over five centuries. Investing trust in college officials to oversee living and learning of late adolescent undergraduates was—and is—central to the civilizing and socializing function of our colleges and universities.

This collection makes another distinctive contribution to the history of higher education—namely, the research act and format of presentation. In contrast to scholarship published in journals for physics and chemistry, most historical research about higher education has tended to be a single, lonely author, whether this be for an article or a book. Here we have a collective, coordinated effort that fuses the best features of the single scholar and joint authorship. Each article is both apart from and a part of a cumulative work on a coherent, significant topic. It’s a good model for higher education scholars to consider and heed in their own projects.

The overriding contribution of this collection is its compelling finding that a principle such as in loco parentis is not static. It changes over time. Furthermore, its change is not necessarily a simplistic linear trajectory, such as moving from a stature of “strong control by academic authority” steadily toward “strong rights by and for students.” The historical tale is more complex and more interesting than that because there are vacillations, depending on court cases and demographic and societal context of any given decade. So, one finds from Scott Gelber that at the state and local level, between 1865 and 1915, close analysis of court cases indicates that students often did have substantial rights in differences with academic authorities—and that their grievances filed through the courts frequently met with success—or, at very least, far more relief and support than had been heretofore presented in the public forum about higher education.

An interesting complication then comes from Christopher Loss, whose detailed research on campus life and students in the 1920s indicates a counter-revolution and crystallization in which a generation of college deans and boards were effective in persuading courts and legislatures that the college authorities should be ceded increasing domain over student conduct. A further complication is that historian Loss alerts readers that extension of in loco parentis authority to college officials was not confined to coercive powers usually associated with the right to dismiss unruly or misbehaving students. Rather, it also diverted to a more positive connotation in which colleges took on increasing “parental” initiative and responsibility to ensure that freshmen and other undergraduates were assisted in their adjustment to college life so as to make retention and graduation more likely.

The twists and turns of in loco parentis became more significant and complex in 1961, as historian Philip Lee notes in bringing fresh attention to the case of Dixon vs. Alabama. Lee’s case study fuses the historic issue of “town and gown” with civil rights and students’ rights. In Dixon, African American students at Alabama State College who had been summarily expelled because of their participation in off-campus sit-ins that challenged Jim Crow brought a lawsuit seeking reinstatement. Lee concludes that this marked the “first time that any American court recognized that students at a state college have due process protection under the 14th Amendment,” meaning that college authorities henceforth had to respect constitutional rights conferred to students.

Each reader, of course, is left to consider how to process or connect these new historical perspectives on in loco parentis in terms of one’s own campus and one’s experience, whether it be as a student or, now, as a faculty member. My one regret is I wish that I had had this collection in 1981 when I first joined the faculty at The College of William & Mary in Virginia. The welcoming present I received from my colleagues was the memorandum notifying me that I had been assigned to the college committee for student discipline.

For the next six years, I listened to and voted on a varied succession of cases, ranging in severity from student pranks and stealing discarded sofas to charges of rape and assault. All this made me by happenstance a participant-observer to a dramatic change in student rights and campus control. No longer could one presume that students as a matter of course deferred to campus codes and college regulations. In this era, indicted students often brought their own attorneys and court reporters to the hearings conducted by an assistant dean of student affairs before an unsuspecting and relatively inexperienced, untrained cadre of students and professors. I was amazed to learn that an accused student often faced parallel trials on campus and in the courts. And, in some instances, the penalties meted out by the campus committee were harsher than those levied by the civil or criminal courts. Thank goodness for a new cohort of historians in 2013 whose lively work on a significant topic help us understand the contours and complexities of campus life—and whose scholarship reminds us that the history of higher education is not for the fainthearted.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 116 Number 12, 2014, p. 1-3
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17662, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 1:07:42 PM

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About the Author
  • John Thelin
    University of Kentucky
    E-mail Author
    JOHN THELIN is professor of educational policy studies at the University of Kentucky. His most recent books are A History of American Higher Education (2011, 2nd edition) and The Rising Costs of Higher Education (2013). His interest is in connecting past and present in the study of significant issues involving higher education and public policy.
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