MIT suit prompts talk of universities in parental role

Jodi Genshaft

While universities are responsible for protecting their students’ privacy, they are increasingly being pressured to give up that information to parents, philosophy Prof. Terry Pinkard told 12 students Tuesday night at the philosophy department building, 1818 Hinman Ave.

He said the university should respect students’ privacy rights unless they pose harm to themselves or others.

“We’d be throwing our lives away if we didn’t control (them),” he said.

The issue has come to the forefront for college administrators because of a recent lawsuit filed against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After a student at MIT committed suicide by setting herself on fire in 2000, her parents filed a $27 million wrongful death lawsuit against the university. The lawsuit claims that MIT failed to inform the parents about the severity of their daughter’s psychiatric problems.

At odds are students’ right to privacy and the extent of a university’s role as surrogate parent, Pinkard said.

Until the 1960s, universities operated under the policy of “in loco parentis” – the idea that colleges wield parental authority over students in the absence of their parents.

The emergence of youth culture in the ’60s blurred the separation between parents and children, he said. During this time, universities began giving students more rights and responsibilities.

This change surfaced at Northwestern in many ways, including creation of the University Hearing and Appeals System, through which students have a say in disciplinary decisions.

“When in loco parentis was dropped, students came to be seen as adults,” Pinkard said.

Pinkard said he doesn’t think the MIT lawsuit will change that.

“It’s on the burner,” Pinkard said. “It might die a natural death or blow off steam.”

Under the Buckley Amendment, which allows the federal government to cut funds from schools that violate student record privacy, Pinkard said MIT could not have notified the parents.

Students are conflicted about in loco parentis, he said. While they crave independence, students also want intervention in situations where the university could prevent harm.

The legal definition of privacy came in 1898, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis defined privacy as “the right to be let alone.”

Weinberg freshman Kevin Bauer had a different definition.

“Four walls, a roof and a door you close behind yourself – that’s privacy,” he said.

Pinkard said the university has “no right regulating your sex life or the lack thereof.”

“If you get AIDS from sharing a needle in Scott Hall, that’s the way it goes,” Pinkard said.

Weinberg sophomore Bart Chwalisz said information that “could embarrass you in front of other students” should remain protected by the university.

“We aren’t in a public sphere all the time,” Chwalisz said. “If I have a conversation with you at Norris (University Center), that is privacy.”

Pinkard said people carve out their own distinctions between public and private information.

“The right to privacy is fixed only by social rules and those social rules can change,” Pinkard said.