Who is Responsible?

So we had a deep and very intense discussion last night in my College Student Development Theory class around this piece:

Student’s Death of U. of C.

There were a few very serious ideas people faced as we went through our own development. They wanted to know who was responsible, wondered over the balance between letting students be adults and keeping a close eye on them, and wondering how someone could disappear for 8 days. I would like to address some of that discussion and my own thoughts on all three, starting in reverse.

1) How could someone disappear for 8 days? To clarify, there is no proof that the young man, Nicholas Barnes, was dead for 8 days. More recent articles estimate that he died 72 hours before he was found and both suicide and foul play were ruled out. Now back to the main question.

As human beings, we all worry to some extent about being cared for by one another. Several students in the class were really hung up on this point. As a number of other classmates explained personal stories of how it could happen, the group trying to comprehend would say “I understand, but how can that happen?” Well  that leads in two very different directions. Either these students didn’t actually understand or they are wanting to address a much deeper issue with society where someone can disappear for days an no one notices (we will look into this idea more as we reach the final idea). Believe it or not, it is very easy for someone to disappear for a few days, sometimes even as long as a few weeks if they really want to. If something like this happens outside of a university, we don’t worry as much about that point, but we in the university who like to think we are more than human sometimes wonder how this can happen. It can, and will until we make a concerted effort to change the culture. As Colleges and Universities become more and more business focused, that seems more and more difficult to ask.

2) The real life v. Student Balance. To clarify, what I mean here is that we tell people they are adults when they turn 18, but we still have this idea that students at a university need to be protected and cared for, etc. It is a really interesting concept and one that colleges and universities have been vacillating between since their start with Harvard in 1636 when colleges were in loco parentis or “in place of the parent.” They served as both care facility and education facility. Through the years we have shifted and now tend to see students more as adults gaining an education where staff and faculty seek to challenge and support their growth and development. This was another discussion we had asking if there could be too many policies and regulations. Specifically the idea was brought up of having a centralized system that all university affiliated folks could report into about a students, the idea of watching the student every step of the way. The counter argument was what if there were no rules or regulations. Personally, I think this does not match the argument. Let’s look at the same arguments outside of the university setting. The idea of keeping tags on everyone is kind of like a Big Brother idea in this setting. It is one people are very uncomfortable with. The counter argument here is no laws. This is what we call anarchy. Maybe I’m misinterpreting, but the two do not seem equitable, nor do they appear to be the only options.

3) Who is Responsible? This was the big question. It was one that we spent the better part of an hour discussing. There seemed to be two main pieces, the idea that housing was responsible and that everyone was responsible. The blame (because we need someone to blame for everything in our society) was laid squarely at the feet of residential life by a lot of people, and if you read the comments on some of these articles, society seems to agree. For the record, blaming someone means that you feel that person or group of people did not do enough. One of our classmates is a faculty member who brought up that he is required to make certain notes if a students misses so many classes and said that it was housing’s responsibility because they are in charge of the community. This was an interesting idea because it assumes that housing has the ability to force each student to be involved and can require students to participate. It also assumes that housing did not do enough. Anyone who has ever worked in or with housing knows this to seem a laughable point. From someone who has worked in several parts of the university setting, the only one more stressful is orientation (and even that only lasts for a smaller period of time). To clarify, each and every group works hard. I do not want to discount anyone’s efforts. But to say housing did not do enough rarely, if ever, makes sense. There were several of us who offered personal stories to challenge this professor’s beliefs. Personally, I disagree that housing is solely responsible.

Another student asked “Why did you apply to work for housing if you didn’t want to help students?” You could see her face as soon as she said it that she knew it wasn’t a good idea (I really don’t think that is what she believed, but it is what she happened to say). Needless to say, there were several hands immediately up to defend housing. I would like to express that I do hope everyone involved in Higher Ed and Student Affairs is looking to help and work with students on some level. Personally, I disagree with this point for the exact sentiment as above. Housing, from training to move out day and every one in between in every direction, puts in a great deal of effort in order to care for and develop these students. Just like all others in our field, they care for these students. It would be just like me asking why his academic advisor, his friends, his professors, his family, or many other groups of people didn’t say anything.

So who is responsible? Placing blame in what may have been purely an accident does not seem beneficial here. Sadly these events happen far more often than we acknowledge. However, if you do feel someone is at fault, I would suggest looking at all parties, not merely housing. And don’t just look at the university; they were not the only folks associated with or connected to this individual.

Just my two cents worth…

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About rigsurfer

A Brother of Delta Upsilon International Fraternity, Inc., Joined in Fall 2010. Completed a B.A. in English at North Carolina State University in 2013 and received a M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration at Texas Tech University in 2015. Passionate about Leadership and Diversity as well as Ducks, Scooby Doo, and reading.
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