More years ago than I care to admit, my parents drove me the three hours to my undergraduate institution, pulling up to the dorm to unpack my belongings as a first-year student. When we finished, we grabbed a quick lunch, after which they hugged me goodbye and headed home.
At the time I fancied myself as quite the surfer dude. I had dyed my hair orange for the summer and had an appropriate wardrobe of corduroy OP shorts and Hobie t-shirts. I was eager for the college experience and spent the weekend making the rounds at campus welcome parties and orientation events. Overall, it was a fairly low-key roster of events.
I am mindful of that weekend now because I have twins who are high school seniors, and I realize that the clock is counting down to the weekend next year when my wife and I will drop off our kids and make that long drive home as empty-nesters. This past weekend I watched my Facebook feed fill with photos of my friends and their children undergoing the drop-off ritual. Drop-off is not the low-key affair that I remember. College has changed a lot since I was a student, and there are many things on campus that most of us who are parents would not recognize. There are events for parents, for siblings, and for grandparents. There are group sessions, games, advisor meetings, and local tour events. The two-hour drop-off has become, in many places, a three-day event that culminates in a kiss-and-cry farewell of some sort.
This past weekend, the campus where I am an administrator held its annual new student orientation sessions. In addition to the kinds of events that most universities have, we include a community service day, where students filter into our city to provide hands and feet for an amazing array of needs. Because we require community service, this event introduces the students to an important part of our educational philosophy.
On the final night of orientation, the evening before classes start, we head to the chapel for a concluding event. The parents are gone by then, and the students tend to have tender hearts at that point. Following a brief homily on John 13, the university’s president and senior administrators (including myself) come to the front of the room, where our campus pastor washes our feet. The administrators then wash the feet of the student leaders, who in turn wash the feet of the first-year students. Each student is prayed over individually. The service is quite moving.
This year, as I opened my newsfeeds on the following morning, the words “Old Dominion University” caught my eye. I am a proud Monarch alum, with my diploma hanging on my office wall, so I clicked on the link. The headline wasn’t good; a fraternity had placed offensive banners on their railings near where families were dropping off their first-year students. The stories called the banners “suggestive” but I can tell you that as a father, I read them as threatening. The fact that they were scrawled on bedsheets underscores the level of threat that I viewed in them. I am proud that the university and the national fraternity leaders took swift action against the group, but the damage was done. Indeed, during a meeting in my office just yesterday, a visitor saw my diploma and said, “You went to ODU? Have you heard about the fraternity situation?” Like I said, the damage was done.
The damage is quite extensive at some campuses. According to two studies now, as many as 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted while she is a student. 1 is too many; 1 in 5? Unconscionable. I know that the frat boys thought they were being cheeky and some commentators have objected that people have made too much of the story, but I will plant my feet firmly and state that this is one area that colleges have not handled well. As far back as 1957, Clark Kerr opined that college leaders’ jobs have come to focus on “providing parking for the faculty, sex for the students, and athletics for the alumni.” Kerr may have uttered this as a toss-away comment, but it seems to have been verified for half a century now, and the sexual entitlements that too many have assumed are wreaking havoc on both women and men.
I can’t help but think about the contrasting worldviews in play here. At one campus, the freshmen were prayed over. At the other, they were preyed upon. Or at least they were threatened in that way. All too often, when my fellow academics hear that I teach at a Christian college, they will ask how I can teach at a place that’s so “narrow” or that creates a bubble for our students. My campus isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I know this: we do all we can to provide our students with a safe and supportive community in which they can learn.