TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Question 163: How should a Catholic college tighten its rules of student conduct?

I am a professor at a nominally Catholic college and have just been named one of the two faculty members on the student affairs committee. This coming year we are going to do a complete revision of the student handbook, which contains all the college’s disciplinary policies and rules of student conduct. We also will consider other relevant college policies and arrangements, and modify them as necessary to make the rules more realistic and effective. While we will be considering everything, for the initial stage of our work, we have divided ourselves into two subcommittees. The other group will be considering violence against persons, theft, property destruction, drug abuse, and academic offenses, such as cheating on tests and plagiarism. My group will deal with the more contentious matters, especially alcohol abuse and sexual activity.

Years ago, neither was a problem. Students were not permitted to have or use alcohol on campus. It was a women’s school, and no men were allowed to visit the dormitory floors of the residence halls. Sisters on the faculty lived among the students in the residence halls. Things changed during the 1960s. The legal age for drinking in this state was reduced to eighteen, and alcohol was permitted on campus; at first there were narrow limits, but these were quickly eliminated either officially or at least in practice. The school went coed and grew larger, and the resident portion of the student body increased to around seventy-five percent. Women and men were housed in the same buildings, though on different floors or in different wings; and visitation was permitted from ten in the morning until midnight (or, on weekends, two in the morning). The number of nuns declined drastically as some quit religious life and others died or were given other assignments. Those who remained stopped living in the residence halls, and the only authority figures regularly present there were resident assistants, that is, students chosen from among the more responsible seniors to do what they could to keep order and deal with problems.

The school continued to grow in the 1970s. Some old residence halls were remodeled for other uses, and new housing was built to accommodate most seniors and juniors. Unlike traditional dorms, the new buildings were designed as an apartment complex. Each unit has two double rooms, a bath, a fully equipped kitchenette, and a living-dining area. Dozens of students often crowd into these apartments for parties, which on weekends typically feature kegs of beer and go on until morning. Around 1985, the drinking age in this state was moved back up to twenty-one, but that has not made much difference; older students turn their apartments into pubs for the younger ones. Most students party, and about half of those partying intentionally get drunk at least one night a week. In the apartments, twenty-four-hour visitation is permitted. Men and women are officially assigned to different units, but the students rearrange themselves so that roughly a third of the units soon are occupied by two mixed couples per apartment. Resident assistants are mainly concerned with limiting property damage and calling campus security to deal with emergencies. When students are in residence, administrators and faculty members stay away from the apartment buildings, and the security people go in only when called, see and do as little as possible, and get out quickly.

Most faculty members and administrators seem to have no moral problem with drunkenness or fornication as such; a few, myself included, definitely do. But the majority of the faculty and many of our more able and committed students do object to the quality of campus life to the extent that, as matters stand, only the most self-disciplined and committed students are getting an education, and even they learn less than they otherwise would because of distractions resulting from sexual misbehavior and alcohol abuse—the constant noise and the emotional turmoil of their fellow students. Some administrators, including our newly installed president, see the problem as a serious obstacle to raising the academic quality of the college. The president also is very concerned about the costly consequences of alcohol abuse: sexual assaults and other crimes of violence, theft and vandalism, and the need to spend so much on student health care, safety and security, and liability insurance. Therefore, it is likely that we will be able do something toward tightening up student discipline, not only on paper but in reality.

Even so, most students, many faculty members, the administrators directly concerned with student activities, and, ironically, the people involved in the college chaplaincy will oppose any tightening up. They will base their case on respect for the students’ right as adults to make their own choices, the limits of the college’s authority to make rules and its power to enforce them, and the pointlessness of trying to foster good character by strict rules governing outward behavior: “Even in the old days, many students kept a hidden bottle, and boys and girls who were so inclined always found some place to sleep together; so, the old system fostered hypocrisy rather than virtue.”

I trust you will be on my side. What tightening up do you think I should argue for, and what arguments would you offer for those changes?


This question calls for a clarification of the principle for just rules and policies of student conduct in a Catholic college. The college’s common good rather than students’ personal welfare should be the principle of its rules and policies. The elements of the common good are cooperation in cultivating and sharing intellectual virtues and knowledge of truth, including faith and faith’s truth; justice and charity among all members of the college community; and the religious significance of their common enterprise. Grounding the rules on the college’s common good will enable the committee to answer objections based on students’ rights and the limits of the college’s authority. The college’s rules need not violate students’ rights; since the rules are included in a contract students freely accept, obeying them is a responsibility of membership in the college. Though covert violation of the rules by some students and merely outward conformity by some others will limit the rules’ benefits, good rules will promote the college’s common good and support students’ sound commitments.

The reply could be along the following lines:

In making and revising rules to regulate student behavior, bear in mind that for the most part good rules produce benefits independently of their enforcement. They are effective by bearing witness to the goods to which they direct action, teaching members of the community how to act, and providing an objective, interpersonal structure that validates and reinforces the commitments of individuals to the common good and to the means necessary to it. Rules need to be enforced only when the reasonable effort they embody to shape cooperation fails, and enforcement seems likely to redress and limit the harm done to the community by an individual’s or group’s misbehavior.

Hence, it is very important that the college’s rules be reasonable, that they be clearly explained, and that as many students as possible understand and accept the explanation. Moreover, though students should not share in the power of determining rules, their suggestions and comments on proposed changes should be invited and carefully considered. In this way, many reasonable refinements will be made and ambiguities eliminated.

Many schools no longer seek to educate students who wish to be educated, but instead merely try to supply clients—tax payers or paying customers, as the case may be—with whatever training and information they want, so that they can pursue whatever arbitrary goals they choose. Faculty members cease to be professionals and are reduced to giving students what they want, rather like some physicians who, no longer committed to their patients’ health, use medical technique and drugs to help people do whatever they wish with their bodies and psyches.

But a college should try to educate its students, and any real effort to educate—that is, to help develop various human potentialities—presupposes some definite conception of what fulfills those potentialities. A Catholic college appropriately draws its conception of human fulfillment from natural law illuminated by Catholic faith and defines its principal purpose, which is its common good, in terms of human fulfillment thus conceived.

The central elements of the common good of a Catholic academic community are three: first, effective cooperation among faculty and students in cultivating and sharing intellectual virtues and knowledge of truth, including the virtue of Catholic faith and faith’s truth; second, justice and charity among all involved; third, the religious significance of the common enterprise considered as cooperation in a particular part of God’s creative, redemptive, and sanctifying work. The fundamental principle of the college’s authority to regulate student behavior is its common good. Therefore, the college can rightly regulate students’ use of alcohol and their interpersonal sexual behavior insofar as these impede effective cooperation in teaching and learning, in living as a just and loving community, and in realizing various aspects of the common religious value, such as the Christian witness that the college’s common life should provide to members and outsiders.

The law setting twenty-one as the drinking age should be presumed just, and college policy should conform to it. Habitual drunkenness, as you and others have observed, impedes education, not only by its direct effects on mental functioning but also, and perhaps more importantly, by substituting escapism and self-indulgence for the self-discipline required for intellectual development. When older students give or sell alcoholic beverages to younger ones, all involved violate the law, and their cooperation in wrongdoing violates mutual charity. As you note, alcohol abuse also is costly for the college in several ways, and it is unjust to impose these costs on the college community.365 Plainly, too, if alcohol abuse is an integral feature of the culture of a Catholic college campus, the community will not be markedly better—and may be markedly worse—in this respect than the surrounding secular society. To that extent, it will be incapable of bearing witness.

Intimate sexual relationships distract unmarried young people from their studies and displace other activities that would contribute to their development. Fornicators not only wrong their own bodies but injure each other; their sin violates charity, and so is incompatible with any form of Christian community (see 1 Cor 6.13–20; LCL, 648–68). Like alcohol abuse, sexual self-indulgence is at odds with the self-discipline essential for moral maturity and with a Christian culture capable of giving witness.

In my judgment, student living accommodations must be designed to promote such an environment if a college is to regulate student behavior as reasonably and effectively as possible. Imagine a college where each student has his or her private room, with just enough space to store personal belongings, sleep, study, and engage in other individual activities. Abundant common areas would be provided, indoors and out, for the use of groups of various sizes, ranging from couples to the entire student body. These common areas would be arranged and divided so that each group could carry on its own activities, neither disturbing others nor being disturbed or overheard. However, in indoor common spaces, glass dividing walls and windows would keep all couples’ and groups’ activities open to the view of others. With such accommodations, the imaginary college’s rules bearing on student alcohol use, sexual activity, and noise could be simple, along the following lines.

Students under the legal age for drinking may not possess or use alcohol on the campus. Nobody on campus may supply underage students with alcohol, and doing so will be considered a very serious infraction. Outside their rooms, students of drinking age may consume alcohol on campus only if it is supplied by a college facility or, on an approved occasion, by the college’s food and beverage service. (The only facilities regularly serving alcohol are arranged for eating and/or conversation, without any amplified sound; weeks during which an approved occasion occurs are the exception rather than the rule.)
 Students may not publicly do anything inconsistent with Christian modesty in sexual matters. Students may not have guests in their private rooms.
This rule would impede not only illicit sexual activity but a great deal of time-wasting talk and socializing; it would promote study and prayer by protecting students from constant interruptions. It also would prevent residents from making unfair use of one another’s space—a common abuse facilitated by peer pressure against claiming one’s right to privacy.

Students may not intentionally cause any sound in their private rooms annoying to others. Amplified sound may never be audible outside a student’s room. Within common areas, the level of sounds, other than those specifically authorized by the college administration, may never be so high as to be perceptible in any chapel, library, classroom, study hall, office, or private room on the campus.
 The common areas are supervised by mature adults who are authorized to exercise the college’s disciplinary authority. Campus security officers regularly patrol residence halls and common areas, both for everyone’s safety and to discourage and deal with violations of rules.

Obviously, though unfortunately, the living accommodations on your campus are such that your rules of student behavior cannot be so simple and strict. In particular, the apartment complex you describe seems to have been very poorly designed for housing students on a Catholic college campus. Almost certainly, too, the college lacks adequate common areas. You must therefore propose rules adapted to the conditions on your campus.

Men and women should be housed in separate buildings or in parts of buildings remodeled to preclude inside access to one another. Visiting hours should be limited, say, from nine in the morning until nine in the evening. Students should be required to reside in their assigned units. The number of visitors to a residence unit should be limited, so that it never exceeds, say, twice the number of residents present. Moreover, the consent of all residents present in a unit should be required for any guest; each student sharing a room or apartment should have a strict and strongly enforced right to require at any time that any or all visitors leave the unit at once. For the sake of worthwhile gatherings, classrooms and public areas should be made available to groups of students who wish to study together or engage in extracurricular activities.

Severe restrictions on alcohol use and noise remain possible. You should argue for them. It is especially important to forbid selling or giving alcohol to underage students, and firmly to punish infractions. Amplified sound in residence units, whether conventional dormitory rooms or apartments, must be limited. As some localities’ ordinances have done, the college’s rules should set maximum levels of noise permitted at various times.

Having answered your direct question about the tightening up I would argue for and the arguments I would propose, I turn to the counterarguments, several of which you have sketched out. You must be prepared to answer them.

The first will be that the old idea that a college stands in loco parentis is out of date and the students, as adults, have the right to make their own choices, provided, of course, they do not seriously injure one another or damage college property.

Begin by dismissing as a red herring talk of the college standing in loco parentis. That phrase referred to deputed parental authority, which boarding schools and colleges exercised over young people for their personal welfare—in matters of morality such as censoring reading materials, in matters of health and hygiene such as requiring adequate rest and a balanced diet, in matters of safety such as ruling dangerous parts of town off limits, and so forth. On that basis, students might have been penalized precisely for having liquor on campus or getting drunk, even if they were of age to drink; for fornicating, even if they did it off campus; for possessing a recording with obscene lyrics, even if nobody heard them play it; and so on.

Unfortunately, since the demise of their responsibility in loco parentis, “most colleges and universities have failed to devise a comprehensive and consistent model that both defines their relationship with the students and poses clear guidelines for student and campus policy.”366 The policy proposed above is intended to supply the needed model; according to it, the college would regulate students’ behavior precisely insofar as necessary to promote the campus sociocultural environment required by the college’s common good. Students would be assisted and encouraged to foster certain aspects of their personal good. But the college’s rules would require them to do so only insofar as some aspects of their personal good also pertain to the common good.

Go on to grant that students have the right to make their own choices, but argue that this right is limited by morality and the common good. Nobody has a moral right to get drunk, fornicate, or immerse himself or herself and others in mind-numbing and spiritually debilitating noise. True, it is not for the college to enforce the whole of morality, but when immoral behavior also impedes its common good, rules against that behavior do not infringe students’ rights but protect them. Moreover, students contract freely with the college, and it includes its rules of behavior in the contract. When students accept the contract and become members of the college, they should keep their contractual promises, which now are responsibilities of membership.

The second counterargument will be that both the college’s authority to make rules and its power to enforce them are limited.

Grant that the college’s authority is limited, but argue that the proposed tightening up in no way exceeds that limit, since the college’s common good rationally requires it. Strict rules cannot be enforced perfectly, but committed administrators can enforce them earnestly by providing enough suitable persons to exercise the college’s disciplinary authority, and by regularly imposing the stated penalties on those proved guilty of infractions.

Some faculty members no doubt will say that the objectives of the proposed tightening up are unrealistic. Campus life nowhere is what it once was, and students in Catholic schools no longer differ significantly from their counterparts in secular schools. So, they will conclude, the college must accept the way things are. If that argument were sound, the college might as well close down or, at least, honestly admit that it no longer is Catholic. But you can point to a few Catholic colleges with strict rules that are doing well. In the name of realism, administrators also may object that the college cannot afford to try to tighten up, since many students would rebel and withdraw. But even though some current students will withdraw if the college adopts and widely advertises strict but reasonable rules, they will be replaced by others better prepared to cooperate in the appropriate work of a Catholic college, and the institution’s academic quality will make a quantum leap in a short time.367

The third counterargument will be that strict rules governing outward behavior are pointless, since they do not foster good character but, instead, tend to foster hypocrisy.

Begin by noting that this argument is beside the point. Tightening up the rules of student behavior is intended, not to foster the good character of individual students, but to contribute to the college’s common good. You also can point out that it need not be hypocritical for people outwardly to conform to social norms they have not appropriated. People are hypocrites, strictly speaking, only if they pretend that their good behavior manifests good character they lack.

Having said that, you should go on to answer the argument directly. Every social effort to regulate behavior does risk some hypocrisy as an unwanted side effect. The question is whether this bad side effect ought to be accepted. You must argue that it is not too great an evil to accept. Subject anecdotal evidence and casual appeals to history—how things were in Catholic colleges in the old days—to critical examination. And point out, too, that nobody is proposing a return to the old days. Still, the former, stricter rules not only maintained various conditions conducive to a college’s common good but removed many unnecessary occasions of serious sin and other foolishness. They were a real help to many young people who were not bad willed but weak. Now, by contrast, the college both defeats its own purpose and actively scandalizes its students. Indeed, many schools today officially engage in serious hypocrisy, pretending to be Catholic while allowing themselves to become, or even deliberately making themselves, less and less distinguishable from otherwise similar secular institutions.

The college chaplaincy’s preaching, catechesis, and counseling should promote right attitudes and action with respect to the goods that sound discipline will try to safeguard and, in its own way, promote. If those involved in the chaplaincy will oppose any tightening up, I suggest you urge their replacement as quickly as possible. Very likely they teach dissenting theological opinions on moral questions and apply them in their pastoral practice, thus contributing greatly to the college’s scandalizing of its students. Even if this happens not to be true, people who see no need to curb the works of the flesh in order to facilitate the works of the spirit do not belong in a Catholic college chaplaincy.

Another challenge you are likely to encounter is that basing rules of student behavior on the common good of the college as Catholic is unfair to non-Catholic students and at odds with the church-state separation that must be respected insofar as the institution depends on public assistance (at least in guaranteeing student loans if not in other ways). Your first point should be that, while the proposed rules will be conducive to the common good of the college as Catholic, their content also pertains to the natural law, and so neither is unfair to any student nor involves anything specifically Catholic. Moreover, even if non-Catholic students were held to something specifically Catholic, they would suffer no injustice, provided the school makes its commitment and policies clear to applicants, who then can freely choose whether to enter its community and conform to its rules. As for church-state separation, not even the U.S. Supreme Court’s school aid decisions impede tightening up the rules along the lines I have sketched.368

Some probably will protest that, if stricter rules are adopted and enforced, the college will become a monastery, with the students deprived of a normal social life and isolated in lonely silence. Certainly the change would help create an atmosphere conducive to study—an atmosphere the students will need if the faculty make higher academic demands and enforce them. But the students would not be deprived of wholesome social life or isolated in silence. The rules would allow for decent social events of many kinds, and the college should sponsor or encourage all sorts of morally acceptable activities. There should be a great variety and adequate quantity of games and sports equipment, and many sorts of associations should be encouraged based on common interests in academic matters, hobbies, and so on. Moreover, studying together, in and outside classrooms, should provide the foundation for any college community, and fitting liturgy should be the nucleus of a Catholic college’s common life. Thus, the students should have rich opportunities to enjoy appropriate camaraderie and participate in a genuine community.

Undoubtedly, you will encounter a great deal of opposition in trying to promote a cultural environment more appropriate in a Catholic college. I hope you will neither compromise too quickly nor become discouraged. Even if you make little visible headway and your college remains a stumbling block to most of its students, your effort itself will bear witness to the kingdom and provide material for it, as does every good work of those who obey the Lord (see GS 38–39). Carry on the struggle not only with the hope of improving your college but also, and even more, with the hope of contributing to a better, a heavenly college, and enjoying tenure in it.

365. For the facts about the extent and bad effects of alcohol abuse on U.S. campuses, see Commission on Substance Abuse at Colleges and Universities, Rethinking Rites of Passage: Substance Abuse on America’s Campuses (New York: Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 1994), 12–26.

366. Ibid., 32.

367. Henry Wechsler et al., “The Adverse Impact of Heavy Episodic Drinkers on Other College Students,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 56 (1995): 628–34, report the results of a survey of 17,592 students at 140 American colleges showing that many students who do not drink heavily suffer seriously due to others’ heavy drinking, especially on campuses where it is prevalent. Advertising the results of such studies along with a college’s strict rules would encourage applications by individuals who plan not to drink heavily.

368. See Kenneth D. Whitehead, Catholic Colleges and Federal Funding (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).