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A School’s Responsibility

A School’s Responsibility

June 28, 2008 11:10 pmComments are Disabled

There is nothing as sad as the suicide of a student.  There is the feeling of remorse of the entire university community, for one, on top of the morbid calculation of suicide rates that complements any discussion of the “toughness” of a school–be it MIT, Cornell, or the University of Chicago.  There is the irreconcilable feeling of loss that accompanies the death of any student, not knowing who he might have become, or what might have been.  But most of all, there is the feeling of guilt, that someone, somewhere, should have seen that this young adult was in trouble, and no one did anything to stop it.

I have no doubt that in the next couple of days at the University of Chicago, many condolences will be uttered and these feelings of guilt, of sadness, will come out into the open.  Students and faculty alike will mourn the passing of this student, as they have for the death of students in the past.  It is with great sorrow that we remember the life so painfully cut short by its own hand.  And, of course, the questions will be asked, tenderly at first, but then more firmly, as people demand to know why this student did not receive the help he needed, and to what extent the University is responsible.

Of course, it is not the Administration’s fault that this tragedy occurred; nor should any student, parent or community member try to point the finger of blame on anyone.  But the questions should be asked, because they are necessary to prevent further such tragedies.  They are necessary to spare the suffering of countless students and parents and teachers, friends and family and colleagues.  What can the University of Chicago do to see that students in trouble receive the help they need?  What can students do if they notice that a friend is in trouble?  How available are school resources, such as the school psychologist and advising services, when they are most needed?

These questions are important, because they go to the core principle of what the University represents.  In English common law, the University is of the tradition in loco parentis, or “in the place of a parent.”  It is the job of the University to represent a parent, and to provide for the students under its wing with the care, support, and encouragement.  It is true that the institution has not been a curfew-bearing, strict disciplinarian since the 60’s, but the University is still supposed the place where children become adults, where they are nurtured to their full potential under a transitionary parental guidance.  The University has a role to guide its students on the right path to adulthood.

When a student cuts his own life short, while partaking in the University system and interacting with the community, in a community of friends and professors who share his love of education and are kin in the life of the mind, it is a sad day indeed for the University whose responsibility it was to see to it that his upbringing reached a full fruition.  It is not a question of fault, nor of blame; it is a question of responsibility.

Suicide, as Durkheim liked to say, reflected the happiness of any society.  More suicides meant a society was less happy.  Why else would someone take their own life, unless death were a preferable option to living?  However, there is obviously more to the complicated pathos of a suicide, and we cannot understand what drove this poor student to take his own life.  The University of Chicago is not an unhappy community–nor does the University wish its students unhappiness.  But it appears that the failure on the part of the University was not in neglecting the happiness of one of its flock, but in failing to actively increase happiness for all.

As it stands right now, the philosophy of the University seems to be “You are independent, responsible adults–we are here for you if you need us, but we believe you to be on your own.”  It should be “We are responsible for you, the students.  Enjoy your independence, but always know that we are watching out for you.”

The former, current, attitude, the attitude of passiveness, is apparent in the advising system of the College, which “Requires” students to make a yearly appointment, yet does nothing to make sure the students seek out their own advisor.  It is apparent in the academic system, which has degree requirements but puts the onus on the student to find his or her own BA advisors and plan his or her own course schedule, including Core requirements essential to graduation.  It is apparent in the Career Advising and Planning Services (CAPS), which only offer real help, guidance, and employment opportunities if they are frequently requested to do so.  It is apparent in the housing system, which provides a safe haven but can be ignored completely for the entire year without any questions being asked.

A student with no drive or independence could clearly get lost in the network of bureaucracy of student services, and fail to graduate in four years without having the ability to ask the right questions, such as “What language requirement do I need?” or “How many classes do I need to take to major in biochemistry?”  Of course, the University of Chicago is largely absent of these non-driven, dependent students, with its high standards of admittance and the quality of the intellectual community.  However, even small gaps in basic services for competent students means much larger, gaping crevices for struggling ones.  Students who miss something, or students who aren’t always entirely on top of their game, can quickly find themselves frantically trying to keep their head above water, realizing too late, for example, that they cannot take a certain class pass fail or they have missed their opportunity to apply to a dream internship.

What does a student do when the University is clearly there for help when he reaches for it, but does not provide a safety net should he not be willing to seek help?

It is with great sadness, then, that we arrive to what seems to be one of an inevitable cycle of self-inflicted student tragedies.  It is with remorse that the University community will address this tragedy, but it is with determination that the community must push forward to improve its safety net, and take the role of in loco parentis that is its rightful duty.

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