For the past six months, staff and faculty in Student Life have been talking about the principles that guide their work, and the assumptions that inform student conduct. The critical terms in this discussion are “responsibility” and “governance.” The key question is how can we (as a community) create an ethos in which students have the freedom and autonomy to direct their lives on campus? This is not a new discussion—it has been around for decades—though (for a variety of reasons) it seems to have assumed a particular sense of urgency in the last couple of years.
There are lots of ways of approaching this discussion, but for starters let’s look at how we frame the issue of student responsibility in our Handbook. For instance, here is one of several passages describing the College’s aspirations for student responsibility and growth:
Middlebury College requires all its faculty, staff, and students to adhere to certain policies and regulations. These regulations, which differ for different segments of the College community, are all designed to further the educational goals of the College. The College’s central purpose is to develop the life of the mind in the fullest sense: to foster clear and critical thinking; to disseminate valuable information; to facilitate research; and to enrich the imagination, broaden sympathy, and deepen insight. The College seeks to help each student develop the capacity to contribute to society and find personal fulfillment. Whatever promotes learning and human growth is encouraged by the College; whatever hinders it is opposed. The College’s policies and regulations, which are always open to review, are formulated with this general principle in mind.
This is eloquent prose in the service of important values. Compare it, though, to the following statement, taken from the Handbook of another liberal arts institution (namely, Grinnell College), which also seeks to outline student responsibilities.
You are responsible for your community. That is, you work at a variety of levels to build, maintain, and contribute to the campus, local, and global community.
You are accountable for your choices. That is, you take ownership for your actions, opinions, and beliefs.
You are accountable for preventing your actions from infringing or violating others’ rights.
You are responsible for speaking and listening to others to reach shared understandings.
You are responsible for addressing situations and communicating concerns about issues that undermine community or individual rights, whether they be your own or others.
What’s striking about this statement is the “you” that begins each sentence, the “you” that takes responsibility for actions that follow. Although the ideals expressed here are similar to the principles we espouse at Middlebury, the voice—the “you”—confers a sense of personal responsibility that is missing from our third-person point of view.
Should we consider revising our Handbook language so that it reflects a more personal notion of individual responsibility? Is it time to reengage the idea of a social honor code? These questions cannot be addressed without the active involvement of students. The “we” who are part of Student Life—staff and faculty—would like to bring this discussion to the larger community, and we’ve begun to talk about how to do so.
What do you think?