Photographer: Ben Baker/Redux
Photographer: Ben Baker/Redux

Not one like that room.

That’s what parents of high school seniors are saying to themselves this spring as they send in the new-car-level deposit for their darling’s college dorm room and tuition.

They’re thinking of the recent hate-crime conviction of a student at Rutgers University who secretly taped his roommate having sex with another man in their room and shared the video. The roommate subsequently committed suicide.

Most parents quickly tell themselves to move on. After all, there is little chance their child’s roommate will be so heinous as to record someone else’s private life; there’s little chance their child would tape someone else; there’s little chance their child would commit suicide.

Still, parents hesitate. That’s because it is quite possible for their child to land with a roommate whose activities -- sexual, social or addictive -- are hard to take. For every federal hate-crime case like the Rutgers one, there are hundreds of rotten rooming situations that drive kids to drop out, transfer or simply endure a memorably painful year, with or without sorting out what is happening to them. And there’s precious little anyone -- parent, child, school -- can do about it.

A Novel View

The best way to explain the American dorm problem is through two novels that many college freshmen and their parents have already read: “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Lord of the Flies.”

The first, by Philip Roth, was published in 1959 and treats romance, sex and religion; it even, passingly, involves Rutgers. “Lord of the Flies,” by William Golding, came out a few years earlier. It is the story of what school children do when left alone on a deserted island and shows how freedom can quickly deteriorate into bullying, and worse.

Let’s start with the Roth book. “Goodbye, Columbus” is set in New Jersey a half-century ago. In the 1950s, male college students served in the military but couldn’t vote, and colleges imposed parietal rules, which kept young men out of women’s dorms. Spring was still spring then, too, and there was plenty of romance on campuses. The protagonist, Neil Klugman, a librarian and graduate of the Newark Colleges of Rutgers, courts Brenda Patimkin, a wealthy girl from Short Hills and a student at Radcliffe College, Harvard’s sister school.

Toward the end of the book, Neil is summoned to Boston by Brenda during Rosh Hashanah weekend. There is no question of meeting in her Radcliffe room. The dorm mother will call home in Short Hills to tell mom. “I’ve got a hotel room,” Brenda breathlessly tells Neil.

Repression is the villain of “Goodbye, Columbus”: sexual, religious and social. Roth didn’t plan it, but the novella turned out to be a weapon in an anti-repression revolution that swept away the fussy parietal rules, as well as decanal authority and, in fact, Radcliffe College itself. The anti-repression movement eventually yielded the vote for 18-year-olds, the end of the draft and a violent reinterpretation of old laws in favor of a new emphasis on the enforcement of civil and human rights.

Most of those who advocated these changes never anticipated their downside. Intimidated by courts and students who preferred colleges advertising freedom, deans and dorm mothers abdicated their authority or disappeared. When students became voting adults, privacy laws shut out parents as well. No one controls what happens in dorms, and those freshmen, who often don’t pick their roommates, become especially vulnerable.

Hate Crimes

Our national emphasis on defining wrongdoing through the legal code -- hate crimes -- implies that everything that isn’t illegal is tenable in a college community. A student who tapes a homosexual act is guilty of a hate crime, but one who tapes heterosexual sex is only likely to be subject to slow-moving dorm discipline, if that. All victims of video-bullying are equally harmed.

The “tragedy of the commons” is an old economic concept. It holds that people will abuse a public resource until that resource is exhausted. But we also have a “tragedy of the common room” at colleges, where nobody owns the dorm desk or bed, and everybody abuses it. The result isn’t “Goodbye, Columbus.” It is the anything-goes of bullies on the rampage: “Lord of the Flies.”

The challenge for parents is to take dorm anarchy seriously. They need to consider how to help schools reclaim dorms, so that students there not only don’t tape, but also protect and respect one another. There’s got to be a way to do that so it also honors everyone’s rights. Civil rights alone don’t constitute a community.

There’s something creepy about the current situation, in which adults cross their fingers and look away from what transpires at colleges because civil-rights lawyers are on the job there. After all, we don’t check into a motel on the assurance that hate crimes perpetrated there will be prosecuted. We also want the assurance that the establishment will be reasonably civil, quiet and clean.

It’s time to aim for an American college room uncrazy enough that an adult, too, might consider moving in.

(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg View columnist and the director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the Bush Institute. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Amity Shlaes at amityshlaes@hotmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.