Thoughts on the Rutgers Tragedy

by David French

When malicious individuals attack sensitive souls, the result is often tragic beyond words. And so it was at Rutgers, after Tyler Clementi’s roommate apparently recorded and webcast Clementi’s sexual encounter with another man. Clementi’s roommate will be prosecuted for invasion of privacy, and it’s a prosecution he seems to richly deserve.  

As campus tragedies rightfully do, Clementi’s death has triggered a round of soul-searching on campus. And nothing prompts soul-searching quite like suicide. Because it deals with anguish of the heart, it feels so preventable — the “what ifs” of intervention and prevention pile up and compound the sorrow. The Army knows this feeling quite well, as a wave of suicides has rocked the military, especially since these suicides have come even after the Army has poured resources into its suicide-prevention program.

As is so often the instinct with large bureaucracies, the answer to tragedy is often “more.” They do more of what they do. In academia, this often means more sensitivity training, more identity-based “centers” and programs, more layers to the student code of conduct. In the Army, there’s a different kind of “more.” We have an acronym to help soldiers remember their responsibilities to each other (A.C.E.), we have training, and we hold leaders accountable for paying close attention to the men and women they lead. But is “more” the answer? What about “rethink”? And what does it mean to rethink in the academic context?

First, why don’t we rethink the idea that the college students live in a parallel universe, where “student discipline” and the student judicial process can literally circumvent and replace the criminal codes that govern the rest of us? Colleges think of themselves as special communities where special disciplinary rules govern. But they’re not. They are communities of adults living in circumstances that closely resemble dense city life. If there is evidence of criminal activity, students involved should be immediately referred to law enforcement. The coddling of collegiate criminals in the play-acting world of “student discipline” is a perennial problem, and it diminishes the seriousness of actual offenses. A student handbook is not a criminal code, and even the most terrifying tribunal of some combination of your peers, professors, and administrators cannot compare to handcuffs and criminal court. 

(To be clear, Rutgers appears to have done the right thing in this case by immediately reporting criminal activity when it was discovered. My reference is to the puzzling idea that increased collegiate judicial processes would have a deterrent effect over and above increased law enforcement. Colleges have a vested interest in pushing criminal conduct into their pseudo-courts, in spite of the Clery Act).

Second, we need to rethink the idea that the group-living arrangement of the collegiate community represents just the ideal place for sexual experimentation. Groups such as UW-Madison’s “Sex Out Loud” and events such as Yale’s “Sex Week” promote the idea of college as hedonistic paradise. Yet when you combine actions that appeal to the prurient interest with the hive living of dorms, there is a recipe for trouble. Tyler Clementi’s story is unique in its tragic ending, but the circumstances are not that rare. If you know the right places to look (I won’t link), the Internet is full of grotesque privacy violations — and a disproportionate number of the “gotcha” moments occur in college dorms. I’m not advocating for regulations of private sexual conduct in dorms. Instead, I’m questioning why we expend resources encouraging decadence? Why do we deceive kids into thinking that the hive is private by any common understanding of the word?  

At the end of the day, it could very well be the case that there’s nothing that any third party could have reasonably done to prevent this tragedy. Suicide involves an act of will that is often as inexplicable as it is heartbreaking. There are — and always will be — malicious people. There are — and always be — sensitive souls. We can’t cleanse the world of pain and tragedy; yet we can do our best. I just question whether “our best” is more of the same.