Helping Students Govern Themselves
The following op-ed by President William G. Durden was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Oct. 31, 2011.
By William G. Durden
Ask national security officials where the
greatest threat to the homeland lies, and they're sure to tell you it's
in ungoverned territory — those areas around the world where the
absence of law and order allows terrorists to operate without fear of
In colleges, too, ungoverned student behavior can
disrupt order and threaten safety. A small subset of students who ignore
the social contract and do what they want, when they want to, can have a
disproportionate impact on a campus. They can compromise the quality of
life of all students and waste huge amounts of staff time and money.
Colleges have codes of conduct to address this kind of behavior.
When it comes to substance abuse and other issues, we support our codes
with counseling and, where appropriate, discipline. But if some of a
college's students are able to make life frightening, dangerous, or
intolerable for others on or off campus, that college has a problem with
All sorts of military and nonmilitary means
are employed to deal with the world's ungoverned territories.
Ultimately, though, such places cease to be havens for bad behavior when
enough of their people embrace and master effective governance —
ideally, self-governance — in all its dimensions. That is, when they see
the possibility of a better life through legitimate government.
This idea can inform college leaders dealing with ungoverned behavior.
We have our codes of conduct and disciplinary mechanisms, but what
ultimately matters is whether our students understand that effective
self-governance is the key to their ability to lead productive and
meaningful lives on campus and beyond.
We should redouble our
efforts to teach students the benefits of surrendering a part of
themselves to the social contract. We should instill in them a fuller
understanding of what it means to be part of a wider, diverse community.
We should encourage them to engage in open dialogue about ethical,
moral, and epistemological questions that extend beyond self-interest.
And, most important, we should teach them the simple truth that progress
toward the good life depends largely on how well they treat others and
subjugate their will to the social contract.
Benjamin Rush, the
founder of Dickinson College and a signer of the Declaration of
Independence, said it best in a 1773 letter to his countrymen on the
virtues of patriotism: "The social spirit is the true selfish
spirit, and men always promote their own interest most, in proportion
as they promote that of their neighbors and their country."
William G. Durden is the president of Dickinson College.