Blogs > Cliopatria > Infantalizing Students or Disciplining Institutions?

Aug 13, 2005 9:03 pm

Infantalizing Students or Disciplining Institutions?

The National PTA has admitted its first college parent-teacher association, Parents and Friends of UH-Manoa. That doesn't affect me directly, being at UH-Hilo, but it's something to watch.

Among the issues the UH-Manoa PTA hopes to address are underage and binge drinking, health and security, campus housing shortages and parking.

"Many of the students still feel the PTA is the stuff for younger kids, those in elementary schools," [Hawaii State PTSA president] Hayman said."But if you look at the good high schools, with many of the problems college campuses face, a strong PTA makes a big difference."

Whether this is a good or a bad thing depends a great deal on your view of our academic culture, I think. My first reaction was that it was evidence of the downgrading of college (and college students) to the status of extended high schools. Both the parental involvement in the education of legal adults and the emphasis on dorm life issues like drinking suggest that it's the failure of UHM to properly care for its students in loco parentis that drove this. It could also be seen as evidence of the failure of higher education to respond to students as customers, the insulation of colleges from market pressures that would force them to deal with inadequate infrastructure and services.

I do think that it is going to be a trend rather than an aberration, because higher education is not terribly responsive to students except in really broad and slow fashion: student governments clearly do not effectively pressure administrations to do much of anything, at least not anything that costs money. Alumni associations tend to be more interested in protecting their legacies than in the substance of campus life: think of the tertiary PTA as a sort of"future alumni association" that is giving the institution a chance to redeem itself in the present.

Parents do have some power with colleges, mostly because they have much greater savvy than their children in dealing with corporate institutions. My own mother taught me a great lesson in this: one weekend at home I was complaining about dorm conditions (most of which were maintenance issues). She had me draw up a list, and sent a letter to the dean of students (cc'd to the university president, and a family friend who happens to be a lawyer) in which she threatened to pull me out of the dorm, call the fire marshall, and put me up at a hotel at their expense unless they fixed stuff. Within days of her letter going out, the dorm was inspected top to bottom, fire extinguishers recharged, carpets shampooed, kitchen appliances replaced, fumigated, bathroom fixtures repaired, etc. (a dorm-mate was an intern in the housing office, and kept us informed of progress). It's doubtful that the administration would have responded to student complaints, and it's pretty certain that they did, or should have, known about most of the issues we detailed for them. I did learn a lot from that: be clear, know who's responsible and what they stand to lose, be firm, and make sure that there's other people in the loop to maintain a record and accountability.

The amount of money which colleges and universities have is generally pretty fixed, but how that money is allocated is not... Given the importance of parents to college financing, and the strong regional draw of most public colleges, perhaps the only thing which is odd about this is that it hasn't happened before now.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 8/16/2005

I think you're right about most of that: the idea that it would bring parents and faculty closer together seems to me something of a stretch, but it could serve as a reminder, for those R-1 faculty, that students are a significant part of their mission.

Oscar Chamberlain - 8/16/2005

On the whole, I am not at all happy with the PTA (or a Parents Faculty Association) moving into colleges. They would do some good things (such as the safety example in this post), but I think the oeverall effect would be to slow the students' transition to adulthood by encouraging the university to treat them less as adults.

But, as you note, the increase in cost to parents is likely to encourage increased vigilance as well. On the plus side, such groups might be effective at lobbying for more state funding, at least for infrastructure improvements. And a closer relationship between faculty and parents might not be all bad.