Following the self-immolation of Elizabeth Shin in the spring of 2000, her parents filed a $27 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Shin, an MIT sophomore with a history of psychiatric problems and attempted suicides, had visited with MIT therapists for a 14-month period before her suicide. In their lawsuit against the school, Shin’s parents contend that MIT failed to inform them about the nature and severity of their daughter’s illness. Every university in the nation will closely follow the proceedings in Shin v. MIT, a case that threatens to reestablish the role of in loco parentis in higher education.
In loco parentis – the concept that colleges and universities have the authority and responsibility to serve as parental figures for their students – has been one of the most contentious issues in education over the past 40 years. In the early ’70s, much of the authority that public universities had exercised over their students was scaled-back or eliminated. Students benefited tremendously from these reforms, as they were able to develop and grow on their own terms, freed from the puritanical and rigid oversight of university regulations and authority figures. Students were allowed to organize their own extracurricular activities and social lives without the paternalistic influence of university administrators and they independently developed without the domineering forces of supervisors.
While in loco parentis has undergone a resurgence since the implementation of a nation-wide drinking age of 21 and an expanded definition of university liability it has been relatively limited when compared to the ’50s and early ’60s. However, our current excessively litigious society has created an environment where universities could once again intrude in students affairs.
One particularly dangerous incursion of in loco parentis could be its effect on the universities counseling and psychological Services. The growth of in loco parentis could restrict the confidentiality that is imperative in a healthy doctor-patient relationship since it could require physicians to divulge sensitive information to parents. Student privacy is crucial to a successful mental health service. Many individuals require that their families do not know they are receiving mental health treatment. Students should be allowed to continue with their therapy without worrying about their family’s approval of their activities.
The presence of university administrators and officials in students’ lives stifles the very growth that universities should seek to foster. The finest graduates of universities are created through the independence that allows individuals to create their own values and ideologies. They question and struggle against the prevailing sentiments of their epoch and authority. In loco parentis creates an atmosphere where the university dictates students values and prohibits opposition. The passive individuals who are the standard product of an education of in loco parentis are ill-served for the rigors and responsibilities of life and participation in a democratic society.