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The story circulates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that last year, when a bomb exploded in the center of the courtyard of McCormick House, shattering windows and setting off a fire alarm early one Sunday morning, hordes of startled men and women tumbled out of the building. One fireman is reported to have muttered to another, "I thought this was a women's dorm."
The fireman was right, but he was probably the only one surprised. Students at MIT and Harvard and most of the other colleges in the country know that vast numbers of their peers do not sleep alone on weekends. A lot of them also participate in other activities that are prohibited by antiquated rules--drinking, smoking and gambling are a few. But most colleges today are happy to divorce themselves from responsibility for their students' social lives. The most restrictive policy on sex lives may well be getting a roommate's signature on a slip permitting overnight visitors. The stringent codes that regulated parietals in the past have all but disappeared in the 70s.
And most college administrators don't mind. If the students quietly do what they want, it means less responsibility for the college. "I have four kids of my own. I can't take care of 500 more," Mary Williams, assistant dean of students at Lesley College, says. Some colleges establish a few simple guidelines--at Lesley these include only smoking in the designated areas in the wooden dorms, following state liquor laws, getting roommates' signatures for male or female overnight guests and limiting their stays to three consecutive nights or 12 nights a month. "It's unfair to roommates if a boyfriend lives in the room," Williams explains.
Even simple rules like those can be difficult to enforce, though. Lesley, a small teachers' college for women, has trouble enforcing any rules more stringent than those of its larger, laxer neighbor Harvard, Williams says. "Harvard can get away with anything it wants. We're smaller, we can't," she adds. "And yet, if we were way off in the sticks, a lot of our policies would be considered very liberal."
At Harvard, no administrators seem perturbed if students sleep together. "I don't know of any rule governing that," Martha P. Leape, Allston Burr senior tutor at Winthrop House, says, adding she does not know whether cohabitation has ever been officially raised as an issue. Considering that University Health Services reports it has dispensed contraceptives to 84 per cent of the senior class women, the Harvard administration is hardly cracking down.
Similar situations exist at Boston University, Wellesley College and MIT. But a midwestern school, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a handful of students have had their leases terminated for cohabitating, Marlene Mantyk, housing adviser, says. But John W. Finn, U of M's associate director of housing, says his office hears only of the extreme cases, and most complaints come from a few parents shocked to find out what college life is like now. Certainly personal and social freedom unknown to even recent alumni exists now on most campuses.
There are exceptions found in all parts of the U.S., however, and many of them are church-oriented schools or military academies. A nearby college that keeps watch on student activities is Gordon College, a small nondenominational Christian school in Wenham, Mass. Drinking, smoking and social dancing are entirely prohibited on campus, although students often do all three in town. Despite the seemingly tight codes, students prefer the rules that way, Steven W. Larson, associate dean of students, says. A poll conducted last year showed that half of the students did not want even dancing on campus. "We come from a fairly fundamentalist background," Larson says. "We are really attempting to create an academic community, with both academics and community feeling. Drinking and smoking are distractions--they would detract from the community because they are such a divisive issue on campus." As for dancing, Larson says, "It's better to err on the conservative side if you're going to err."
"Most Gordon students are satisfied with the rules, or they chafe a little and go along with them," Stuart J. Foster '81, who transferred to Harvard from Gordon last year, says. He adds that because many Gordon students routinely follow the school's regulations without thinking about the underlying Christian principles the school is trying to instill, they never have a chance to develop personal responsibility.
Gordon students also attend compulsory chapel twice a week, and a convocation on Friday afternoons. Their dorms are basically single-sex, with hours for visits by the opposite sex scheduled three or four times a week from supper until midnight and on Sunday afternoons.
Gordon's parietal hours seem almost decadent compared to those of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla. At ORU, where resident advisors check every student room at midnight on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends, visiting hours for the opposite sex are held once a month, for two hours.
ORU resident advisors also inspect student rooms every two weeks to make sure desks are neat, closets organized, wastebaskets emptied and floors swept. "Often times when girls' rooms are in disorder, then their lives are, too," Tracye Clyburn, assistant to dean of women at ORU, says.
ORU students must follow a strict dress code in classes; men are required to wear shirts and ties and women must wear skirts or dresses. To pick up their monthly meal tickets, men must get the length of their hair checked, while women are required to wear brassieres and skirts of "modest length"--with a maximum slit of three inches. Culottes, decollete dresses and spaghetti straps are forbidden under the code, as are ankle bracelets because "they make the guys think you're from the wrong side of the tracks," Penny Petr, an ORU sophomore, jokes. "I know it sounds terrible, but it's not that bad. I like the college," she says.
"We want to present a good appearance in behavior and dress," Clyburn says. "Behavior follows along with clothing. You act like more of a lady when you look like one," she adds. Because ORU students are trying to exemplify the life of Christ, they maintain good grooming and modest behavior as part of their witness, she explains.
The university requires entering students to sign an honor code which states they will work diligently, seek the will of God through daily personal prayer and scriptural study, and devote their personalities to the Holy Spirit. Part of this agreement is a promise not to use profanity, gamble, smoke, drink, cheat, engage in immoral activity or use illegal drugs.
But these restrictions, however strict they may seem to those from more liberal schools, don't phase ORU students. "Most students come to ORU aware of the lifestyle and they are willing to work within its program," Clyburn says.
ORU is not alone--premarital sex is as much a sin at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, as it is at ORU. At BYU, however, where 96 per cent of the students are Latter Day Saints, the church, and not the deans, deals with the sinner by urging him to repent, David Sorenson, dean of student life, says. BYU also asks its students to sign an honor code, but the dress code is less restrictive: women are only barred from wearing men's clothing, such as blue jeans, while men do not have to wear ties. Men, however, are required to have short hair, without beards or bushy sideburns. "As they say, clothes make the man," Sorenson says.
Because students have to choose consciously what kind of person they will become, BYU gives them the best set of standards--a model stemming from the Mormon Church. "I think the church has a right to set these standards up as models of proper behavior," Sorenson says. "If people want to accept them and agree to these standards, then the standards are good to have."
Christian standards, of course, attract some students to these stricter colleges. But an entirely different set of standards induces students to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., the most restrictive of all institutions of higher education.
Stripped of all personal freedoms, plebes, West Point's first-year students, are not permitted to hang any decoration in their rooms. In their first semester, they are not allowed even a radio, and they must wait until they are upperclassmen to put stereos in their rooms, and to hang exactly one poster and one photograph and to care for one plant. Plebes learn to live with endless room inspections and constant hazing by upperclassmen, with whom they are never allowed to fraternize. They rise with bugle and bell calls at 6:15 a.m. for a 6:30 breakfast formation, and taps sound at 11 p.m. Once during the school year they are allowed to leave campus--at Christmas break. Cadets of the opposite sex are allowed in the barracks rooms during the day, but only if the door is ajar. Not surprisingly, the dropout rate during plebe year is one-fourth to one-third, Lt. Col. Miguel E. Monteverde, spokesman for the academy, admits.
The rationale for such rules is discipline. "Since the appointment represents a full four-year scholarship and attracts everyone from the poor to the well-to-do--the first thing we try to do is level all that out and make the class into a mini-democracy," Monteverde says. "We also teach them to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. That's one of the hallmarks of military theory."
The reasons plebes subject themselves to such discipline are varied. Cadets do not pay tuition, so they get a thorough education without financial obligation. Other cadets want to become professional soldiers; a few are there simply to prove to themselves they can endure the academy, Monteverde says. If there is any factor common to most of them, it is their politics, he says: "Most cadets are rather conservative--they come form the middle class." He adds, "There are about 300 exceptions who are real mavericks," he says.
For that matter, most students at Harvard are probably mavericks. The kind of discipline found at many church colleges and certainly at the military academy died decades ago, if it ever existed here. But while Harvard students might well balk at having to live under extensive parietals, students at more regulated colleges are satisfied with the rules.
As an ORU student explains, "I like it here. You get used to it."
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