Is higher education higher in the moral sense? One way to consider the question is to reflect on the occasions when it clearly isn’t. Most of the carnage on campus in recent years has been the work of students, often acting out of academic resentments.
On August 15, 1996, Mr. Frederick Davidson, a thirty-six-year-old student who had failed his first attempt to defend his master’s degree thesis, “Characteristics of Torsional Shape Memory Alloy Actuators,” went before his examining committee at San Diego State University a second time. A few minutes into the defense, he opened a laboratory first-aid kit, took out a 9-mm handgun, and fired more than twenty rounds of ammunition into the three engineering professors who comprised the committee. Mr. Davidson later explained to police that his thesis advisor had bogged him down with extraneous assignments.1
In early November 1991, Dr. Gang Lu, a post-doctoral student at the University of Iowa who had received his Ph.D. in physics from the university earlier that year, killed five others and himself. His victims included a fellow post-doc, Linhua Shan, three of his professors, Christoph Goertz, Robert Smith, and Dwight Nicholson, and an administrator, Anne Cleary. Dr. Lu was “reportedly upset over not receiving an award for his dissertation.”2 The student who was to receive the award was among those Dr. Lu killed. Several years later, Jo Ann Beard, who worked as the managing editor of a journal edited by Professor Goertz, published a moving essay about the tragedy in The New Yorker.3
In April 1996, Mr. Robert Harwood, a senior at Johns Hopkins University, got into an argument with Mr. Rex Chao, a sophomore, at a meeting of the College Republicans. After the meeting, Mr. Harwood shot Mr. Chao in the back of the head and chest, killing him. A plea bargain brought Mr. Harwood a thirty-eight-year prison term. Johns Hopkins University also looked into the matter and, despite Mr. Harwood’s completion of all the coursework for a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, decided to withhold his diploma.4 But Harwood didn’t give up his dream of a Johns Hopkins degree. He sued the university, but in 2000, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals held that murdering another student did indeed violate the university’s code of student conduct and Johns Hopkins was within its rights to withhold the degree.5 Mr. Harwood had also argued that the university had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying him his degree. He claimed that his killing of Mr. Chao was the result of a psychiatric disorder and he was “effectively punished for conduct caused by the disability.” The Court did not agree.
In August 1989, Arthur Kimura, an associate professor of pathology at the University of Florida—Gainesville, voted with other members of a research committee to drop a graduate student, Mr. Jens Peter Hansen, from a doctoral program. Early the next month, Mr. Hansen went to Professor Kimura’s house and shot him to death. Mr. Hansen had planned to make the murder look like a suicide, but Professor Kimura spoiled his design by setting off a burglar alarm. In 1990, Mr. Hansen was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.6
On December 10, 1998, Professor Andrzej Olbrot was giving a final exam in an electrical engineering course, ECE-7440, “Dynamic Systems and Optimal Control,” at Wayne State University when a doctoral student—one of Professor Olbrot’s advisees—walked into his classroom and shot him twice. The student reloaded and shot Professor Olbrot again, killing him. Two days later, the student, Wlodzimierz Dedecjus, turned himself in to the Ann Arbor police and confessed.7 He had been upset over his “poor academic performance.”8 The electrical engineering department added a note to Professor Olbrot’s Web page (“There just are no words to properly express the deep sorrow brought by this tragedy”) and left standing Professor Olbrot’s own description of his “particular interests” in “time delay systems, robust stability and stabilization, worst case design problems, observability and observers for linear and nonlinear systems, polynomial and ring-theoretic models, and infinite dimensional systems.”
At the end of February 1995, Ms. Joann Plachy, a forty-nine-year-old second-year law student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, was arrested for attempting to hire a hit man to kill a secretary who had seen her cheat on an exam.9 Ms. Plachy pleaded no contest and was sentenced to four years in prison and ten years probation.10
Professor John R. Locke at the University of Arkansas was about to begin the first session of the semester in comparative literature on August 28, 2000, when a former graduate student, James E. Kelly, came into his office and shot him three times, killing him. Mr. Kelly then killed himself.11 He had been dismissed from the university’s Ph.D. program in English in 1996, but Professor Locke had continued to counsel him. This case had a racial element. Mr. Kelly, an African-American, had sent an email message a year earlier complaining that the English department was a “Confederate institution” and had blocked his interest in studying African-American literature. Professor Locke, who was white, tried for several years to get Mr. Kelly back on track but had finally given up. The department had voted 6–0 permanently to dismiss the Mr. Kelly a few days before; Professor Locke abstained.
John Culver Mead, who had been a student at the University of Arizona from 1974 to 1980, returned for the spring 1995 semester. At the end of the semester he went to the computer lab and fired a gun at three people. All three shots missed. He then put the gun down on a table and left. He later told police he had been considering suicide and decided to kill someone else instead.12
Seven years later, another student at the University of Arizona followed suit. Robert S. Flores, Jr. was a student in the College of Nursing who had flunked one course and was failing another. On October 28, 2002, he drove his jeep to the school, and headed into campus wearing four holstered pistols and a backpack stocked with 150 additional rounds. He stopped at the office of Professor Robin E. Rogers, from whom he had taken a course, shot her twice, killing her, and moved on. Next he stopped in a classroom where Professor Cheryl M. McGaffic was giving an exam on caring for patients in critical care, and killed her too. Then he went to the front of the class, where he shot and killed Professor Barbara S. Monroe, who had told him he was failing the clinical portion of the course. He then told the students to get out of the room. After they left, he killed himself.13
Nikhil Dhar was an undergraduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell in December 2005 when he attacked one of his instructors, Professor Mary Elizabeth Hooker, with a knife. Mr. Dhar, a clinical-lab science major, was “upset about a failing grade.” Professor Hooker survived, and Mr. Dhar was charged with attempted murder.14
Peter Odighizuwa had flunked out of the Appalachian School of Law in 2001, but returned to campus in January 2002 to shoot to death the dean, a professor, and another student. He received six consecutive life sentences plus twenty-eight years in prison.15
Some stories are suggestive but incomplete. In April 1993, David L. Eshelman, a professor of communications at Central Missouri State University, was shot dead in his driveway. One of the two men arrested and charged with first-degree murder was Mr. Donald Ory, a senior at the university and a former student of Professor Eshelman.16 Mr. Ory confessed and hanged himself in his jail cell before he got to trial. His accomplice, a truck driver named Tom Hotchkiss, bargained a first-degree murder charge down to a plea of guilty to conspiracy.17
These are killings that had or might have had academic motivation, not crimes of passion, drug deals gone awry, manslaughters committed during drunken brawls at frat parties, and other such examples of high spirits among the collegians. For example, we leave to one side Mr. Brett Byers, the former Montana State University student serving a 165-year jail term who expressed his irritation over damage to his pick-up truck by killing two freshmen with his shotgun.18 We also leave aside events such as Mr. Wayne Lo’s murder in December 1992 of a professor and a fellow student at Simon’s Rock College, the Berkshire college that accepts gifted students after they have completed their sophomore year of high school. Mr. Lo’s motivations remain murky, but his lawyers offered an unsuccessful insanity defense to the effect that he believed himself to be following divine orders “to cleanse the campus of sin.”19
In some cases, individuals from outside the university commit murderous assaults out of what seems to be a general resentment against the academic community. This may have been the case with Miss Jillian Robbins, who lived in an apartment complex near Penn State. One day in September 1996, Miss Robbins hid under a tree near the student center and opened fire with a high-powered rifle on passersby, killing one student and wounding another.20 At Indiana University at Bloomington in June 1995, Kenneth Howell, a visiting professor in history and philosophy of science, was assaulted by an armed stranger as he left his campus office. The stranger fired five shots, wounding Professor Howell through the neck, and then walked off.21 On the last day of classes at the University of Montreal in December 1989, Marc Lepine wandered through the six-story engineering school with a semiautomatic rifle, shooting twenty-seven people before killing himself. Fourteen of his victims—all of them female—died. In a hand-written note found on his body, he explained that he had planned the killings because feminists had “spoiled his life.”22
By contrast, accounts of faculty members resorting to deadly force are relatively rare. In December 1989, the debate coach at Samford University in Alabama, Mr. William Slagle, reproached Mr. Rex Copeland, one of his students, for being unprepared for a debate tournament. An argument ensued in which Professor Slagle stabbed Mr. Copeland to death. Professor Slagle disappeared for six months but wrote letters of confession to the police and eventually turned himself in. In 1991, he was sentenced to life in prison.23
In 2006, Jay Glosser, an associate professor at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Virginia, was arrested along with two co-conspirators of charges of hiring a hit man to kill a colleague “who accused him of sexual harassment.”24 Professor Glosser has been relieved of teaching his information technology courses while the charges were being investigated. The murder plot unraveled when one of the hit men told the intended victim that he was “not so anxious for that to happen.”
August 24, 1992, Valery Fabrikant, a faculty member at Concordia University in Montreal who had recently been denied a sabbatical leave and promotion in the mechanical engineering department, went to the engineering school and tracked down several of his colleagues. He shot and killed four faculty members, and wounded the department secretary.25 At trial, Professor Fabrikant conducted his own defense. He argued that he was “provoked into the killings” because of the way university officials had handled his tenure application. Although he was found guilty and sentenced to a life term, Professor Fabricant when last heard from was still provoked over issues of procedure and offered his opinion that trial judge Justice Fraser Martin was malicious, vengeful, and a “little low crook.”26
In 2002, an assistant professor of physics, Zhenchen Zhong, at Louisiana Tech University, attacked another assistant professor of physics, Jia Ping Liu. Professors Zhong and Liu are experts in nanotechnology, and Professor Zhong struck Professor Liu on the head with a hammer. Professor Zhong told police “he wanted Mr. Liu to die,” and he came equipped for the job with a black nylon bag containing “packing rope, duct tape, latex surgical gloves, typing paper, a note pad, and a Bible in Chinese.”27 Professor Liu, however, did not die.
In 1992, Professor John Linner, the former director of the University of Texas Cryobiology Research Center, was tried and acquitted of charges that he attempted to murder his colleague, W. Barry Van Winkle. Professor Linner acknowledged that he had purchased how-to-kill books and quantities of the carcinogenic chemical beta propiolactone, but he denied that he was the one who put the substance in Mr. Van Winkle’s nasal spray.28
In Pursuit of Moral Elevation
A litany like this weighs heavily against the idea that higher education is proof against our darker passions. If higher education is higher in the moral sense, we have to search for its moral qualities in someplace other than the police blotter.
Despite the lapse of in loco parentis, the prevalence of relativistic attitudes among faculty members and students on many campuses, and the tradition of college years as a time of social license in the lives of young men and women, the idea that higher education is a morally elevated pursuit persists. Moreover, it persists among people with strikingly different views of the purpose of higher education. For some who adhere to an older tradition, higher education properly conducted strengthens character and deepens commitment to our free institutions. For others, higher education properly conducted liberates students from biases, preconceptions, and complicity with oppressive institutions. As the American Association of University Professors recently put it, “The essence of higher education [lies in] the inculcation of a mature independence of mind.”29
These two moral projects are in stark contrast, but both treat the university as a place where, ideally, students are morally enhanced, or even transformed. I say they are in stark contrast, because in fact the advocates of each usually speak of the other as misguided. To emphasize the strengthening of character and commitment to free institutions is to build on some premises that are often disputed by the advocates of the liberating approach to moral elevation. The disputed premises include the idea that we can with some assurance say what “good character” is and that we know how to foster it; and that encouraging commitment to our society’s key institutions is indeed a wholesome undertaking. To emphasize liberating students from biases, preconceptions, and complicities, likewise builds on premises that traditionalists often dispute. Why should the claims of tradition, founded on centuries of hard-won human experience, always be dismissed as “bias?” Who carries the burden of proof? Are not some working assumptions about the world to be passed along until they are shown to be flawed, and better alternatives are available?
The contrast between traditionalist and liberationist perspectives is typically not just a difference of emphasis but a collision of competing visions. It is, however, possible to imagine a moderating view that upholds both the claims of traditional character education and the ideal that higher education frees individuals from the shackles of mere opinion and received prejudice. One of the oddities of our current moment in higher education is that the middle way has so few advocates. The moral discourse in higher education, as with so much else, has been polarized.
Nonetheless, both the traditionalist and the liberationist views are essentially optimistic. Both convey the sense that higher education can route young men and women to morally better lives. Counter to these essentially optimistic views runs a third tradition that brushes aside moral reformation of college students as a matter of indifference. Into this third category, we can put those who see college primarily as a credentialing service; those who treat it primarily as a consumer good; and those who cynically view the university and its professoriate as essentially self-serving and not well positioned to give moral guidance.
A fourth prominent view is that higher education can morally awaken students to the virtues of multiculturalism and diversity. This view was, in origin, a project of the academic Left but over the last quarter-century has gained broader allegiance. The elevation of “diversity” into a moral teaching is perhaps the most complicated of these positions, since it bridges several contradictions. Diversity teaches the supreme value of tolerance and at the same time immortalizes group grievances; diversity extols human individuality and at the same time treats “identity group” affiliation as the most important feature of a person; and diversity commands a moral attitude of openness to human difference and at the same time stigmatizes those whose differences fail to conform to diversity’s preferred map.30
These four views cover most if not all of the contemporary discussion of what makes—or fails to make—higher education a specially marked-off moral domain in our society. The four positions could be called traditionalist, liberationist, diversiphilic, and apathetic. While they contradict one another, they are by no means mutually exclusive. A typical college offers a mixture of all four, emphasized by different people or by the same people at different times; and students consequently learn how to negotiate four overlapping moral orders. A single student can summon the concept of character development in an application, enunciate the liberationist project to a professor who favors the liberationist view, declare diversiphilic sentiments while running for student office, and present himself as a hard-boiled careerist in talking to roommates.
We don’t demand consistency in these matters—which is itself a little morally unsettling. Where is the moral center of a student who puts on and takes off moral persona as though they were merely masks?31 The fluidity of moral claims on campus is, in an important sense, evidence of the ungroundedness of much of contemporary university life. Some colleges indeed attempt to escape this condition by insisting strongly on one of the four options, but it is testament to the power of all the options that they assert their presence even where uninvited. Traditionalists assert themselves at places like Yale and Brown, which are centrally focused on the liberationist project. Diversiphiles or liberationists assert themselves unexpectedly at traditionalist colleges, such as Wheaton or Baylor. Institutions firmly rooted in the calculus of utilitarianism such as the University of Phoenix find themselves with an undertow of character education.
The unsettledness of the moral element in higher education testifies that the university really does remain, in a subtle way, sacred ground for Americans. Most of us look to it with the expectation that the young men and women who go off to college will emerge not just “knowing more” or “thinking better,” but also, somehow, morally or ethically improved. This assumption is perhaps more evident on the Left, where “being educated” carries a larger implication of being ethically enlightened. On the Right, universities are often suspected of seducing students into selfish, hedonistic, and anti-theistic views, yet even on the Right, a college education is usually thought of as, in principle, morally improving.
The Virginia Tech Killer
On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed thirty-two people at Virginia Tech, before turning his gun on himself. This massacre has been among the most extensively analyzed in the nation’s history, and there is little we do not now know about the twenty-three-year-old English major. The poet Nikki Giovanni had kicked him out of class in 2005 because of his menacing behavior. The head of the English department, Lucinda Roymet, met with him repeatedly but eventually also concluded that he was dangerous. Another English teacher, Lisa Norris, worried about Cho and asked for the help of an associate dean, who declined to tell her about Cho’s bouts of mental illness or the history of police reports alleging that Cho harassed female students.
It turned out that Virginia Tech faculty members and administrators knew a lot about Cho’s aberrant personality but did little to constrain him. What could they have done? Virginia Tech has made the case that they could not force him into counseling. But they easily could have dismissed him. His list of infractions was long and serious.
To dismiss a student, however, is a troublesome affair. Short of a catastrophic incident, for a university to dismiss a student requires someone in authority to devote time and attention to the matter. For a variety of reasons, colleges and universities are reluctant to pursue this recourse.
Some observers noted that the Virginia Tech English department emphasized the literature of alienation, with a fair amount of sex and violence thrown in.32 At the very least, Cho was in an environment that emphasized identity politics and the importance of grievances to the formation of personal character. The intellectual environment at the English department cannot explain Cho’s decision to kill, but it clearly provided little impediment to his pathology and may well have inadvertently fostered it.
Cho’s case suggests a link between the moral depravity of a particular student and the university world in which he lived. It would be easy to overstate the link by depicting Cho as a victim of his circumstances. But students are not robots.33 Cho was free to respond to the ideological provocations of his English teachers with a hearty laugh, with derision, with simpering conformity, or any of a thousand other chords of agreement or disagreement. As it happened, he built a paranoid fantasy around those provocations.
While we ought not to exaggerate how much the English department contributed to his murderous rage, we also ought not to minimize it. Phyllis Schlafly’s essay blaming the English department occasioned hundreds of scornful replies in the blogosphere from observers who found the very idea of a connection between the dementia of the student and the subject of his studies absurd.34 It is not absurd; it is merely speculative.
Students are clearly influenced, for better or worse, by the moral temper of their teachers and fellow students. In that sense, higher education is inescapably an enterprise that morally shapes students. Our choices are limited to recognizing this and attempting to shape students for the better; or ignoring it and letting matters take their own course.
The Virginia Tech English department was on the side of recognizing it—and, judging from the curriculum, pushing students towards liberationist morality. The Virginia Tech administration, on the other hand, appears to have been in the camp of the apathists, who apart from some diversity sloganeering, were content to let students fall where they may. And they did.
On the Triviality of Motives
Can the same kind of analysis apply to the other cases I’ve cited? Was Mr. Davidson twisted by his studies of torsional shape memory alloy actuators? Was Dr. Lu pushed off the edge of sanity by something in physics? Did chemistry compound Mr. Harwood’s problems? I don’t know enough about any of these individuals to say, but most of the cases I mentioned at the beginning of this essay have some roots in the familiar tensions of the university. Bogged down in extraneous assignments (Mr. Davidson), denied an award (Dr. Lu), aroused to a political fury (Mr. Harwood), dismissed from a degree program (Mr. Hansen), or caught cheating on an exam (Ms. Plachy), some individuals choose the strange, cold path of murdering others.
We can take from this the banal conclusion that higher education is no sure protection against the temptation of men and women to commit evil acts—although even the simple description of murder as evil rubs the wrong way against the modern therapeutic sensibility. So let’s say, higher education isn’t a cure for psychopathologies either.
The harder question is whether higher education—by failing to live up to certain responsibilities, by creating a social setting that cuts off vulnerable students from traditional moral constraints, and by sometimes elevating destructive ideals—makes matters worse? Would Mr. Davidson have shot and killed three members of his examining committee in a university that took seriously its moral mission as well as its educational one? The question is imponderable. But I can say that in 2007, San Diego State University (where Mr. Davidson failed to get his masters thesis approved in 1996), says in its mission statement that its undergraduate and graduate education “shall extend to diverse cultural legacies.” It also has a “Good Neighbor Program,” that emphasizes “the relationship between student behavior and the quality of life on campus and in the neighborhoods surrounding the SDSU campus.” These may seem distant from the parietal rules of another era, but they are clearly intended as a form of moral instruction. I don’t know if they were in place in 1996, when Mr. Davidson went to his thesis defense, but they don’t sound like much of a bulwark against his moral transgressions. That requires something else: the traditionalist moral instruction that aims at good character, and that is the weakest component of the contemporary university’s moral orientation.
Ethical and Practical Considerations in Arresting the Murder Rate
Humans are not strictly rational creatures, but that is no reason to abandon the attempt to persuade people to rise to their better nature. Perhaps it would have helped if someone had taken the trouble to explain to Mr. Hansen, Mr. Dedecjus, or Mr. Flores that superior force is not a good way to overcome the objections of skeptical committees or colleagues. Plato pointed out the fallacies of this form of argument in Gorgias. Religious prohibition and philosophical argument probably do turn back at least some would-be murderers.
The preponderance of killers in engineering and the physical sciences is indirect evidence of the failure of programs in these areas to reach students at a moral level. For the great majority of students, this doesn’t matter because they are already morally grounded. But the evidence suggests that these fields also attract a large share of the students who inhabit the moral wilderness. Perhaps they are also “mentally disturbed,” but it is not clear in which direction the causal arrow points.
It is singular that only one academic murder in the last twenty years—Mr. Kelley’s shooting of Professor Locke at the University of Arkansas—appears to have been executed by a graduate student or faculty member in the humanities. Deconstructionists, new historicists, and advocates of cultural studies have, despite their widely attested abandonment of traditional morality, not committed the sin of Cain. Is there, within the humanities, despite the fervent embrace of barbarian tastes and sensibilities, some basic respect for the sanctity of life and the rule of law? Or does murder require a pitch of intensity that is generally missing from the self-satisfied world of critical theorists?
In the aftermath of Cho’s rampage at Virginia Tech, some observers, perhaps facetiously, suggested that the killing spree could have been averted, or at least cut short, if other Virginia Tech students had been armed. This thought traveled around until it reached Troy Scheffler, a student at Hamline University in Minnesota.35 Scheffler emailed David Stern, Hamline’s vice president of student affairs on April 17, 2007: Considering this university also pushes ‘‘diversity’’ initiatives like VA Tech, maybe its “leadership” will reconsider [Hamline’s] ban on conceal carry law abiding gun owners… Ironically, according to a few VA Tech forums, there are plenty of students complaining that this wouldn’t have happened if the school wouldn’t have banned their permits a few months ago.
Considering this university also pushes ‘‘diversity’’ initiatives like VA Tech, maybe its “leadership” will reconsider [Hamline’s] ban on conceal carry law abiding gun owners… Ironically, according to a few VA Tech forums, there are plenty of students complaining that this wouldn’t have happened if the school wouldn’t have banned their permits a few months ago.
Two days later, Scheffler sent similar comments to Linda Hanson, Hamline’s president. On April 23, Hamline University responded, via a hand-delivered letter from Alan Sickbert, dean of students, suspending Scheffler and ordering him to submit to a “mental health evaluation.”
Dean Sickbert’s letter explained that Scheffler’s emails were “deemed to be threatening and thus an alleged violation of the Hamline University Judicial Code.” Scheffler’s emails were not “threatening”—at least by any commonsense definition of the word. He merely advocated that Hamline’s administration rethink its ban on students carrying concealed weapons. As of this writing, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has taken up Scheffler’s cause.
Hamline University foolishly took alarm at a student’s stumbling attempt to raise a policy argument, but the fear of guns on campus seems warranted. After all, the large majority of the murders I have chronicled here were committed with firearms. And universities being what they are, a great many professors and administrators these days must dread the prospect of the irate student who shows up one day ready to shoot. I take it that Scheffler and others who argue for a more lenient policy on guns realize that such a policy wouldn’t prevent the first shot, but would surely prevent someone like Robert S. Flores or Seung-Hui Cho from methodically killing again and again.
In 2003, Pennsylvania State University learned from a report on a local television station that one of its faculty members, Paul E. Krueger, a professor of work-force development, had murdered three people in Corpus Christi, Texas in 1965.36 One day, when he was seventeen and living at home in San Clemente, California, he received a speeding ticket. Upset at this act of state-sponsored oppression, he and an accomplice became wannabe revolutionaries imagining themselves escaping from southern California to join the armed struggle in Venezuela. They drove to the Gulf Coast, where they rented a small boat. After realizing that their boat couldn’t take them to Venezuela, they turned back and encountered three men fishing from a dock: Noel D. Little, an automobile mechanic, Van D. Carson, who ran a gas station, and Joel D. Fox, an auto parts dealer. All of them were married with children. For no reason other than bravado, Paul Krueger took a rifle and shot all three men. After their bodies fell in the water, he kept firing at them until he ran out of bullets. He tossed the rifle into the water.
Professor Krueger, who was seventeen when he committed the murders, was convicted in 1966 and sentenced to life in prison. While in prison, he earned his high school diploma, an associate degree, and a bachelor degree in psychology. He was paroled in 1979, and went on to graduate school, earning a master’s degree in psychology from California State University at Los Angeles. Around 1987, he earned a Ph.D. in sociology at South Dakota State University. In 1999, he received a second doctorate from the University of Southern California. He was appointed an assistant professor at Augustana College in South Dakota in 1994, where he served until he took the Penn State position in 1999. Neither institution knew of his criminal record.
His past came to light in March 2003 when the Pennsylvania Parole Board discovered he had been living illegally in the state. He then found a new academic appointment at National University in California, but before he could move, the story of his odd career became public. Penn State fired him, and National University withdrew its offer.
The story of Professor Krueger’s crimes aroused a fury in Pennsylvania and occasioned wider controversy in higher education across the country. One part of the debate focused on whether colleges and universities should do criminal background checks on candidates for academic appointment. The Chronicle of Higher Education covered the debate in the Pennsylvania legislature in 2004, where it was noted that 80 percent of private companies do such background checks, but that colleges and universities seldom do—the exceptions then being public institutions in Georgia, Montana, and Virginia, and a handful of other universities.37
As Pennsylvania officials weighed imposing such background checks, the American Association of University Professors came out firmly against the proposal as an invasion of professorial privacy. Ann Springer, associate counsel for the AAUP, explained, “This is not exactly a high-risk population.” The AAUP also issued an official statement arguing, “The moral cost of adopting a general policy of making such a search in order to identify the rare special case is great.”38 The financial cost, however, is pretty small. HireRight, a company that does such checks, charged (in 2004) $39 per person.
I find the AAUP position perplexing. Its report calls on higher education to preserve the “principle of proportionality,” and links the call for criminal background checks on faculty candidates to an overreaction to “national security concerns that have emerged since September 11, 2001.” I agree that college professors are a low risk group for committing homicides, but criminal records and other evidence of very doubtful behavior are far from rare. In my own limited experience vetting faculty candidates, I’ve come across candidates concealing histories of financial fraud, money laundering, embezzlement, statutory rape, physical assault, and grand theft—to say nothing of falsified credentials, plagiarism, and drug use. Professors are not angels. The AAUP worries about faculty members who “were convicted of civil disobedience during the civil rights struggle, and of those later arrested in protest of the Vietnam War.” This seems far off topic. Most professors I have known who were involved in the civil rights struggle or Vietnam War protests wear their encounters with the law as a badge of honor. The danger to them of a background check would be the discovery that their “arrests” were imaginary.
The revelations about Professor Krueger also sparked another debate, over whether the murders he committed in 1965 had any bearing on his qualifications to teach in 2003. Many in higher education avowed that he had proven his worthiness by all the years of good behavior in between. Others held that there was something permanently disqualifying about such an individual’s past. The divide between these opinions is a close match between those who view the moral project of higher education to be personal liberation and those who view the moral project of higher education as the development of personal character. Professor Krueger, viewed in the liberationist light, is someone who successfully reinvented himself—and should be applauded for what he became. Professor Krueger, viewed in the traditionalist light, concealed his past and added to his murders of Noel Little, Van Carson, and Joel Fox, the iniquity of banishing his responsibility for these acts.
It may seem excessively harsh to require of a man that he acknowledge a crime he committed as a seventeen-year-old, but to say that it is harsh is to pretend that the choice is up to us, as though guilt in a wanton murder is merely a matter of legal findings or public judgment. The word “homicide” has traditionally meant not only the act of killing a person, but also the identity of the killer. A man becomes a homicide by killing another. He may be paroled, forgiven, and welcomed back to polite society, but he remains a homicide. Embedded in this usage is the recognition that we are, in a profound way, the sum of our actions. That doesn’t mean we cannot sometimes make room for those who have earned a measure of social redemption, but that redemption comes with a price: we have to own up to our pasts.
The moral divide in higher education—between the minority that upholds the traditionalist view and the majority who uphold the liberationist view—is in stark relief on this point. The Belgian literary theorist Paul de Man was revealed after his death in 1983 to have been an anti-Semitic propagandist and collaborator with the Nazis during World War II. After the war he buried his past and re-invented himself as a scholar, most famous for the theory that all “texts” are fictional and mean nothing definite. Numerous commentators have drawn the connection between his theorizing about rhetorical indeterminacy and his elaborate concealment of his own life, but he has also been defended by numerous colleagues who argue that de Man’s theoretical accomplishments stand on their own.
Does the personal character and integrity of a professor bear on his teaching? A century ago—even fifty years ago—the question had one clear answer: of course it does. But that answer is grounded on the idea that the “self” is a perduring whole. We grow, and we change as we develop; we decay, and change as we decline, but we live one life, which no matter how interrupted by catastrophe or mistake, has an essential unity.
This view is now disputed by those who emphasize the fluidity of identity, its inconsistencies, and its frequent fragmentation. The post-modern indeterminate self is not just a literary trope or a psychological theory. It has also become a lifestyle option that, in some ways, is fostered by the contemporary university. The descriptive claim that we are fragmented by modernity (or post-modernity) has been transformed on campus into a quasi-prescriptive project—perhaps most clearly in matters of sexual behavior. To embrace this fluid self and its episodic character is to pretend that one’s actions have no permanent moral consequences—which is indeed a liberating thought.
Unfortunately, it isn’t true.
The Triumph of Alternative Moralities
My short survey of recent academically-motivated shootings and stabbings deals with an extreme circumstance. To ask if higher education lives up to its traditional or its new-found claims to moral elevation invites a wide-ranging survey of evidence. Stuart Taylor Jr. and K.C. Johnson have provided another kind of answer in their recent book on the spurious rape charges against the three Duke University lacrosse players.39 They find plenty of villains in the case but their central contention is that what I have called diversiphilic moralism ran roughshod over respect for individual rights. At Duke, the claims of traditional morality were triumphantly subordinated to the new rules of identity group resentment.
Higher education has the same potential for human folly as every other institution, but it also presents some distinct venues for moral failing: plagiarism, academic and research misconduct, adults who prey sexually on those in their care, a large market for drugs, a social system that licenses heavy consumption of alcohol and other destructive behavior, grade-fixing, and—new to the menu—schemes to channel students into high-priced loan programs in which the student financial aid director or the college itself gets “financial incentives” from the lender. Each of these deserves its own exploration, and each I think would throw new light on the competing moral claims of traditional character development, liberationism, and diversiphily.
What I have offered here is a more limited project. Do homicides in higher education reveal anything beyond the immensely sad tale of innocent victims and pathological killers? They reveal, I think, the strange fragility of the moral order on campus. Most of the incidents I’ve cataloged seem to strike as bolts out of the blue. Faculty members and fellow students may recognized a student as “troubled” and “under stress,” but these conditions are so common as rarely to bear specific attention. If they are in fact noticed, they received the standard response of referring the individual to counseling. And that is to say, the “troubled” individual is treated as a psychological case in need of therapeutic intervention, not a moral case in need of character development. On the whole, contemporary higher education has lost its capacity, including its language, to take moral development seriously. Sometimes the moral wilderness on campus seems profound.
The Allan V. Cox Medal is given at Stanford University for “Faculty Excellence [in] Fostering Undergraduate Research.” Who was Allan Cox? He was a professor and former dean who committed suicide in 1987 after he learned that he was about to be accused of molesting the son of one of his doctoral students. According to police, the boy’s parents had signed statements accusing Professor Cox of having molested the boy for five years, since he was fourteen years old. Once the facts were out, the Stanford University community responded as perhaps only a university could. University officials eulogized Professor Cox, the president calling him “the very ideal of the teacher-scholar.” The faculty senate passed a unanimous memorial resolution, and less than five months after Professor Cox’s suicide, Stanford created the Allan V. Cox Medal.40
Posthumously, Allan Cox received the same kind of grace extended by some to Professor Krueger and Professor de Man—the grace of redeeming disassociation of a whole life into separate fragments, at least one of which can be celebrated for exemplifying something we like. In Professor Cox’s case, the act of self-murder serves as a symbolic expiation of the flaws and leaves us with the “ideal teacher-scholar.” In this sense, the university has not abandoned character-building and the teaching of ethics, but redefined them as matters of heroic quest for self-re-definition.
Behind this shift has occurred a conversation between traditionalist critics and liberationist defenders of the university’s current obsession with freeing students from all traditional restraints. It proceeds something like this: Traditionalist: Universities have come to tolerate drug use and other lawless and harmful behavior among students. Liberationist: No, universities treat students appropriately as adults who must learn to be responsible for their own actions. Traditionalist: You don’t really mean “responsible.” You mean “self-licensed.” Liberationist: Responsibility grows out of freedom to make mistakes. Traditionalist: You permit only certain kinds of “mistakes.” Universities have failed to protect the rights of conservatives to speak on campus, have promulgated speech codes, and have found other ways to stifle dissent from faddish orthodoxies. Liberationist: No, universities have maintained academic freedom and encouraged sensitivity. We draw the line at those who threaten these basic conditions. Traditionalist: You draw the line wherever you find it convenient. Universities are hostile to the Western heritage of ethical inquiry. Liberationist: No, universities teach about diverse ethical traditions and the need for careful deliberation about difficult moral questions. It is you traditionalists who uphold an exclusivist, single moral tradition who are hostile to ethical inquiry.
Traditionalist: Universities have come to tolerate drug use and other lawless and harmful behavior among students.
Liberationist: No, universities treat students appropriately as adults who must learn to be responsible for their own actions.
Traditionalist: You don’t really mean “responsible.” You mean “self-licensed.”
Liberationist: Responsibility grows out of freedom to make mistakes.
Traditionalist: You permit only certain kinds of “mistakes.” Universities have failed to protect the rights of conservatives to speak on campus, have promulgated speech codes, and have found other ways to stifle dissent from faddish orthodoxies.
Liberationist: No, universities have maintained academic freedom and encouraged sensitivity. We draw the line at those who threaten these basic conditions.
Traditionalist: You draw the line wherever you find it convenient. Universities are hostile to the Western heritage of ethical inquiry.
Liberationist: No, universities teach about diverse ethical traditions and the need for careful deliberation about difficult moral questions. It is you traditionalists who uphold an exclusivist, single moral tradition who are hostile to ethical inquiry.
To the extent that college students hear any version of this dialog, they are seldom moved by the traditionalist’s arguments which can sound faintly anti-intellectual and, with a little ironic nudging from its opponents, stodgy and ridiculous. By contrast, the liberationist’s arguments that the world has changed and the past offers little more than object lessons in prejudice and self-delusion sound pretty fresh. The prospect of liberation from authority is never too difficult to sell to teenagers. And it plays well with the dominant tone of American life, which remains hedonistic, permissive, complaining, and focused on self-fulfillment.
The contemporary university, however, does provide an avenue to those who seek a more penitential path to moral growth. That’s what the diversity doctrine provides: a vision, for white students, of inexpungeable guilt, handed down through the generations; and for minority students, an inheritance of permanent grievance, which like many precious legacies, must be tended carefully.
Traditionalist moral claims are still to be found on campus but they are in retreat. Diversiphilic moralism and liberationalist morality are the dominant moral discourses. Neither is absolutely opposed to the claims of old-fashioned character education; they simply have thrust it aside as irrelevant to more pressing matters. But that leaves the question of whether the traditionalist claims have a compelling argument behind them or are merely traditional?
To put the question this way, of course, is to prejudice the matter in favor of the alternative post-modernist projects. A truly traditional morality does not invite corrosive skepticism towards its claims. Those claims rest, rather, on an assumption that tradition embodies the collective wisdom of those who have gone before us and wrestled with questions similar to those we find ourselves confronted with. This assumption deserves considerable respect but the authority of tradition cannot stand in the university when it is subjected to a generations-long deconstructive assault. Rather, tradition finds itself in need of arguments, often extraneous to the tradition itself.
What value was there in the idea that higher education should devote some portion of its time and energy to forming the good character of students? Why assume that faculty members themselves should be of good character? Good character implies an identity based on some core principles and commitments which hold in check the appetites and the flux of conflicting motives. A person of good character may live in the same world of accidents, irrational actions, and unknowable strangers reflected in our postmodernist theories, but he resists being reduced to those dimensions. We sense that such principled resistance is an admirable stand, especially since it has to withstand the unceasing efforts of our culture to debunk it. All too often the man who presents himself as a man of good character turns out to be another lost soul groping in the dark: a shell, like Italo Calvino’s brilliant “Non-existent Knight,” who was literally an empty suit.
In other words, the traditionalist perspective can sustain its view that there is something heroic about the pursuit of good character in the context of pursuing higher knowledge. The tradition, rightly considered, is fully capable of comprehending the challenges of the anti-traditionalist perspectives.
How Many Campus Murders?
Since 1991, colleges and universities have been required by the Federal Government under the Jeanne Clery Act to report campus crime statistics. The data supposedly covers 6,000 “institutions of higher education,” which is about 2,500 more institutions than are known to exist in most surveys of higher education. The data are suspect in other ways. During the 1990s, many institutions that were \required to report their data failed to—including Virginia Tech, which was investigated in 1996 for underreporting data.41 Likewise definitions of crimes have sometimes shifted. In general, the numbers reported below can be taken as minimums, since the annual errors are always in the direction of non-reporting. I have compiled the list from various sources, including the Chronicle of Higher Education, the FBI’s Crime in the United States report, the U.S. Department of Education’s Summary of Campus Crime and Security Statistics, and from Security on Campus, Inc. There are minor discrepancies among all of these. In cases where sources report different figures, I have consistently taken the higher number.
These statistics report murders and “non-negligent manslaughter” that occurred on campus. A graduate student killing his professor at his off-campus house such as the case of Mr. Jens Peter Hansen shooting Professor Kimura at his home, would not register in these numbers. Data for 2004 has been reported but not yet released in usable form.
Jeanne Clery, in whose memory campus crime statistics are now gathered and made public, was a nineteen-year-old undergraduate student at Lehigh University who was raped and murdered in her residence hall, April 5, 1986. Her parents later learned that there had been thirty-eight violent crimes on the Lehigh campus in the preceding three years, and that the college had withheld this information from students and their parents. The Clery family then successfully lobbied Congress to pass the “Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990.”42
Mr. Green in the Study with a Wrench
Shakespeare’s Hamlet sends his university friends, Rozenkrantz and Guildenstern, to their deaths with chilling pleasure in his own stratagem. Whatever was morally higher about an education in Shakespeare’s play didn’t rub off on his characterization of the prince. Then again, Hamlet did not kill because he had received a bad grade.
In speaking of murders in higher education, however, I am mining an old topic. America has long had its celebrated campus killers, such as Dr. John Webster a physician and lecturer in chemistry at Harvard, who murdered Dr. George Parkman, after Parkman discovered that Webster had attempted to collateralize a loan with a mineral collection that he had already used to back a loan from Parkman. Dr. Parkman went missing one day on November 1849, but a janitor soon found bits and pieces of him in Dr. Webster’s lab at Harvard Medical College.
Dr. Webster was found guilty of the murder and hanged.
Even in 1849, apparently, murder was more likely in the sciences than in the humanities. In any case, I confess that my roll call of recent campus murders probably casts no more than a lurid light on the moral mission of the university. It reminds us that our claims to reaching higher and further through the disciplined use of the mind are no great obstacle to murderous impulses. We strive to be civilized, but the levee can break—and it breaks all too often among certain kinds of distressed graduate students. If there is deeper story here, it lies in our growing negligence of the levees. As American higher education embraces its liberationist and diversiphilic paths towards moral enlightenment, and as we move more and more often in the calculus of utilitarian educational outcomes in which moral improvement is abandoned as a feasible project, we stand to lose our basic knowledge of how to integrate the improvement of character with the acquisition of knowledge.
The loss may bring with it the occasional crazed campus killer, but that’s not the homicide that really concerns me. Rather, I have been concerned in this essay with a more oblique murder plot. This plot aims to finish off the student who persists in seeing himself as a morally unified individual who is determined to take meaningful possession of his traditions rather than to dispossess them. It aims to rub out the student who is determined to shape his life as a whole, rather than merely pass through a succession of experiences. It aims to dispatch the student who is committed to leading a worthy life but refuses to subscribe to the guilts and resentments of identity groups. This fellow—man or woman—lives in the mortal danger of a campus culture that often treats him as a dangerous anachronism.
Can we save him from the myriad dangers—the ball-peen hammers, the bullets, and the tainted nasal spray? We must try.