Friday, May 16, 2008

Laws are not optional on campus 

While I was ill, there was a story about a drug sting operation on the San Diego State University campus. Today's Chronicle of Higher Education (subscriber link) tells that the university sought law-enforcement help, which appears to have caused some to question whether the university has treated its students right.
[W]hen a freshman at San Diego State University died of a cocaine overdose last May, the campus police chief decided to pursue a full-scale investigation. In December he summoned undercover agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration to pose as students and roam the campus in search of illegal drugs.

Last week San Diego County's district attorney disclosed the yearlong investigation�Operation Sudden Fall�and its outcome: 125 arrests, including 95 students. Law-enforcement officers seized $100,000 in drugs, $60,000 in cash, and four guns. University officials suspended six fraternities, as well as 33 students charged with felonies, and congratulated themselves.

"Drug use is a concern on virtually every campus in our country," the president, Stephen L. Weber, said in a written statement the day the arrests were announced. "SDSU has taken this action to confront it directly."

But such a sweeping drug investigation raises high-stakes questions. When should a university punish instead of educate? Does inviting undercover federal agents onto a campus strain an administration's relationship with its students? Will trying to solve a problem make an institution notorious for having it?

San Diego State officials have no regrets. "It's not just that we were looking at a problem of degree and seeing more drug usage than previously," Mr. Weber said in an interview with The Chronicle. "We're talking about what is at least now alleged to be drug trafficking on campus, things like loaded shotguns and semiautomatic weapons. ... That's serious business."

Weber, who was vice president of academic affairs here at SCSU in the 1980s made the mistake of signing off on my tenure, is taking heat from some students and faculty for bringing law enforcement in, with one faculty member even going so far as to say "ultimately ... they may be coming in to investigate or squelch political dissent." Our local organization of campus fraternities and sororities sent out a statement this week considering the San Diego State frats' behavior to be "not consistent" with what SCSU organizations represent.

What responsibility does a university have to its students' privacy versus its responsibility to uphold the law (and protect itself from liability should students overdose on drugs?)