Not long ago, a foreign visitor to our shores asked me whether there was anything anyone could do on an American college campus that assured automatic expulsion. I thought for a minute. “Plagiarism,” I said. “And falsified transcripts and other application records. And possibly ‘sexual harassment.’” I wanted to add the proverbial “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but knew of cases where students were re-admitted after having completed prison sentences. One can practically hear the situational ethicists on and off disciplinary boards arguing that, in most cases, those offenses occurred off campus. Having long ago abandoned any pretense of requiring students and faculty to abide by any moral code whatsoever, on what basis could it start drawing lines, well-paid counsel, retained by societal offenders might rightly ask.
Rutgers University is in a position to exert extraordinary leadership by adding to the list one infraction that assures perpetrators a one-way and permanent ticket out: bullying. (Disclaimer: the writer holds two degrees from Rutgers.) This week, the eyes of the nation and much of the world focused on an unnecessary, avoidable, and tragic death. News spread that a Rutgers freshman jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after learning that his roommate had secretly filmed him in a moment of intimacy with another male and, with a friend, broadcast the episode over the Internet. Tyler Clementi’s suicide proved the occasion for the media and the law enforcement community to once again focus on a recurring and harmful societal problem, bullying.
Until quite recently, most in authority positions, university administrators included, treated it as a right to passage victims had to endure until such time as they mustered sufficient courage to stand up to bullies to the point of fisticuffs. No less a light than former British Prime Minister Tony Blair eloquently described this process at work in his recent memoir.Too many of Blair's readers will identify with the choice he had to make as a schoolboy: either risk physical hurt by standing up to the bully or endure emotional and physical torture for months, if not years on end. Other prominent persons should follow Blair’s lead in recounting their stories. Young people throughout the world would profit by knowing that one can not only overcome this plague, but become prime ministers, media celebrities, military officers, lawyers, doctors, clerics, sports figures, and key business leaders.
What will happen to Clementi’s tormentors remains far from clear. Calls mount for prosecution under state statutes designed to discourage crimes rooted in hate or intended to protect privacy rights. Their lack of respect for their fellow student’s dignity picks away at the nation’s conscience. The delight these sadists apparently showed in embarrassing and humiliating Clementi has renewed calls for “character education” in the schools and enhanced attention to the Internet and social networking “etiquette.” While all this is to the good, by themselves, such measures cannot prevent recurrences of the behavior that helped produce this tragedy. No law can be devised that anticipates every heinous deed human beings are capable of committing, however noble the intentions of its authors. Here is where Rutgers comes in.
It has an opportunity to demonstrate before the world that, however strong or weak the legal case against the two students might be, there are some forms of behavior a university will not tolerate. Whatever their offenses against society are determined to be in a court of law, Clementi’s roommate Dharun Ravi and his accomplice Mollie Wei stand accused of violating the university’s official code of conduct. They should be expelled and examples made of them. If a university community that operates in an atmosphere of openness and trust cannot draw the line at this form of cruelty, what will it deem beyond the pale of civil and civilized society? Were Rutgers to act swiftly and decisively now, no other institution worth its salt would admit this now infamous duo to study in its midst barring their submission of a detailed explanation as to why their stay at Rutgers was cut short. Their immediate expulsion, in addition to administering warranted punishment, would have the added benefit of striking at what caused the offense: the students' sense of entitlement and their presumed sense of superiority that accompanied it. What better way is there for any university to inculcate a sense of character in all it admits and retains than this?