Welcome To 'Animal House

The student occupation of buildings at Columbia University in 1968 remains the zenith or the nadir of all campus protests, depending on your politics. Richard Nixon (he was on the nadir side) warned in its wake that it was "the first major skirmish in a revolutionary struggle to seize the universities of the country."

If Mr. Nixon were alive today, perhaps he would be surprised to learn that the revolutionary struggle is now in defense of beer, basketball and bad behavior.

College students have settled in to campuses across America, with their backpacks, their laptops and their some-assembly- required bookshelves, and as certain as carbohydrates in the food-service menu, sooner or later there will be keening about how the poor kids are awash in a welter of political correctness. "Menstruation and Medea: Fear of the Female in the Classics," or "From the Slave Cabins to the Recording Studio: Black in a White Economy"--it's so easy to lampoon the lament that campus life is infused with hyperannuated regard for the sensibilities of minority students and women. There is a sadly out-of-date white Anglo-Saxon term for this point of view. It is balderdash.

The real prevailing ethos on many campuses is quite the opposite. Take the uprisings this semester at Indiana University. These demonstrations were inspired not by the economic disparity between rich and poor or by corporate imperialism, but by the firing of a man who coaches basketball. Space here is limited, so it is not possible to describe all the boorish behavior for which the Indiana coach, Bobby Knight, has become known over the years. He's thrown furniture, assaulted players, verbally abused both school officials and referees, cursed at opponents and won a lot of games.

Obviously Mr. Knight's personal style made a huge impact on campus, since students responded to his long-overdue dismissal by setting fires, toppling light poles and so menacing the president of the university that he and his wife fled their home and moved into a hotel. "History was in the making, and I was not going to miss this for the world, and certainly not for homework," one dopey student, whose parents should stop payment on his tuition check immediately, wrote of the riot.

This reaction was not totally unexpected. A professor of English, Murray Sperber, who has been critical of Knight in print and on television, was on leave last year from the university, in part because of letters like the one with the Star of David repeatedly scribbled on it, or the voice-mail message "If you don't shut up, I'll shut you up." In his book "Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education," Professor Sperber says that at schools like Indiana with prominent and successful sports programs, athletics overshadow scholarship, leading to a culture in which students spend more time partying than studying, in which a basketball coach can be infinitely more important than the school's president.

But the "Animal House" effect in higher education is not confined to big state schools with monster sports teams. MIT, one of the finest science schools in the world, recently agreed to pay almost $5 million to the family of a student who died of acute alcohol poisoning during a fraternity-pledge event. Any number of colleges have identified the fraternity culture of long nights and endless kegs as a source of problems ranging from vandalism to date rape, but students respond badly to any attempt to curtail the Greek system. Really badly. When she was president of Denison, Michele Tolela Myers decided that the fraternities at the Ohio school should be nonresidential to cut down on the boozing and bad behavior.

"Frat boys put dead animals outside the front door of our house, someone threw a billiard ball through our living-room window," recalled Myers, who is now president of Sarah Lawrence. And it was clear that the students had learned at the knee of like-minded adults. Myers got name-calling hate mail from alums: "the bitch, the Jew, she should go back East where she belongs." So much for P.C.

Contrary to all the nattering about political correctness, the social atmosphere on many campuses is macho and exclusionary and determinedly anti-intellectual. It's an atmosphere in which much of the social life revolves around drinking. It's an atmosphere in which date rape is rampant. One study says that six or seven out of every 50 college women have been victims of acquaintance rape within a single year. It may be provocative to suggest that the new civility codes and sexual-assault policies on certain campuses are a product of oversensitivity about issues of race and gender. But it's more accurate to say that they are long-overdue responses to problems of speech and behavior that have been ignored for years.

The Columbia protests marked the beginning of the end of in locoparentis, the notion that the administration stood in for parents in terms of setting limits and making rules. But Myers's experience indicates that if officials are willing to take a strong stand against individuals and organizations that poison a community--and are willing to put up with a distressing amount of personal abuse and enforce real-world legal statutes--the end result will be salutary. She recalls that Denison had its best applicant pool of her tenure after the fraternity decision because it was no longer seen by parents and college counselors as an unreconstructed party school.

Americans of my parents' generation were horrified by what happened at Columbia in 1968: the files destroyed, the dean held hostage. But if the actions were questionable, the impulse had meaning: opposition to the war in Vietnam, to the university's research contracts with the Pentagon and its plan to co-opt a park in Harlem to build a gym. Three decades later, and we have campus uprisings dedicated to the preservation of a winning season at any cost. Left wing on campus? Don't be fooled. In lots of places, it's not a political stance. It's a position on the hockey team.