Another Federal Mandate—Or, How I Misspent My Summer Vacation



clock question mark_0In 1986, a 19-year-old Lehigh University student, Jeanne Clery, was raped and murdered in her campus residence hall. The reaction against colleges failing to publicize such campus crimes prompted the passage in 1990 of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The Clery Act requires all colleges and universities that—like my employer, Wake Forest University—participate in federal financial aid programs to keep and disclose information about crime on and near their campuses. The Department of Education can impose fines up to $35,000 per violation, on institutions for each infraction and can suspend institutions from participating in federal student financial aid programs. The intent of the law seems very laudable, but like so many other laws its implementation has taken on a life of its own—hungrily gobbling up resources in the process.

The law requires that all Campus Security Authorities be trained to know which crimes and safety issues must be reported—for example, should crimes on thoroughfares through campus be reported or just crimes on campus-owned property; should simple assaults be reported in addition to aggravated assaults? Again this seems reasonable, but it turns out that the definition of Campus Security Authority is very broad. It covers not only campus police, but also resident hall advisors, coaches, and even faculty members who advise clubs. I fall into this last category, so the official in charge of records management at my university emailed me (along with scores of others) notifying me of my responsibility to be trained as a CSA. Unfortunately, the training session mentioned in the email began at 8AM. Worse still, it was to take four hours. Fortunately, I couldn’t attend because of my teaching schedule and luckily there was online training available. Yesterday, I finally found the time to take the online training. All told, it took me about an hour and a half to watch the training videos and then take a 10-question multiple-choice test. I got all ten questions correct (pat on the back)! But I probably would have gotten about 8 correct even without the training—and 8 is enough to pass.

So what was gained? Reviewing my notes, it’s obvious that I now know a little bit more about the distinctions between various types of crime (e.g., robbery versus theft). I now know a little bit more about what constitutes rape (not a subject I enjoy thinking about). I now know that even if someone is merely playing with matches and sets a couple pieces of wastepaper on fire, this constitutes arson. I now know why my university sends out emails to the entire campus body when someone threateningly pulls a knife in a campus parking lot at 2AM—because they are required to issue “timely warnings” about such things.

What wasn’t gained? Unfortunately, my training hasn’t made the campus a safer place. In my twenty-plus years as coach of the Wake Forest Quiz Bowl Club and as a professor, I cannot recall even once becoming aware of a crime that needed to be reported. If I had, I would have reported the crime. Ultimately the odds of me reporting a crime in the future are unlikely to change.

What was lost? About 90 minutes of my time—one of my most precious resources. The certificate I received for passing the course expires in one year, so I expect there to be many more minutes wasted in the future. If I’m representative of other club advisors, this 90+ minutes needs to be multiplied. How many club advisors across the country are involved? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands?

What would I have done with my time yesterday if I hadn’t taken the online training? I could have done a lot of things. I could have spent it exercising or praying or reading or learning a few more German words from the Duolingo program I recently downloaded. Most likely, these 90 minutes would have been spent learning more about the economy or history (I am an economic historian, after all), so that knowledge was lost. In addition, I got home about half an hour later than planned. The Clery Act seems to have cost me half an hour spent enjoying the company of my beautiful wife.

In my case there was nothing gained, something important lost—so typical of federal mandates.

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