Peeking Parents

Increasingly, Mom and Dad are staying up close and parental as a 'virtual' presence on college campuses.

To Marsha Cohen, the squirrels that hopped into her son's Princeton University dorm room, scrounging for junk food, were neither cute nor amusing, but a potential health hazard.

Did anyone else know or agree? What, if anything, should be done?

Such are the questions that trouble parents when children go to college. In years past, such gnawing issues dropped silently into the abyss. This time, however, Ms. Cohen broached her concerns with 100 or so fellow Princeton parents who were part of a new e-mail discussion group formed last fall.

Cohen's squirrel in the dorm became part of an ongoing debate over dorm cleanliness, fire-sprinkler systems, the academic calendar, health issues, even campus parking problems at the New Jersey school. And that's a switch.

Parents have long been a silent campus constituency, seemingly destined to drop their college kids off, pay their bills, and wait for that rare letter, e-mail message, or phone call home. Now, at a handful of colleges and universities, parents are getting involved by going online and organizing e-mail roundtables, or "listservs," to inform and comfort each other with knowledge about the details of campus life.

To some parents, it's a natural use of technology that permits previously unimaginable levels of contact. They can participate more knowledgeably in a crucial turning point in their children's lives - and perhaps even influence what schools are doing.

"Institutions are being changed through the electronic community," says John Dippel, who got the idea for a Princeton listserv for parents prior to dropping off his son for first-year student orientation. He printed up fliers inviting parents to send him their e-mail addresses and handed them out during visits to campus last fall. He got about 75 responses.

"Before, only people in residence were part of the community," he says. "That's changing. Parents bring perspective, insight, and a need to be informed."

But some administrators warn too much parent involvement can limit a student's personal growth. Others, meanwhile, worry that parent e-mail groups could sully an institution if they become a gripe forum.

After initial hesitation, Princeton agreed to host the listserv on its computers and dub it "Tiger Families," Mr. Dippel says.

To participate, a parent sends an e-mail message to the list's "moderator" requesting to "subscribe." Dippel then adds that address to the list. When an e-mail question or comment from a list member sails in, a copy is automatically re-sent to each person on the list.

The Princeton list "has really helped my husband and I gain an insight about campus issues and about other parents' views," says Frances Kaneene, parent of a first-year student. "Our son has always been tight-lipped, so without this network we would be close to clueless about campus issues. As first-time college parents, we have a strong need to know, and this fulfills that need."

What about Privacy 101?

Students are wary, though.

"Almost no one at Princeton realizes there is a listserv discussing our lives," says Stephen Feyer, whose mother is Ms. Cohen. "I think many students would rather keep the privacy they're accustomed to.

"On the other hand," he adds, "students would support some changes that parents might want to make - for example, improving campus public spaces. Student requests are not often considered in decisions that affect them, but college administrators would never stand up against parents."

One of the largest college parent networks began five years ago when a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., began organizing informal listservs for parents and alumni. Today, more than 14,000 members now trade e-mail queries on 113 listservs, though these have no official connection to the academy itself.

Most West Point lists are for alumni. But one with 700 members is devoted to plebes' parents, who e-mail questions and concerns. In response, other parents - often those of upperclassmen, share their insights.

"It sets your mind at ease and gives you a lot of insight into the academy," says the mother of a West Point plebe who asked not to be named. "You're not alone."

Topics on the West Point plebe listserv range from the pedestrian to the heart-wrenching. One parent wants to know whether bringing a well-broken-in pair of black leather shoes is really better than bringing a new pair. (Answer: Yes, because marching in new shoes may cause blisters.) Another, anonymously, asks what to do because his or her plebe wants to quit. More than 50 e-mails with suggestions flood in.

The rules vary

Parent networks tend to be a reflection of campus culture. On Princeton's, for instance, discussion is limited only by Internet decorum - i.e., no "flaming" (attacking) other participants.

When the Princeton list members turned to the school's unusual academic calendar, many parents criticized the tradition of final exams after Christmas break. This discussion might one day turn into a request to the administration, Dippel says.

On the West Point network, the rule is self-censorship, backed up by moderators. While certain problems can be raised, no messages critical of the academy or its policies and procedures can be posted.

"A military academy is a military installation," says Richard Breakiron, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and member of the West Point Organization, the group that maintains the lists. "If a cadet screws up, he gets punished. Parents are not involved. They have no say."

But West Point is listening nonetheless, says a spokesperson. Its officers sometimes read the listservs to see what topics pop up. And parents are free to criticize West Point or the US Army individually, Colonel Breakiron points out - just not on his organization's listserv.

At Michigan Technological University, an engineering school in the state's north, a school listserv called ParentNet has been reassuring for Judy Gabriel. Her son found the transition from home difficult. "The more I knew about what was happening on campus, the more I could make recommendations that wouldn't make him feel like he was stuck in Siberia," she says.

Trying to hold off the gripes

While many campuses are now wired for the Internet, only a few have granted parents broad access to their interior cybercampus - and even fewer have created interactive groups.

One reason may be administrators' reluctance to create new constituencies to satisfy - or, worse, create a source of bad publicity and chronic griping.

"My biggest fear is that I will get a question or problem I can't solve," says Dennis Walikainen, who runs Michigan Technological's list as director of marketing communications. "I don't want it to give the university a bad image. It hasn't happened yet."

Dippel agrees it is hard to know "where the line will be drawn" between involvement and criticism. "I don't see parent involvement in cybercommunities as another version of in loco parentis," he says. "One has to find balance between being informed and trying to dictate policies."

Ms. Cohen, the Princeton parent who raised the dorm-squirrel issue, agrees, but also believes technology will inevitably lead to more parent power on campus.

"Parents of college students have generally been an unheard audience, because they haven't been around to complain," writes Cohen in an e-mail interview with the Monitor. "As an informed audience, they will become a much more important constituency, and I'm sure that will be a nuisance for college administrators."

Her son Stephen can go along with this concept - up to a point.

"On the whole, I like the idea that parents are keeping up with our lives.... Still, they may want to stop our fun. I hope they remember what being in college was like."

*E-mail claytonm@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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