Students talk about the moral issues facing them on campus

At college campuses around the United States the moral concerns cited by students are vast and varied. They encompass alcohol abuse and obscenity, cheating and theft, questions of human rights, nuclear proliferation, and government policies. They also include drug abuse, graffiti, vandalism, sabotage , and homosexuality.

Yet just as significant as the list of challenges are student perceptions of what are not moral problems. Until specifically asked, no students interviewed for this series volunteered racial injustice, a deep concern during the 60s or personal sexual behavior as issues.

Conversations with a sampling of students across the country reveal that most of those interviewed view morality as a process rather than a standard. Many say they base their decisions about what is right and wrong on their total life experience and thinking, rather than on specific teachings or an explicit moral code. They credit family example as perhaps the strongest and most enduring influence on their moral outlooks.

They are often intense as they discuss the problems that concern them.

At the top of his list, a senior at a state university in New England chooses to discuss abuse of alcohol, the substance cited by Arthur Levine, president of Bradford College, a private institution in Bradford, Mass., as ''the drug of choice among students.''

The senior explains that after concerts ''beer cans and bottles litter the grass and walks near the performance site. There's lots of wanton destruction. . . .

''The city set up a 'Speed and Alcohol Patrol,' '' he continues, ''because there were so many alcohol-related fatalities in one year. . . . I am a social drinker myself, in moderation. But I don't like to drive between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. because of what might be out on the road.''

The same student, voicing another concern, says he would never take his mother into the library, because lewd drawings and sexist and racist jokes on the stairwell walls are so offensive. And he is concerned about the impact on freshmen and sophomores of crude language and cartoons used in the student newspaper.

On the same subject, a graduate student says the men's washrooms at the private Eastern university he attends were surreptitiously spray-painted with obscenities ''no person would want to be discovered writing.''

At yet another school a student laments, ''Theft runs the gamut from car stereos and personal belongings to loss of money and laundry left in washers and dryers. Two hundred dollars' worth of jeans might be gone.''

''Honesty is the first thing I think of in morality,'' says a senior at a Big Ten state university in the Midwest. ''You should be able to trust people, you know. I don't like any kind of dishonesty.''

Yet, ''there's cheating everywhere,'' she continues. ''I think the business school is notorious for cheating, because of the stiff competition. The temptation to cheat is strongest in courses which depend on memorization.'' But other types of classes are also prone to cheating, she says. ''I was in a large psychology class. When we had a test, the prof posted the answers just outside the exit, so, as you left, you could figure out about how well you had done. Someone stood out there with a radio transmitter and gave the answers to a student inside.''

She also says fraternities on her campus use a ''cheating wedge'': ''They put a couple of smart guys at the bottom and then angle other students up who copy from each other.

''. . . Yes, they do have monitors in big lecture halls at exam time, but they're not always very attentive,'' she adds. ''Probably they don't want to make false accusations, so they're cautious. I had a friend who was falsely accused once. She was very brilliant; she didn't need to cheat. She got an F because the prof's wife, who was proctoring, believed she cheated.''

Two more women from widely separated universities worry about the sabotage of academic projects at their institutions. ''It's most prevalent in med school, but you also have it in undergrad bio classes,'' one explains. ''If somebody's growing a bacterium, somebody might flush it, move it away from under light, or dowse it with a chemical.'' Students do this so their own projects won't be compared unfavorably with better projects.

Hiding books or removing assigned readings from them - and thus deliberately depriving other students of access to needed information - is a problem in the business and law schools, another student says.

When the question of sexual behavior was raised by this writer, the concerns of students interviewed ranged from the high visibility of gay-rights activists to promiscuity in dormitories.

Giving perspective to the impact on education of the revolution in American society's sexual standards over the last generation, Bradford College president Levine says: ''We set up colleges and universities dedicated to the search for truth; we give students all kinds of freedom in this search; and then we don't give them any moral guidelines. Our whole nation is more confused than ever. We've moved toward value-free education. Sexual pressures are enormous.''

James W. Dilley, executive director of the American College Health Association in Rockville, Md., says, ''Health professions make available birth control information, drugs, and devices as part of their regular services to college and university students.'' He adds that his association considers the urging of moral constraints against premarital sexual activity beyond its province.

On one aspect of the sexual problems, a male student at an Eastern state university comments, ''For me gay rights is a moral issue. . . . The university is more tolerant than a lot of people I know. . . . If kids haven't been exposed , they will be. There are gay profs. It's 'in' for gays to be out of the closet. There have been gay-awareness days on campus. Lavender balloons are given out to people who sympathize with the problems gays face, and you can see people with the balloons tied to their wrists walking around campus during these awareness days.''

A recent graduate of a state university in the Midwest says: ''I don't look down on homosexuals; who am I to judge them? What I don't like more than the homo part is the sexual part. We have a disco, and at the bar they maul each other blatantly. I don't like that. 'Heteros' don't do that. Why do they think they can be obnoxious like that?''

Commenting on the climate at his school, another student says, ''Certain things are rites of passage - like spring break at Daytona . . . living in a coed dorm, living with a person of the opposite sex.''

Another female student says: ''Sexually, everything's accepted. It doesn't bother me. Let people do their thing - I wouldn't let a roommate bring a guy in for the night, (but) I don't look down on others. . . . I was conservative and naive as a freshman, but I became more open-minded. The more of it you see, the less you think of it.''

Some colleges tout the atmosphere of license and tolerance they have created. The undergraduate prospectus and application for the University of Massachusetts (UMass) at Amherst, for instance, contains comments from students on what they liked about the university. The frontispiece comment from Steve Hollander of Cranford, N.J., says: ''After four years at UMass I look back and remember great courses, dinners with friends, afternoon sleeps near the campus pond, laughs at the Blue Wall, long hours of studying and long hours of rapping, screaming at the lacrosse games, anxieties about an exam, campus-wide snowball fights, an intimate night with a friend. . . .''

Elsewhere the prospectus explains, ''Most of our students prefer to live in coed residence halls, although you are guaranteed a single-sex dormitory if you so choose.''

For some families, even the standards of privacy in college dorms are quite different from home. One mother who visited at a private university in the Midwest was surprised to find her daughter situated in a dormitory suite with two other women and four men. All used a common bathroom in which the toilets and showers were separated by canvas curtains, rather than doors.

The recent removal of stall doors in men's restrooms at Iowa State University led to complaints from students who said they felt humiliated when they had to use the open stalls, United Press International reported last month. UPI said Memorial Union officials told student body vice-president Michael Walker that the decision to remove doors resulted from complaints about homosexual activity in the restrooms. Bruce Hudson, director of Memorial Union, refused to confirm or deny the UPI report for the Monitor or to say whether doors had been replaced.

In trying to resolve the broad range of moral issues facing them, college and university students say they depend upon themselves and their peers - not on professors, counselors, faculty members, or religious advisers.

''Nobody I know at school would go and talk about things like that to faculty ,'' one senior comments.

Second in a series. Friday: Standards, honor codes, counseling, and other efforts to bolster campus morality.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.