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In loco parentis

"In loco parentis" is a Latin phrase meaning "in the place of a parent". It's originally a term from English common law, and it guided the legal rights and responsibilities of colleges and universities in dealing with their student population prior to the sixties. Although its death as a legal doctrine at the college level began in 1961 with the legal decision in Dixon v. Alabama, Note 1  the concept continued to be influential throughout the sixties. In that era, college students were treated more as children than adults, and the colleges felt an obligation to protect them as their parents would, were they still at home.

This philosophy affected women more than men. Dormitories were always segregated by sex, and women's dormitories imposed curfews on their residents. If a female student wasn't back in the dorm on time, she was subject to disciplinary action. As a rule, no such constraints were placed on male students.

When my older daughter Elissa entered Brown University in 1993, thirty years after I graduated from MIT, I visited her dormitory as she was moving in. Both men and women lived in the dorm. In the bathroom was a cardboard box with the handwritten label "Rubber". It contained a large assortment of condoms, and a few latex oral dams. I thought to myself, I guess college has changed a bit since I graduated thirty years ago. Note 2  And the changes continue. While at MIT recently, I picked up a copy of "The Tech", the student newspaper. I noted, in a column called "Various states of undress", a how-to article on anal sex. Note 3   I suspect that had I come across this back when I was a student, I would have passed out from shock (and the student newspaper would have been shut down).

The PillRecall that I arrived at MIT in September, 1959, and graduated in June, 1963. I stayed on at MIT as a graduate student, getting my Ph.D. in June of 1970. To place this era among larger events, the contraceptive pill wasn't approved by the FDA ("Federal Drug Administration") until 1960, but by 1963, 1.2 million women were using it. It wasn't until 1965 that the Supreme Court ruled that the private use of contraceptives was a constitutional right. Note 4  When I (infrequently) heard talk of birth control in my early years at MIT, it was more apt to be about condoms, contraceptive foam, and occasionally diaphragms, than about The Pill.

Colleges and universities that admitted women were said to be "co-educational", which was shortened to "co-ed", and eventually to "coed", although the hyphenated version makes the two-syllable pronunciation clear. That word was quickly made into a noun, so that "a coed" referred to a female student. If you think about it, the derivation of that term is rather sexist. Both men and women are needed to make a university "coed", so why should only the women be called "coeds"? The implication is that the men naturally belong there, while the women are a late addition. Even when a women's college started admitting men, thereby becoming co-educational, it was still the women who were called "coeds".

Ellen Swallow RichardsMy own college, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ("MIT"), has always admitted both men and women in principle, but through most of its history, it attracted mostly men, due to its technological orientation. Founded in 1861, it didn't admit its first female student, Ellen Swallow Richards (right), until 1870. Only 21 women entered my MIT class of around 900 students in the Fall of 1959. The percentage of female students is one of the greatest differences in the present atmosphere of the campus compared with my student days. Now in 2010, women make up 43 percent of MIT's undergraduate population.

That didn't mean that there was any shortage of college women in the Boston area in the sixties, since the region boasts over thirty public and private colleges and universities. Students met in various ways, including dances called "mixers" that were well advertised. But computer dating didn't arrive until late in the decade. I met my wife-to-be Margie by computer dating, in 1969, using a service called "Data-Mate". Data-Mate, and an earlier service called "Operation Match", were just beginning to be popular at the time.

Satellite view of BU Bridge traffic crossing Commonwealth avenueThe curfews imposed by women's dormitories often caused traffic jams just prior to their deadlines. I recall one particularly large snarl that I drove into on the Boston side of the BU Bridge. A large number of cars were heading over from the MIT side, perpendicular to a substantial amount of traffic on Commonwealth Avenue.

The photo to the left shows that intersection today. The road from the BU Bridge comes in from the top, perpendicular to Commonwealth Avenue (which has a brown stripe down its center). You can see a small portion of the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension crossing underneath the intersection at about a 45 degree angle, but it didn't exist back when I was a student. In fact, the angled light-colored portion of Commonwealth Avenue is the concrete bridge on top of that depressed highway. The brown stripe running down the center of Commonwealth Avenue marks the grade-level tracks of the MBTA trolley. Note 5   Commonwealth Avenue is six lanes wide, so with a couple of turning lanes and the trolley tracks in the center, this is a very wide intersection. In the sixties, I think only flashing yellow signals were operating late at night, rather than actual green and red traffic lights .

Not that signals would have made much of a difference. Boston drivers are notorious for proceeding into intersections on a green light when they clearly can't get out the other side, so they end up blocking the cross road when the light turns. The great American humorist Dave Barry once noted that, "In Boston, the drivers refuse to obey even the laws of physics." Note 6  To this day, Boston drivers, faced with any amount of space in front of their cars, will inevitably drive into it, regardless of the circumstances. Students racing to get their dates back to the dorm prior to a curfew are even less apt to be courteous. As a result, that morning shortly before 1:00 or 2:00 AM (I forget exactly when the curfew was), the intersection was packed with the mother of all traffic jams. Roughly every other car was facing the side of a car that was perpendicular to it. I imagine that from above, it looked like a crazy brick wall assembled by a drunken bricklayer. And nobody was going anywhere.

A number of students had gotten out of their cars, and were reasoning with other drivers, trying to straighten out the mess. But few drivers could be stopped from proceeding into any space that opened up, making the situation worse and worse. It was nearly impossible to generate any slack that would allow the intersection to be emptied, and when a few cars did get out, there was a seemingly endless supply of fresh cars arriving from all directions to take their place.

The situation was ultimately resolved by the arrival of first one, then two, then three trolley cars from each direction. Since the trolleys ran (and still run) "at grade" - that is, at street level, the trolleys were also stopped by the jam. It might not seem that would help, but it did, because it provided a large number of people, the trolley conductors, in uniform! They seemed to be able to exert some authority over the drivers, who perhaps, in the wee small hours of the morning, took them for policemen. In any event, working from the periphery in, the trolley drivers were gradually able to clear the jam. I don't recall whether or not I got my date back to the dorm in time.

Without the turnpike extension, we MIT students became quite familiar with Route 16 out to Wellesley College. A classmate who was actually from the town of Wellesley exposed us to how to use the somewhat obscure Charlesbank Road in Watertown to cut off a bit of distance. Some students used to boast about how quickly they could get to Wellesley and back. MIT and Wellesley now have a close relationship, and students at either school can take courses at the other. Although the travel time is a bit of an obstacle, there is a regular van that travels between the two colleges.

I recall another occasion when I returned a date to her dorm after an evening during which she had apparently imbibed an excessive amount of alcohol (possibly with my encouragement). I brought her back to her dorm shortly before the curfew, and held the door for her to let her in. I then watched her stagger unsteadily directly towards the elevator, without signing in at the lobby desk, as she was required to do before the curfew hour. I wasn't allowed to enter the dorm, not even the lobby, and could only call her name across the hall, trying to turn her around to sign in (I was successful).

My decade at MIT turned out to be the beginning of what came to be called "the sexual revolution", although as a somewhat nerdy Tech student, I regret to report that I hardly took maximum advantage of it. On that last note, you might enjoy an article called He didn't appreciate the solace, by Herbert L. Kahn.

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#0057   *MIT

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© 2010 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted December 2, 2010, and link to Kahn article added December 16
Correct number of women in MIT Class of '63 added November 21, 2011

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Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   See the Wikipedia entries on In Loco Parentis and Dixon v. Alabama.   [return to text]

Note 2:   Mara Mintzer, a longstanding friend of Elissa's, also entered Brown University in 1993. Margie and I attended Brown's "Parents' Weekend" along with Ellen and Barry, Mara's parents. Barry and I attended a sample lecture given by a professor of Mechanical Engineering, during which Barry relived his own college experience by immediately falling sound asleep.   [return to text]

Note 3:   What what (in the butt)", subtitled "Tips for approaching from the rear", in the column "Various states of undress", by M., The Tech, Volume 130, Number 56, November 23, 2010, p. 11   [return to text]

Note 4:   For a good short summary of this history, see "The Birth of The Pill".   [return to text]

Note 5:   The MBTA is the "Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority", which is what it is called now. Back in my college days, it was called the "MTA", the "Metropolitan Transit Authority". Many Americans of my generation will remember the 1959 hit folk song recorded by the Kingston Trio, "Charlie on the MTA". Click here to hear it.  [return to text]

Note 6:   From Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Ever Need, in the section on Massachusetts. It begins, "Massachusetts (also an Indian word, meaning 'place that is hard to spell') is one of the most historic states in the union, which is why each year, tens of thousands of visitors flock here, only to be killed in traffic. In Boston, the drivers refuse to obey even the laws of physics. This is the only place in the United States where the Driver's Manual actually shows you how to give people the finger." I recommend all of Dave Barry's books.   [return to text]

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