Doing room inspections was one of the more unpleasant responsibilities I had as a sergeant in the Army. Every so often I was ordered to go into the barracks and walk through my soldiers’ rooms to look for general cleanliness, contraband, or other problems that might exist.
My gut told me this was an invasion of privacy, even though I knew that having room inspections was part of life in the military, and as soldiers, we didn’t enjoy the same protections of the Constitution. I understood the purpose of the inspections; it was a way for me to ensure that my team was disciplined, that there were no health or safety concerns, and so on. But it seemed very anti-American at the same time; we believe that a person’s home is their castle and to enter it requires an invite or one hell of a good reason, such as a warrant.
To me, making sure a soldier was disciplined enough to keep their room tidy was not enough justification to go trampling through their private space. It was asinine; these individuals were trusted with weapons and access to highly classified information, but there I was, checking on their rooms like they were still in middle school.
I admit, when I was ordered to do the room inspections, I did the absolute bare minimum. I instructed my soldiers to keep their room clean enough so that if there were a surprise inspection from one of my bosses, they could quickly clean up. Otherwise, I left them alone.
When I rented my first apartment, I was surprised to find that the landlords could also do “inspections,” though legally their scope was limited to checking the fire alarm. The landlord had to give prior notice and could only do the inspection once a year. Any other time a landlord wanted to enter my apartment, they had to obtain my permission; as a renter, I don’t give up my rights to privacy, even though the apartment is not my property.
The age bracket of soldiers in the barracks is about the same as those in college, and as such, the two groups share a lot of similarities. For many, a college dorm room is their first “apartment,” and adjusting to a life of independence comes with challenges, and some experience more than others. Room inspections are a way to ensure that the transition is smooth and to identify students struggling with their newfound freedom.
This system works fine as long as the maximum punishment is a handful of points and that inspections don’t have life-long impacts. But following the drug incidents two semesters ago, it is apparent that Wesleyan’s room policies have the potential to result in serious consequences, as indicated by the ability of the administration to give permission to the police to search rooms.
My initial impression of the University was that it treated its students like adults and gave them responsibilities to match. Wesleyan has some of the most relaxed graduation requirements—there are no core classes and most majors are very flexible—which to me signifies Wesleyan’s belief that its students are mature enough to make decisions about their academics.
There are faculty advisors, to be sure, but most first- and second-year students report that their pre-major advisors are not particularly helpful. The lack of any serious movement on the University’s side to improve advising indicates they are content with students making decisions about their academics largely on their own. I am not criticizing this policy; being able to move in and out of classes that I want without my hand being held is outstanding.
Yet, after spending three semesters here, I was shocked at how little privacy I had at a University that prides itself on personal freedoms, treating its students like adults, and encouraging experimentation and independence. There were weeks where it seemed like RAs, maintenance workers, administrators, and others were parading through my house with little to no regard for privacy. One worker came crashing through my door with no notice.
The blatant disregard for privacy seems to be a University policy rather than a series of isolated events. I was surprised to learn that my Wesleyan email can be read by the University if there is reasonable cause (a policy which is described on pages 31-35 of the Student Handbook). I was shocked to discover that in the past, administrators have given the police permission to search a student’s room without a warrant. The simple fact is, as students at Wesleyan, we have very little privacy. The only area in which the University seems concerned about our privacy is our grades: professors are not allowed to talk with anyone, including parents, about how we are doing in class.
Is the lack of privacy legal? Probably. Private entities do not fall under the Constitution. But it being legal is not an excuse nor an unspoken permission to act like a jackass. If the University is going to have a hands-off policy when it comes to academics, if the University is going to have a hands-off policy when it comes to student affairs, then naturally it should follow that the University should have a hands-off policy when it comes to our living areas.
Our student government has the ability to do something about it, such as working with the University to make sure that they and their employees (including RAs) are following the law and the rules. That they are not invading student privacy outside of what is absolutely necessary, which should be about one or two fire alarm inspections per school year, instead of the two or three I had last semester alone.
We need more clearly defined rules about when and how the University can enter into our room because the Student Handbook is relatively light on the subject. It should not be the case that the police can rifle through my things because the University finds that more politically palatable than respecting privacy. Instead, the rules should follow clearly defined reasons that make sense—concern for human safety is certainly one—but utmost attention should be paid to respecting privacy, even if it is inconvenient.
The remaining question to answer then is this: Why is privacy important? Most of the reasons are self-evident and have been discussed at length. Privacy equals freedom, and a government or other powerful entity that is constantly invading its citizens’ personal space is one that is only a stone’s throw away from being oppressive. Privacy enables a space between those with power and those without, and crossing that line should only occur on morally acceptable and justly enforced grounds. Wesleyan’s current privacy standards do not meet these criteria.
Stascavage is a member of the class of 2018.