Should College Students Be Suspended for Sending Stupid Emails?

Will any college male athletic teams be available to compete by the end of 2017? Last month, Princeton became the latest in a growing list of universities to suspend one of its teams as a result of sexually explicit emails sent among team members.

“The behavior that we have learned about is simply unacceptable,” the school’s athletic director, Mollie Marcoux Samaan, said. “We make clear to all of our student-athletes that they represent Princeton University at all times, on and off the playing surface and in and out of season, and we expect appropriate, respectful conduct from them at all times.”

Earlier this fall, Harvard ended its men’s soccer season early as a result of emails found rating the attractiveness of female recruits. And Columbia suspended members of its wrestling team for various lewd, sexist, racist and anti-gay remarks found in emails.

Members of the media cheered the universities for not tolerating such crude behavior on the part of their students. In the Boston Globe, sports commentator Shira Springer noted, “The objectification of women combined with a male sense of entitlement is the kind of thinking that, taken a step further, leads to so many sexual assaults on so many college campuses. [Harvard’s response] should serve as a model for how universities handle not just sexist speech but also sexual violence.”

The notion that such speech leads to violence lacks any kind of proof, but the idea that tamping down such speech will lead to change in the attitudes of Harvard men toward their female peers is even sillier. Conservatives were correct to point out the hypocrisy in Harvard’s actions. The idea that the sex-drenched university (which offers undergraduate courses in subjects such as hooking up and sexual fetishes) is suddenly prudish about the use of such language is laughable.

And yet, I think the universities have done these athletes a favor. The truth is that our emails are not private—and never really were. Over and over we have seen how interoffice emails sent to the wrong person or forwarded to some third party have destroyed careers and even been the subject of expensive lawsuits. Over the summer, Zillow settled four 2014 lawsuits alleging a “frat house” type atmosphere of sexual harassment at the company. One of the plaintiffs attached text-messages to her complaint, which included one supervisor agreeing to change her password if she sent him a “boob picture.” Come on, people. Who puts this stuff in writing?

Not only do employers have access to our work emails, but our private accounts are easily hackable—and not only by Russian spies. The people who hacked into a billion Yahoo accounts earlier this fall not only got usernames and passwords, but also the answers to security questions.

Maybe middle-aged middle managers are too clueless about technology to realize that nothing is ever erased, but young people shouldn’t be so foolish. And yet they seem to have boundless faith in the idea that no one but the people they send things to will see it. Why else would they post pictures of themselves drunk and half-naked on social media when it seems obvious that college admissions officers and potential employers will eventually come across it?

So while it seems absurd—and just a tad totalitarian—to punish students for the dumb things they say to each other on email, college administrators may actually be teaching them a valuable lesson, one it’s probably better they learn sooner rather than later.

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