Americans think a great deal about colleges and universities, but they do not examine them very closely. Every spring, most of the nation's high-school seniors choose a place for what well might be the most important four years of their lives. They and their parents pore over catalogs, read guidebooks, visit campuses, talk with school counselors, and share advice and impressions with relatives, friends, and neighbors, many of whom knew these institutions decades ago. For most high-school seniors, the prospect of attending college, whatever its apprehensions, inspires real enthusiasm. A new world-freer, more interesting, more respectful of their emerging individuality and adulthood -- awaits them.

Indeed, colleges and universities are singular institutions in American life. Whatever jokes or complaints one hears about professors or tuition, the fact remains that we place most of our sons and daughters in the care of colleges and universities. We charge these institutions with preparing future citizens for participation in the life of a free and productive society. We offer them special status and protection in that task, indeed, a wall of immunity from excessive scrutiny. We pay them handsomely, and, with breathtaking trust, almost never ask for an accounting of what we receive in return.


Chapter 1: The Water Buffalo Affair

On the night of January 13, 1993, Eden Jacobowitz, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, had been writing a paper for an English class when a sorority began celebrating its Founders' Day beneath the windows of his high-rise dormitory apartment. The women were singing very loudly, chanting, and stomping. It had prevented him from writing, and it had awakened his roommate. He shouted out the window, "Please keep quiet," and went back to work. Twenty minutes later, the noise yet louder, he shouted out the window, "Shut up, you water buffalo!" The women were singing about going to a party. "If you want a party," he shouted, "there's a zoo a mile from here." The women were black. Within weeks, the administrative judicial inquiry officer (JIO) in charge of Eden's case, Robin Read, decided to prosecute him for violation of Penn's policy on racial harassment. He could accept a "settlement" -- an academic plea bargain -- or he could face a judicial hearing whose possible sanctions included suspension and expulsion.

The JIO's finding that there was "reasonable cause" to believe that Eden had violated Penn's racial harassment policy for having shouted "Shut up, you water buffalo!" to late-night noisemakers under his window was outrageous in terms of normal human interactions at a university. Loud and raucous festivities had occurred beneath the windows of students since the Middle Ages. For centuries, would-be scholars, disturbed or awakened in the still hours, had shouted their various and picturesque disapprovals at the celebrants. "Water buffalo" would have been one of the mildest such epithets ever uttered.