Between the time that female students left our campuses last semester and when they began to return for the fall term, they lost a constitutionally protected right that women had enjoyed for 50 years — autonomy and freedom to make reproductive health-care decisions. The loss of that right, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, weakens the very foundation of women’s existence in our country, from their health to their educational and economic opportunities. Colleges in states where lawmakers have already used or plan to use the court’s decision to further restrict access to abortions must be proactive in supporting their female students.
I am not advocating that college leaders break the law or become a test case, and I fully understand that college leadership’s fiduciary responsibilities limit their tolerance of risk. But there is much that leaders can and should do for their students, all well within the bounds of the law.
Show empathy. Some college leaders stepped forward and made eloquent statements following Dobbs, decrying the beginning of our post-Roe world. I am grateful to these leaders for making strong, public statements. At the same time, I do not judge those who did not make such statements. These moments present presidents with a delicate balance between personal convictions and what is best for their institution as a whole.
Because abortion is such a divisive and emotional issue in this country, polarizing public statements could undermine leaders’ effectiveness, particularly their fund-raising ability.
But many students will arrive on campus this fall feeling more vulnerable, more exposed, less powerful, and less in control of their bodies and destiny. These students deserve empathy from their leaders. Whether through public statements or internal actions, college leaders need to acknowledge that the ground shifted this summer, and that it will be a painful shift for many in our community. This may feel like walking a tightrope for some presidents, but it is precisely the walk that good leadership demands.
Provide guidance to employees. We need to accept the fact that students are going to have sex. As a result, leaders face the likelihood that there will be at least one unintended pregnancy in their student body this fall. For us to think otherwise would be to bury our heads in the sand.
And when those students approach faculty members or advisers or coaches or counselors or health-service workers, how should those employees respond? In our nascent and chaotic post-Roe world, few understand exactly what is legal or illegal. Can they refer a student to the local Planned Parenthood? Can they let a student know about publicly available “abortion finder” websites? Will the college legally and financially support them if they drive a student to another state and get sued for “aiding and abetting”? Can they lend a student money for reproductive health care? Will conversations they have with students need to be disclosed?
Our college communities need clear dos and don’ts. This guidance is going to vary from state to state, even from campus to campus, and will depend significantly on risk tolerance.
In Oklahoma, as an example of how each state has its own complications, our Legislature passed a criminal abortion ban on top of an existing trigger ban, each criminalizing slightly different acts, with different exceptions and different penalties. Which prevails? And these criminal bans are layered on top of two civilly enforced bans, one that copies Texas’ six-week ban with very limited exceptions and the other that bans abortion at fertilization with slightly broader exceptions. How do these two laws interact?
The legal guidance from college leaders to their workers may not always be satisfactory. But employees deserve to know that the college will support them as long as they act within certain parameters.
Double down on birth control, pregnancy testing, and women’s health care on campus. Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, colleges became adept at tackling emerging health needs. Many set up testing stations and provided students and employees with masks, thermometers, and cleaning supplies. Colleges could likewise expand their commitment to women’s reproductive health. Here are some ideas:
- Install free contraceptive-vending machines in every dormitory.
- Distribute emergency contraception (Plan B) pills and pregnancy tests to all female students.
- Have a 24/7 hotline available to answer questions about pregnancy tests, contraception, and emergency contraception.
- Incorporate reproductive-health conversations into orientation, first-year-experience classes, and training of all RAs and peer advisers.
- If your campus health clinic does not provide gynecological or other women’s health care, expand offerings and access to students by teaming up with a technology-based company focused on women’s health.
Clarify internal rules and guidelines. Colleges in states with civil enforcement of abortion bans face additional issues. Will some resident and peer advisers, hallmates, or roommates seek to earn $10,000 bounties by bringing civil lawsuits based upon classmates’ private and often excruciating reproductive decisions? In this environment, caution and suspicion could quickly undermine the relationships and trust that undergird a college community, undoubtedly feeding the anxiety and loneliness already at the heart of our campuses’ mental-health crisis.
Every community has rules for membership. While the law provides a floor, it does not always provide a ceiling. Colleges have their own rules that members must follow, and they typically are found in employee handbooks and student codes of conduct. General-counsel offices should explore amending handbooks and codes of conduct to insulate the type of late-night, peer-to-peer, confessional conversations that could be used as fodder in bounty-hunting civil lawsuits. Otherwise, the bonds so integral to our college living and learning communities could easily dissolve, replaced instead by tension and divisiveness.
Institutions are facing a new set of realities in the post-Roe era. How they navigate those realities will soon affect such vital decisions as where academics bring their talents, where students begin their higher-education journeys, and where donors invest their dollars.