Black Hawk frowns

Move over, 'helicopter parents': a new model is strafing the US sector and is on its way here. Peter Gumbel offers an early warning

June 23, 2011

The American student was in Paris on an exchange programme and his parents, who hadn't heard from him for a while, were worried. Very worried. They badgered his home university, demanding information. Then they contacted us at Sciences Po. A flood of emails followed, increasingly hysterical in tone. Where was their son? How was he doing? Was he taking his medication? Could we make sure he was wearing those special insoles?

The student was fine, but the incident gave us a taste of what has rapidly become one of the biggest challenges confronting US universities: how to deal with a generation of parents that is increasingly demanding and interventionist. It is an issue that has become too fraught for British and European universities to ignore, as they have done for so long.

In the US, mothers and fathers have made their presence increasingly felt on campus, earning themselves the well-worn nickname "helicopter parents" in the process. But these days, their feelings of anxiety, the frequency of their contact, the volume of their complaints and the capricious nature of their demands have reached such a fevered level that the label has changed: they have become "Black Hawk parents". Rather than just hovering at a distance to survey the scene, as they did just a few years ago, today they swoop down, fully armed and ready to strike at the first sign of anything untoward.

The intervention can take place when their little darlings are on campus, but it is becoming especially common when students have packed up to go abroad to some unfamiliar location where - shock! - not everything is the way it is back home.

Everyone, it seems, has stories. The president of a prestigious East Coast university recounts the calls she received from one student's parents who were appalled by the supposedly dirty sink in their daughter's dorm room, and wanted to know what she was going to do about it. At the recent fair in Vancouver organised by Nafsa: Association of International Educators, staff from the "study abroad" office of another top-ranked university recounted how one mother insisted on accompanying her son to Madrid, where he was studying for a semester, and threw a fit when she was told that parents weren't supposed to attend the orientation sessions for new students.

Increasingly strident parental demands put universities everywhere, not just in the US, in a bind. They reflect a significant change in attitude that is partly generational, but also in part related to bigger trends in higher education. The first is the growing cost. In the UK, the forthcoming White Paper is expected to stress how the rise in fees will empower students. In fact, in the US, parents writing ever-larger cheques to cover tuition and other fees are the ones being empowered - and they are starting to expect five-star service as part of the deal.

The second factor is the emphasis many universities now place on students having an international experience as part of their studies. For all its mind-opening benefits, studying abroad inevitably involves some element of risk, as the dramatic events in the Middle East and Japan this year have vividly demonstrated.

The dilemma for universities is that students are legally adults with legitimate rights to privacy - and after all, they are the ones being educated. Staff at a California college recount how one of their students who was in New Zealand during the recent earthquake had specified before leaving that she didn't want the university to notify her parents in case of emergency. She was fine during the quake but the institution couldn't tell that to her parents, who hadn't themselves heard from their daughter and were growing frantic.

Most British and European universities are far behind their US counterparts in devising strategies to respond to insistent parents. Some American universities have set up committees on which parents can air their concerns. Others have "parent outreach" schemes, including full-time staff monitoring parent hotlines.

The hard part is drawing the line between what is appropriate for parents to know and what isn't. At the University of California, Berkeley, it is spelled out on its website in a special parents' section. "I pay all my son's fees, but when I call the registrar asking for his grades, they won't let me see them. How can I get copies?" reads a sample question. The answer: "You can't. Berkeley considers its students to be adults ..." That's almost European in its dismissive tone - but it's an open question how much longer those "Black Hawk" parents will be prepared to accept such arguments.

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