The practice of universities acting in loco parentis - protecting students in place of parents - was long ago dismissed as inappropriate. So it was surprising to see the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, Duke and a handful of other schools suspend their study-abroad programs in Israel in recent weeks, purportedly due to concerns about student safety.
In a Jan. 15 travel advisory, the State Department urged Americans "to remain mindful of security factors when planning travel to Israel and the West Bank." But American academic programs in Israel had continued even as some 8,000 missiles from Gaza were falling on Israel.
After the latest fighting, which was limited almost entirely to Gaza and southern Israel, there is another cease-fire. Militant rocket attacks on southern Israel have been sharply reduced. If anything, it would appear to be safer in Israel today than just a month ago, when students were making their plans to study there.
This level of caution seems at odds with modern university policies on a number of other fronts.
In the 1960s, universities commonly imposed curfews on undergraduate women and prohibited men from visiting their rooms. But despite an unacceptably high incidence of "date rape" and other assaults against women on college campuses, nobody seriously suggests that colleges should again infringe on female students' independence.
Recent studies have shown increases in alcohol-related deaths and injuries in the college population. But none of the schools that have halted programs in Israel has banned alcohol on campus.
Penn, Duke and Rutgers alumni were well-represented among the 3,000 people killed by terrorists at the World Trade Center in 2001. Still, the universities' business schools did not subsequently prevent graduates from heading to Wall Street.
More than 300 people were murdered in Philadelphia last year. But Penn has not moved its campus to a safer environment - although it does boast on its Web site of "the largest private police force in the state and the fourth-largest in the nation." Indeed, in recent years, partly due to decades of student activism, urban universities such as Penn have taken pride in their involvement in surrounding communities.
And yet these schools went well beyond State Department advice in their caution about Israel. In many cases, they did so abruptly and belatedly, maximizing the difficulty for students looking to make other arrangements. Students and their families were not offered the opportunity to waive the institutions' liability instead.
There are those who would like life in Israel's capital to be more dangerous than it is in West Philadelphia. But thanks to Israel's defensive barrier and other measures - including a government devoted to protecting civilians, rather than hiding behind them or otherwise placing them in danger - that is not the case.
Having had three children spend semesters abroad (none, as it happened, in Israel), I can attest to the beneficial effect that exposure to other cultures had on their personal development and sense of independence. Good parents and colleges give students as much information as possible while realizing that they must be allowed to make their own decisions - unless they are illegal or the danger is extreme.
This is arguably a case of unintended discrimination - as it's called in the realms of employment and civil rights - in which regulations produce a discriminatory result even if they weren't meant to. And singling out Israel and students wanting to study there is in effect "collective punishment," despite administrators' legitimate concerns about safety.
Furthermore, there are those who have even advocated boycotts of Israeli academicians, which is anathema to the free exchange of ideas that institutions of higher learning are supposed to foster.
By prohibiting students from study at Israeli universities, well-intentioned administrators have handed the terrorists a victory they could not win on the battlefield. They also are denying their own students unique opportunities to learn firsthand about another democracy struggling to balance peace with security - an existential problem for any society.
In effect, albeit unintentionally, they are participating in an "academic boycott" of Israel. For these universities training tomorrow's leaders, prohibiting study in Israel is an unjustified and perilous mistake.
E-mail John Cohn at firstname.lastname@example.org.