Unsustainable? No, Wilson Is Wrong

[Read John K. Wilson’s defense of Delaware ResLife here]

The University of Delaware Office of Residence Life has tricked another outsider, John K. Wilson, into believing that its proposal to run a highly politicized indoctrination program for over 7,000 students in the school’s residence halls is actually just a free exploration of diverse views in a spirit of open debate. Anyone who knows the facts on the ground knows that this is not so.
For Wilson, “The only relevant question is whether the ResLife program violates the rights of students by compelling them to participate or censoring their views. There is not even a shred of evidence that this is the case.” Not only is this dead wrong (there is plenty of evidence that students were compelled to participate and even had reports filed against them when they did not “correctly” participate), Wilson fundamentally misrepresents the proposal, last year’s program, and the critics. The problem for his argument is that the evidence for indoctrination and mandatory participation is everywhere.

The ResLife directors are the same people who did everything they could to make students aware it was mandatory, while claiming to their superiors it was not. RAs were instructed to tell students that the programming was mandatory. RAs wrote, for instance, about floor meetings, “Not to scare anyone or anything, but these are MANDATORY!” Last year’s 500 pages of documentation contain many strong assertions that every student “must” be reached with ResLife’s agenda. ResLife advertised an “every-student” model as opposed to the traditional model of residence hall programming. Can ResLife now be trusted with highly politicized educational programming in the very place where students live, socialize, do work, and sleep?

ResLife directors are also the same people who thought it was all right to ask students, in surveys, whether they were willing to be close friends with or date people of various races, genders, sexual orientations, and ethnicities. They are the same people who thought it was necessary for “strong male RAs” to break the “resistance” of males with “traditional” views. They are the same people who called the educational curriculum a “treatment” – as if their students suffered from some moral sickness which only ResLife could cure. They are the same people who thought it was all right to coerce students to reveal their political beliefs and then shame students with “incorrect” views in front of their peers. They are the same people who thought they should coerce students to act out the worst possible stereotypes they could think of in a bizarre attempt to force students to show their own alleged bigotry. I have no doubt that some of last year’s activities are in store for students again this year – and I suspect, once again, ResLife will be finding ways to make students believe it all is mandatory while telling outsiders and their superiors it isn’t.

To the extent that encouraging the Faculty Senate to reject the proposal is an issue of academic freedom, it is about the Faculty Senate’s academic freedom to oversee educational programming at the university, just as it does with a wide variety of academic programs, with as much knowledge as possible about the programs it condones.

Nobody (except ResLife itself) is trying to ban any ideas from the residence halls. What the proposal’s critics object to are ResLife’s unrelenting efforts to violate the academic freedom and freedom of conscience of University of Delaware students by trying to make them into “allies,” persons who fit ResLife’s specific, politicized views and hold ResLife’s specific, politicized agenda. FIRE would object to the method of indoctrination regardless of whether the politicization of the program came from the left, the right, or elsewhere. FIRE is simply not a right-wing or even a right-leaning organization, and the evidence proves it. We can say with great confidence that FIRE has fought more cases defending the rights of liberal professors than any other organization over the last ten years.

Outsiders who have come late to the University of Delaware debate, which began last fall, must do their homework to put the proposal in its proper context on campus. ResLife has taken great pains to hide its indoctrination even from the faculty, as it reportedly has admitted. The result is a document that requires some intelligent deconstructing. I have engaged in this analysis in several posts on the website of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, where I serve as director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program.

A careful reader of the proposal will see problems that lead the reader out of the proposal and into its context on campus. For instance, the “program goals” advertised in the proposal are elsewhere called “learning outcomes.” Does ResLife intend to run an educational program or not? If it is to be educational, why would the faculty simply give the program a pass in the name of academic freedom? Why hide the “learning outcomes” with vague language if the program is supposed to be transparent enough for the Faculty Senate to know what it is debating?

Some of the vague language involves what ResLife has called “citizenship values” or “citizenship responsibilities.” Indeed, when ResLife refers to learning outcomes, it turns out that these are politicized outcomes. ResLife already knows what good citizens think, believe, feel, and do. The entire program begins with outcomes that have been presumed by ResLife. These are not method-oriented outcomes like being able to write a research paper; they are content-oriented outcomes. When ResLife offers to help students “explore” their thoughts, values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, ResLife does so with a very clear idea of the expected results of those so-called explorations. This is not an exploration in the marketplace of ideas worthy of a liberal education; it is compelled speech, dogma, and indoctrination.

How can a reader know this? The context makes it perfectly clear. ResLife directors Kathleen Kerr and James Tweedy, who are the same people who envisioned and ran last year’s discredited program, have shown their hand in published papers, at conferences, in their instructions to lower-level ResLife officials, in conversations with others on campus, and everywhere in the 500 pages of documentation on last year’s “curriculum.” A reader does not have access to the conversations, but the documentation is all available on FIRE’s website, and people can judge for themselves.

ResLife and its defenders pretty much conceded that the program is unacceptably politicized when they tried to fix up the proposal by inserting the word “environmental” every time the word “sustainability” appears. This is not simply a clarification. Instead, it is an admission of guilt, an acknowledgment that ResLife had been trying to sneak through a political and social agenda without the faculty noticing. But changing the words on paper doesn’t change the fact that the activities still promote ResLife’s agenda, not just once or twice but practically all the time, all year. The career counseling events are geared to promote “sustainability” careers rather than the full diversity of student interests in a variety of careers. Parties are to include signs on the party materials that identify the economic and environmental impact of the items – what a fun party! The entire program is still all about the “citizenship” (don’t be fooled – read “sustainability” here) learning outcomes, and it still aims to reform students’ thoughts, beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviors in ways that students cannot reasonably opt out of.

And changing the words on paper doesn’t change the fact that the same ResLife directors are to be in charge. Again, outside observers need to do only a small amount of homework to read last year’s curriculum documents. As suggested above, these are the same people who, for instance, thought necessary to have RAs (students themselves) ask students about their sexual awakening and their citizenship values in private one-on-one sessions. The RA sessions are now called “RA conversations,” and ResLife is still in charge. Will RAs again be asked to identify (by name and room number) their “best” and “worst” students? Under last year’s program, an RA even wrote up a student for peacefully resisting the indoctrination. How will the faculty be able to monitor the education being delivered in these private sessions by people who hold positions of power over student residents? The RAs have power to punish and power to teach, but they have nothing like the training and education of the regular faculty.

Freshmen will not have adequate understanding of the programming they are expected to be allowed opt out of. RAs work for ResLife and have every incentive to pressure students to attend events. RAs have power to punish. In addition, I have argued on FIRE’s website that freshmen feel tremendous social pressure to attend events with their new friends in the residence halls. University of Delaware freshmen will be put in the position where they must make a choice between attending the politicized pizza party or hiding out in their rooms, alone. Given ResLife’s history, staff, and stated goals, the idea that students will be able to opt out cannot be taken seriously.

As we saw when we visited the University of Delaware, ResLife eroded trust and inspired resentment between students and ResLife, besides badly violating the rights of students. That was what ResLife did last year, and almost certainly will do so again through a program like the current proposed one.

The Faculty Senate has had only three days, including the weekend, to consider the proposed revised draft. The Faculty Senate should reject the proposal or at least send it back to committee to give everyone a chance to get it right. The University of Delaware students deserve no less.

Adam Kissel

Adam Kissel is an independent scholar living in Arlington, Virginia.

3 thoughts on “Unsustainable? No, Wilson Is Wrong

  1. Classical Liberals tend not to be keen on Gramscian Marxist indoctrination programs, even when they’re voluntary!

  2. My reply to Kissel’s response:
    Adam Kissel writes a response to my Minding the Campus piece on the University of Delaware controversy. It’s notable that virtually every criticism Kissel makes is about last year’s program and its implementation. By all appearances, the minor errors Delaware made with RAs being too aggressive in encouraging students are completely fixed. The proposal explicit says that these programs are voluntary, and students will be informed of this (which makes it far better than most colleges).
    According to Kissel, the current proposal is “a document that requires some intelligent deconstructing.” That’s intellectual-speak for “making things up.” Since there’s nothing actually wrong with the proposal in free speech terms, Kissel is left to wild speculations about hurt feelings: “University of Delaware freshmen will be put in the position where they must make a choice between attending the politicized pizza party or hiding out in their rooms, alone. Given ResLife’s history, staff, and stated goals, the idea that students will be able to opt out cannot be taken seriously.”
    Really? Does anyone seriously think that students will become social lepers if they skip a stupid pizza party? Does anyone seriously think that students must “hide” in their rooms at a research university if they don’t like the views expressed at a pizza party? Does anyone actually have a legal right to depoliticized free pizza? Exactly when did FIRE decide to act In Loco Parentis to protect the hypothetical “feelings” of students who disagree with ResLife?
    Kissel even objects that “the ‘program goals’ advertised in the proposal are elsewhere called ‘learning outcomes.'” I don’t care if they called them “fried parakeet.” They’re still perfectly legitimate educational programs and must be met with counterspeech, not banishment. And Kissel still refuses to explain how banning a voluntary program is compatible with any notion of free expression.

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