FIRE Response to Michael Gilbert, Vice President for Student Life, University of Delaware

By on November 1, 2007

FIRE is shocked and disappointed that the University of Delaware has chosen to defend its invasive and unconstitutional residence life education program. Rather than immediately renounce and dismantle what the university itself calls a “treatment” program for students living in its residence halls, the school has chosen instead to obfuscate, deny, and distort the program’s intention, its operation, and its effect.
Vice President for Student Life Michael Gilbert raises several erroneous and misleading points in response to FIRE’s October 29 letter that demand an immediate answer. Below is a list of assertions from Gilbert’s letter, followed by FIRE’s rebuttal of each claim.
1) “Your letter asserts a number of conclusions that can be supported by a selective citation of documents, but are not actualized.”
FIRE’s Response: FIRE unequivocally stands by its description of the University of Delaware’s “curriculum” for student housing residents. We invite the public to view the full curriculum of the residence life program—available in PDF format on our website—in its entirety, and to judge for themselves whether we have misrepresented any aspect of the nature of that program through selective quotation. In fact, as readers will see upon examination, the concerns that we have raised pervade every one of the hundreds of pages that constitute the University of Delaware’s residence life curriculum.
2) “Students are not required to participate in any residential activity, educational program, or to maintain the University provided nametag on their door.”
FIRE’s Response: This assertion is directly contradicted by direct quotations from the university’s own materials. As we have demonstrated, public and internal documents alike stress time and again that “every student” must be reached. As an RA wrote to students about one-on-one sessions, “Not to scare anyone or anything, but these are MANDATORY!!” Moreover, the philosophy of the program is defined explicitly as being distinct from that of the “voluntary” program model. Additionally, the entire residence hall environment is manipulated so that students cannot avoid persistent exposure to the university’s approved messages.
Additional examples abound. All quotes are from the 2007-2008 curricula for the individual residence complexes. At the Dickinson complex:
·         “All students are expected to be at community meetings. As this is the primary educational delivery strategy, follow up will be expected by the RA/HD for those residents who do not attend a community meeting.”
·         “Each room door in the complex will have a door decoration that has a representation of the interlocking circles of the triple bottom line.”
At the Christiana Towers complex:
·         “As a means to take action, students will become engaged in the Adopt-a-Rainforest project.”
At the Russell complex:
·         “In late October, students will take action by advocating for a social group that is oppressed…this sequence is capped with the second one on one between the RA and the student in which the student will recognize his/her negative stereotypes and learn how to challenge them.”
·         “In the second floor meeting in late March, students will take action by advocating for a sustainable world.”
3) “The program is designed to encourage students to think about and to consider a number of issues, but all make their own decisions about the outcome of this reflection.”
FIRE’s Response: This is a brazen misrepresentation of Delaware’s program. The university’s use of the word “encourage” is highly misleading given the lengths—far beyond “encouragement”—to which the university goes to ensure that all students in its residence halls participate in the educational program. For example, after an investigation revealed that—in the university’s own words—males demonstrated “a higher degree of resistance to educational efforts,” the Rodney complex chose to hire “strong male RAs.” Each such RA “combats male residents’ concepts of traditional male identity,” in order to “ensure the delivery of the curriculum at the same level as in the female floors.” (Emphases added.) Does that sound like mere “encouragement”?
Moreover, Gilbert’s assertion is belied by the philosophy underlying the residence life education program. On the Office of Residence Life’s website, for example, there is a section devoted to distinguishing the university’s chosen educational model—the “curricular approach”—from the more traditional “programming model.” One of the most striking differences is that only the programming model “relies on voluntary attendance.” The university’s chosen “curricular approach” is also “outcome based,” undermining the university’s claim that the program merely encourages students to reflect without pressing for a specific outcome.
Thus, the university measures the success of the program in part by the degree to which students have changed their attitudes, beliefs, values, and behaviors in response to the “treatment.” For example, in the Russell complex, the “baseline assessment” measured:
the level Russell freshm[e]n are at in terms of openness to different social identities, their acceptance of people with other social identities and their understanding of their role as responsible citizens. The baseline assessment was conducted as a “pre-test” that will 1) help guide this year[’]s curriculum efforts as well as the further improvement and development of the curriculum, and 2) it will serve as [a] starting point before students receive a “treatment”, LEAD curriculum, that results from the end of the year will be compared to.
Additionally, if Delaware students truly are merely encouraged to make their own decisions, then why are so many of the “competencies” framed in terms of the specific ideological viewpoints that students “will” have after completing the program? For example: “Students will recognize that systemic oppression exists in our society,” “Students will recognize the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression,” and “Students will be able to utilize their knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and consumer mentality.” Like myriad others, these examples—drawn entirely from the university’s own materials—can leave no doubt that University of Delaware students have been and continue to be pressured to adopt approved ideological stances by resident assistants in accordance with the curriculum’s demands. As Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, explains at length, student participation in the university’s curriculum was mandatory. Indeed, as the university’s materials make clear, the explicit aim of the curriculum is to “leave a mental footprint on [students’] consciousness.”
4) “The information about ‘best and worst’ RA/resident one-on-ones are certainly of concern, but taken out of context. This terminology has only been used by supervisors to ask Resident Assistants to reflect on their facilitation skills and never to describe students or the outcome of a conversation.
FIRE’s Response: This is a stunning misrepresentation of the actual practice of the project, as indicated by University of Delaware’s own documents. One RA reported, “This one-on-one was so bad that I had to write [an] IR”—an “incident report.” Surely this RA’s incident report was not about his or her own ability to facilitate the meeting.
Moreover, the RA reports indicate that students were explicitly evaluated on their viewpoints. As we stated in our letter to President Harker, one “worst” student was reported having said that she was tired of having “diversity shoved down her throat,” and she responded to the question “When did you discover your sexual identity?” by stating, “That is none of your damn business.” Another student identified as having an RA’s “worst” one-on-one stated that she did not understand why the university “force[s] all this diversity stuff” on its students. By contrast, in one “best” account, “We spoke at length about his religion and about how he was raised to ‘accept everyone.’ We also spoke at length about his views of sexual identity … he has been very impacted by how close[d]-minded his views were. He said, while he may never totally ‘get it,’ he at least can respect ‘alternative lifestyles.’”
5) “My main point of contention out of the multiple assertions is that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education seems to presume that our students are so empty-headed and ignorant that they would be ‘indoctrinated’ with ease. I believe you have underestimated the quality and caliber of our students.”
FIRE’s Response: Quite the opposite. In fact, FIRE is well aware that some students are successfully resisting indoctrination by the sheer number of them who have come forward to tell FIRE how invasive, offensive, and infantilizing they find the residence life education program. Our contention is that a public university has no right to attempt to indoctrinate its students, regardless of whether that indoctrination is ultimately successful. In facilitating such an egregiously unconstitutional program, the school is showing its utter contempt for its students. To argue otherwise is a dereliction of the University of Delaware’s moral and legal obligations as a public institution of higher learning.
Moreover, it is the height of irony that the university should accuse FIRE of envisioning its students as “empty-headed and ignorant,” since that is precisely the starting point presumed in the curricular materials of the residence life education program. The numerous students who have contacted FIRE have complained not only of the program’s coercion, but also of its infantilizing and condescending nature.
One student who contacted FIRE to express his dissatisfaction with the program spoke of the “multiple childish activities” in which he had to participate as a freshman in the residence life education program. Another student wrote of the program: “Why it was presumed that 18 and 19 year-old legal adults and college students needed guidance on acceptance and equality of their peers was beyond me… My main opposition to the program is that it assumes that college-age students cannot decide for themselves what is just and right about how treat other college-age students. It has as its fundamental implications that we already espouse certain prejudices of which we need to be cleansed and that we need to go through this process in order to become better functioning members of society.” Yet another student wrote: “I know that many people (including myself) would much rather be doing work for classes at night than playing confusing games and learning facts that we all went over in elementary school.” (Emphases added).
The documents and the student accounts tell the true story of the residence life education program. Again, we invite everyone to view the full documentation of the program—including the detailed curriculum for each of the university’s eight residential complexes, complete with the philosophy, activities, and assessment of the curricula—and judge for themselves the true nature and purposes of that program. The program is an unlawful and immoral intrusion into students’ right of private conscience, and FIRE will continue to use all of its resources to ensure that the University of Delaware ends this egregious violation of its students’ rights.

Schools: University of Delaware