Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend: Thought Reform Makes Another Appearance

By on October 30, 2007

Showing stunning disregard for their students’ rights, the University of Delaware has been operating a mandatory “residence life education program” in its residence halls. The program, brazenly referred to by university administrators as a “treatment” designed to alter students’ interior beliefs as well as their outward conduct, requires all students living in the residence halls to adopt specific university-approved viewpoints on various issues, ranging from politics and sociology to moral philosophy and even science. Firsthand materials from the program are available here, and student reactions are available here.
As detailed in FIRE’s press release and in Adam’s post, the program is shockingly comprehensive in its approach; it includes required floor meetings, training sessions, one-on-one meetings with Resident Assistants (who in turn receive their own “diversity facilitation training”), and much more. Students are then expected to learn and articulate certain “competencies” in order to “become fully functional and effective citizens towards a sustainable society.” Given that all first-year students, except those who live nearby with their families, are required to live in residence halls, the program is a total invasion of students’ expectations of privacy and autonomy, and it represents one of the boldest attempts to indoctrinate and brainwash ever seen on a college campus. Perhaps only George Orwell could have come up with something this outrageous. Unfortunately, however, this is not the first time FIRE has seen a university administration try this sort of thing, in one form or another. It’s just worse than every example we can remember.
At Michigan State University, for instance, students were subjected to the Student Accountability in Community (SAC) seminar, a pseudo-psychological “early intervention” for students who used “power-and-control tactics,” such as “male/white privilege” and “obfuscation,” which in the eyes of the university constituted “any action of obscuring, concealing, or changing people’s perceptions that result in your advantage and/or another’s disadvantage.” Amazingly, students could be required to attend SAC merely for, among other things, playing a practical joke or engaging in constitutionally protected speech. Not only were students required to participate in SAC sessions, at their own expense, or else risk being unable to register for classes, they also were forced to answer a series of questionnaires to describe how they were taking “full responsibility” for their actions, until they used language the session director deemed acceptable. Under pressure from FIRE, the university finally put an end to its controversial program in May 2007.
In another memorable recent case, FIRE exposed the fact that Columbia University’s Teachers College utilizes an ideological litmus test for its students, requiring them to demonstrate a “commitment to social justice” and to recognize that “social inequalities are often produced and perpetuated through systematic discrimination and justified by societal ideology of merit, social mobility, and individual responsibility.” Teachers College has to this point failed to heed FIRE’s suggestion that those “dispositions” be dropped altogether as a requirement for students. Columbia’s attempt at thought reform has been covered everywhere from The New York Times to, in an article written by Greg Lukianoff, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and its ultimate resolution will certainly be tracked closely by FIRE.
Other cases abound. At Washington State University, a student was threatened with dismissal from the College of Education in 2005 for espousing “incorrect” political beliefs, such as the idea that white privilege and male privilege do not exist. The university, by contrast, required its education students to demonstrate “an understanding of the complexities of race, power, gender, class, sexual orientation and privilege in American society.” The student was therefore subjected to diversity training and ordered to sign an agreement to follow all program “dispositions” to his professors’ approval. Only when FIRE intervened did this chilling episode of compelled speech reach a satisfactory conclusion, as the university agreed to rescind the contract and subsequently agreed to refrain from forcing students in the future to abide by the same program “dispositions.”
Likewise, in 2005, Rhode Island College’s School of Social Work attempted to force a conservative student to publicly advocate for “progressive” social changes if he wished to continue his pursuit of a master’s degree in social work policy. In response to the student’s inquiry about a possible liberal ideological bias in a particular class, his professor admitted to holding certain biases, suggested that anyone who held views antithetical to his own might not be fit for a career in social work, and even told the student that if he found himself disagreeing with the school’s political philosophy, he should consider leaving or finding another line of work. Not only did the student receive a failing grade for a paper in which he advocated the “wrong” viewpoint, he was told that he could no longer pursue a master’s degree after he chose an internship of his liking rather than one that met the school’s ideal of advancing “progressive” policies. It is almost inconceivable that a school would intrude to such a great extent into one’s personal beliefs and ability to pursue the career of one’s choosing.
Finally, in 2003, a professor at Citrus College in California gave her students an assignment to write letters to President Bush, but only gave credit if they expressed opposition to the war in Iraq (no credit would be given for letters expressing any other views, including support for the war). As if one instance of compelled speech were not enough, the same professor required her students to again write letters with a specific viewpoint, this time to a state senator. To their credit, the college’s administration recognized the problem after being contacted by FIRE, moving quickly to remedy the situation. Specifically, they sanctioned the professor, apologized to the students, assured them that their grades would not be affected by the assignments, and vowed that such a scenario would never arise again on their campus. If only every college administration were that responsive and prudent!
The examples discussed above provide but a glimpse into the prevalence of thought reform and compelled speech at colleges and universities across the nation. However, it bears repeating that none of them compare in scope and insidiousness to what is happening right now at the University of Delaware. The extent to which Delaware’s program attempts to intrude into students’ lives and personal beliefs is beyond staggering. Rest assured, FIRE will remain vigilant in its efforts to eradicate the program completely.

Schools: University of Delaware