New Victory for Freedom of Conscience at University of Delaware

By on May 20, 2008

The University of Delaware Board of Trustees confronted Vice President for Student Life Michael Gilbert over the proposed Residence Life educational program for 20082009 before passing the proposal. According to accounts from three people who observed the meeting of the Board of Trustees, the tone of the meeting changed markedly when the Trustees turned to the proposal.

One Trustee asked whether the proposed ResLife educational program is similar to those at other schools, and Gilbert responded that it is a “traditional” residential program. The evidence shows that this is blatantly falsefor instance, the proposal itself explicitly states that the educational part goes beyond a traditional program. (More on this tomorrow.) But if the proposal actually were changed to make the program “traditional” (this would require a lot more editing and cutting), it would be a full defeat for ResLife’s ideal “curriculum” model of residential education from 2007. If Gilbert were really intending to remove the “learning outcomes” and the associated activities, his statement would represent a strong victory for freedom of conscience at the University of Delaware. The problem is that the evidence doesn’t bear this out.

Gilbert also reportedly suggested once again that even the “environmental sustainability” piece of the ResLife educational program was to be limited to issues of environmental sustainability as they are relevant to living in the residence halls (things like recycling). But again, the proposal itself in plain language goes far beyond that range of topics in environmental sustainability (more on this tomorrow, too). There is not necessarily anything wrong with the larger set of environmental topics being sincerely discussed without coercion of any kind, but to me the sleight of hand is one more sign that somebody has tried very hard to misrepresent the program to the Trustees.

Another Trustee question regarded who would be responsible for the implementation of the ResLife program. Gilbert responded that he would be the one responsible. That’s a pretty bold and risky move, I would say. There are to be new or altered staff positions to keep a close eye on ResLife, but Gilbert is willing to take final responsibility. His response suggests that Gilbert is willing to put his reputation, probably even his job, on the line in the hope that he will be able to keep ResLife officials from any further abuses of students’ rights. As we wrote to the Trustees, however, these are the same people who thought all manner of abuses were not only acceptable but good practice:

  • These are the same people who pressed to make students aware the program 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!” Again, the 500 pages of documentation on last year’s program contain many strong assertions that every student “must” be reached with Residence Life’s agenda (see the documents at http://www.thefire.org/index.php/article/8575.html).
  • These also are the same people who thought it was 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 the Office of Residence Life could cure.
  •  They are the same people who thought it was valuable 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 it was important to ask students to reveal the origins of their sexual awakenings in private one-on-one sessions with RAs.
  • They are the same people who thought it was good practice to encourage RAs to record the names and room numbers of students with whom they had the “best” and “worst” one-on-one sessions.
  • 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.
  • They are the same people who repeatedly rebuffed all serious concerns brought to their attention-from parents, students, faculty, and others-about their “curriculum.”

All of this is to say that the advertised protections of students’ rights by Gilbert are not only put in question by the program on its face and by inconsistencies between the promises and the plan, but also that Gilbert himself ought to have no trust in ResLife officials to carry out his promises.

Some joked at the May 12 Faculty Senate meeting that the ResLife program is going to be the most closely monitored one in the country. You bet. Stay tuned for more tomorrow.

Schools: University of Delaware