Orwellian dystopia at Michigan State

December 18, 2006

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
  • Justice Robert H. Jackson, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)
The adage that universities are integral to our national health has been said so many times in so many venues it hardly needs repeating. Our young people file through the doors of the university and emerge citizens of our nation and productive components of our economy; at least that’s what we collectively hope for, the reality is quite different. But the hope is that healthy universities that teach a liberal education, properly understood, will be safe havens of healthy discussion and free inquiry. Some universities do act as a true marketplace of ideas, sporting prominent scholars and intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum. Students’ deepest assumptions are challenged and in turn they are welcomed to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. Then there are institutions like Michigan State University which have actual reeducation programs for dissenting students. No, I’m not joking.
Michigan State has a Student Accountability in Community (SAC) seminar described as “an early intervention for abusive students.” The program targets individuals who use “power-and-control tactics” defined among other things as “male/white privilege, using others, (and) obfuscation.” The goal is to make the student identify how they use their “privilege” to coerce or harm other students and confess their faith in the prevailing orthodoxy. No I’m not joking.
This begs the obvious questions: how early of an intervention; what type of intervention; what is considered “abusive;” and what is obfuscation? The definitions are broader than you might think.
Students who are identified as “having an anger problem,” caught “making sexist, homophobic, or racist remarks,” “humiliating a boyfriend or girlfriend,” or “bullying roommates or suitemates” can be forced by Michigan State, a state institution bound by the bill of rights, to attend a SAC session. According to a 2002 lecture hosted by the originators of the SAC program one girl was sent to such a session because she slammed a door during a fight with her boyfriend; if you examine the materials, it’s clear that even a practical jokester could be considered fair game for a mandatory SAC seminar. The university considers practical jokes and outbursts of anger, such as slamming a door, on a sliding scale with violent crimes such as rape; they are considered a prelude to such brutal behavior. No, I’m not joking.
At such a session the accused student is asked to write down what he believes to have done wrong. Then the state employee running the session corrects the student and makes him rewrite what he thinks he did wrong until he writes a confession specific and humiliating enough to be acceptable to said government employee. No, I’m not joking.
The student must then fill out a worksheet describing what “power and control” tactics the student used to exert influence over other students. Such tactics include “privilege” and “racial violence.” An example of racial violence given in the SAC materials is toilet papering someone else’s door, apparently if they’re of a different race. No, I’m not joking.
A heavy emphasis is put on refusing to allow the student to “obfuscate” the issue. Obfuscation is defined as a student who “lies or denies what they did.” In other words, there will be no pleading innocent. Such examples of obfuscation are claiming the behavior or action was “just a joke” or otherwise denying that one intentionally committed the action out of spite or out of one’s own sense of superiority. The students are forced to incriminate themselves and the document of self incrimination can then be given to the student judiciary committee and used as evidence against the student. No, I’m not joking.
Given Michigan State’s definition of obfuscation, religion could be an obfuscation tactic. For instance, a religious conservative’s view on sexual mores would be categorically “sexist” and “homophobic” and any student who expressed publicly that he held such views would be ordered to participate in a SAC seminar. No, I’m not joking.
After the student has adequately debased himself and confessed to whatever actions the state employees deemed unconscionable, the student must fill out a worksheet describing alternative behavior that he should have done. The student must identify alternative tactics such as “respect,” “negotiation and fairness,” and “trust and support.” Again, the student must be specific in how he should have acted, if he isn’t, he will be forced to start the worksheet over until he gets it right. No, I’m not joking.
If a student is ordered by the government to attend a SAC seminar and the student says, “Damn the man, I’m an American, I don’t have to put with this,” the university, a state institution, puts a hold on the student’s account, barring him from registering for classes and effectively expelling him from school until he submits himself to the government’s demands to confess. No, I’m not joking.
This policy may sound eerily familiar to many of you. That’s probably because many of you read George Orwell’s classic, 1984, in high school. Michigan State’s SAC program is similar enough to Big Brother’s tactics that one could almost be convinced that the administrators at Michigan State thought Orwell’s masterpiece was a how-to book on creating a tolerant utopia rather than a work of fiction describing a dystopian nightmare. Then again, there isn’t much difference between the two; an administrator’s utopia is often a student’s hell.
Michigan State’s SAC program is being challenged by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Such blatant disregard for constitutional and moral rights that govern our country will not fare well in the courts of public opinion or the court of law. Michigan has said it will consider reviewing the policies, but from a constitutional perspective, there really isn’t much to salvage and unless they scrap the program altogether, they will be in violation of the basic tenets of a free and decent society.
All documents pertaining to Michigan State’s SAC policy can be found here and here.
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Schools: Michigan State University Cases: Michigan State University: Program of Thought Reform