Partial Victory for Freedom of Conscience

By on May 13, 2008

The University of Delaware Faculty Senate has passed along to the Board of Trustees a proposal for educational programming in the residence halls. The proposal, revised numerous times, now states explicitly that almost all programming (save the first building and floor meetings) will be optional, and Vice President Michael Gilbert promised the Faculty Senate that there would be strict oversight of the program by faculty and senior administrators. Gilbert also promised that all educational elements of the program, particularly “personal development” and “content” activities, would be neither designed nor administered by resident assistants (RAs); such activities would be run only by full-time professional staff and faculty.

The Faculty Senate also insisted that the program’s efforts to teach “sustainability” be limited to “environmental sustainability,” which is strangely inconsistent with the proposal’s “learning outcomes” and many of the proposed activities. Moreover, language was added to suggest that only “issues of environmental sustainability that are relevant to residence hall living” will be the environmental sustainability topics, but again the proposed activities go far beyond that suggestion. Given these inconsistencies, it seems that the Faculty Senate was primarily sending a message to Residence Life that it is ok to discuss topics such as justice in the residence halls (which is true from a rights standpoint), but not ok to do so with a preconceived agenda regarding what students are supposed to believe after the discussion (which smacks of indoctrination). As others have stated and as I have stated before, it seems crazy to trust ResLife to get the message after what happened last year, but apparently the faculty is amazingly forgiving.

A number of faculty explicitly noted that the director of the Office of Residence Life, Kathleen Kerr, does not actually believe in the mission of the program because to her, it is a “myth” that sustainability education is mostly about the environment. Time will tell if she will be able to bracket her personal beliefs in order to carry out the mission of the program as amended by the Faculty Senate. Last year’s program showed a rather miserable failure in the area of respect for student conscience, and the wording of the proposal leaves ambiguous what the Office of Residence Life might be allowed to do.

Kerr, remarkably, was absent from the meeting. She has not given a single public word on campus regarding the program she was forced to abandon last fall.

The upshot of the attention to Kerr’s view of sustainability and the feeling that it was a “code word” for her political agenda was that the faculty debated an amendment to change the words “environmental sustainability” to “conservation.” The intention was to send an even stronger message about how the program should avoid ideological indoctrination. The amendment failed after one professor suggested that there are some aspects of environmental sustainability that are not captured by the term “conservation,” but my sense of the debate was that in principle, this was a message the faculty wanted to send.

The so-called debate itself was disappointing, though it was much more orderly than the students were at FIRE President Greg Lukianoff’s lecture last fall. Most speakers in favor of the proposal simply said that the university should be teaching about diversity and that therefore the proposal-whatever the details, apparently-should be approved. Very few speakers provided any evidence, or even assertions, that they had actually read the proposal (it runs about 50 pages).

The debate also was disappointing because of the unprofessional behavior of the presiding chair and Senate President, Professor Alan Fox. He debated from the floor, nodded in approval of the speakers he agreed with, and interrupted or challenged many of the speakers with whom he disagreed, students and professors alike. Fox interrupted so loudly that in many cases, the speaker simply stopped talking. He challenged one student to provide evidence and suggested that another was being uncivil. At one point, he cut off a professor who was speaking, on the ground that the issue had already been discussed, even though that issue had not previously been discussed. The professor was asking how to distinguish the one-third educational programming from the two-thirds traditional programming when they were so closely integrated in the planhow could students tell the difference in order to figure out how to opt out from the education part without missing the traditional part? She was halfway through the question when Fox cut her off.

If this is also the way ResLife treats studentswith approval when they agree with ResLife’s agenda and with disdain and challenges when they do notResLife will continue to pressure students into conforming. Although Fox protested numerous times that he was not cutting off student debate, he did the students a disservice by teaching them that those in power get to manipulate the debate by interrupting and debating from the podium. I think it is a sign of the state of affairs at UD that one professor who voted against the proposal actually apologized to Gilbert afterward.

Fox also opened the meeting with a lecture and his own problematic idea of the ground rules of the debate. He stated that discussion about people’s motives would be ruled out of order, as though the proposal would merely get a strict interpretation by ResLife and that the intentions of those who put together the proposal were irrelevant. That was not a decision that Fox should have made for the whole body. In addition, he argued that “hostility has no place in a rational debate,” as though those who were strongly against the plan would have to keep their comments in check or else be ruled out of order.

Fox also declared that each speaker would have only two minutes per speech each time they exercised their right to speak (twice only, following Robert’s Rules; he limited student speakers to once each). I understand the feeling that, as he said, “we can’t do this all night,” and after 88 minutes of debate most of the faculty apparently felt the same waybut I find it a bit strange that the faculty apparently had so little patience for such an important debate. Fox himself said that “we can’t go through all the changes,” as though the faculty need not trouble themselves with the details. (Again, the speakers rarely mentioned the details.)

One professor argued that the faculty was handing over to ResLife the faculty’s traditional powers of education. ResLife was going to be entrusted to run the largest educational program on campus without anything like the mandated educational review by faculty bodies that all academic units must follow. ResLife should be facilitating an educational program determined by the faculty, not vice versabut here, ResLife will just “bring in faculty for consultation.” Most of the faculty shrugged off the concern.

Of the few dozen students who showed up on both sides of the issue, about ten spoke. Both sides distributed literature and had signs.

The chair of the Student Life Committee, Matt Robinson, took responsibility for the short amount of time that the Senate had to consider the proposal before debating it. One can only wonder how much time the Trustees will have to consider it next and what they will be told about what the program is really about.

Some other highlights:

One professor argued that social justice and diversity are already present in the faculty handbook and the strategic plan for the university, so why not include them in ResLife programming? He noted that the problem was not the content of the programming but, as RAs and other students told him, how the issues were dealt with. He argued that with proper training of staff, the program could be all right. Another professor argued that the school has a duty to produce graduates who “embrace and celebrate diversity” because doing so would prepare students for a diverse workplace; he invoked the metaphor of a shrinking world. A couple others said that the faculty should teach environmental sustainability because the president says so (he recently signed up the university for two sustainability commitments).

Incoming Faculty Senate chair Amy Johnson used her two speaking opportunities to yield her time to two students who were strongly in favor of the proposal. There was no reason to do so in that the students would have their own chance to speak. I saw this and a few choices by others as evidence that senior administrators had politicked strongly to ensure that as many faculty as possible would fall in line.

Several professors noted that there is still no real definition of environmental sustainability in the document, which should not be taken to mean that the word can be filled in with whatever agenda ResLife chooses. We shall see.

Another faculty member stated that the faculty should be the ones to teach formal concepts. Another wondered why the university needs administrative staff to facilitate educational programs. Many students emphasized the role of student organizations in facilitating discussions of the proposed topics, with some saying that ResLife’s proposal was an unnecessary duplication of efforts and others saying that it would be a supplement to students’ efforts.

A former RA complained that he was not brought back as an RA the following year because he had failed to meet requirements such as minimum attendance of students. He emphasized that RA performance should not be measured by student participation, in order to reduce pressure on residents to participate. Gilbert replied that no such review of RA performance would be permitted.

My concluding two cents: it is a shame that ResLife erred so badly that the only way to handle the program is now to keep the office on a short leash. ResLife has provided no evidence that it can be trusted, and with so much programming that looks like last year’s programming, I can understand why many students and faculty remain unconvinced. We should not forget that when pressed last year, ResLife said all the programming was optional even after it told students the programming was mandatory.

Stay tuned for results of the Board of Trustees meeting.

Schools: University of Delaware