The Skeletons in MSU’s Closet: Thought Reform at Michigan State

By December 12, 2008

As our readers know, FIRE is utterly outraged about Michigan State University’s decision to find student Kara Spencer guilty for e-mailing numerous professors about the school’s decision to shorten the school year. This decision has earned MSU an express pass to our Red Alert List, and our resources are engaged at full power to overturn this unjust decision. 

But as Azhar mentioned yesterday, this is not the first case we have seen at MSU. Indeed, one of the worst thought reform cases in FIRE history arose from the hallowed halls of MSU: the creepily named Student Accountability in Community program (SAC). The program was nothing less than an invasive brainwashing for students caught behaving "aggressively." (For example, one incident that earned a mandatory SAC experience was a girl who had slammed a door when she was in a fight with her boyfriend.)

I wrote about my discovery of the SAC program two years ago here on The Torch:

I’m not sure I would have believed it if I hadn’t actually been there. In 2002, I attended a session called "How to Increase Student Accountability in Your Campus Community" at the Association for Student Judicial Affairs (ASJA) meeting in Clearwater, Florida. The session was hosted by Michigan State administrators in an effort to promote the SAC program as a model for other universities to follow in dealing with their students. Before the session started, there was a graph on the white board. At the bottom of the graph they listed "practical jokes"; at the top of the graph they listed "assault" and "rape."

I thought to myself, "please don’t tell me they are going to say what I think they are going to say." What I was worried they were going to say was "we’ve noticed that people who engage in lower-level behaviors such as practical jokes are often the ones who eventually commit offenses like assault and rape, and we think that it is important to sentence these students to ‘accountability training’ as early as possible." Lo and behold, that was essentially exactly what they said…and it only went downhill from there.

The SAC program is essentially this: You are caught speaking or behaving in a way that may not be punishable in other ways but is deemed aggressive by a university administrator. You are made to sit down in a room with an administrator for four sessionswhich you have to pay for out of your own pocket!in order learn how to take greater "accountability" for what you have done. You first write down what you think you did wrongwhich, by the looks of it, is never the "correct" way to say it. You are then given the "Power and Control Wheel" and asked to list the ways you may have used "privilege," "obfuscation," or "honeymooning." (I’m serious. Check out the program materials yourself). You are then asked to fill out the forms again and again until you give the "correct" answer.

I urge you to examine the entire program; it is truly breathtaking in its contempt for students’ autonomy, dignity, speech, privacy, and conscience. When we discovered the program was still in operation in 2006, we immediately took the case public. Thankfully, it was dismantled early the following year.

The most recent MSU case has left me, however, with an important question: Is the defunct SAC program, coupled with this latest "spamming" outrage, a sign of the larger problem of an authoritarian (read: bully) culture at MSU? We would love to hear from students and faculty members at MSU about what they have to say about the climate on campus.

Schools: Michigan State University Cases: Michigan State University: Student Government Official Threatened with Suspension for E-mailing Faculty about University Scheduling Concerns