Thought Reform and Ideological Screening on Campus in 2009

By December 31, 2009

Liberty cannot exist in a society where people are forced to conform their thoughts and expression to official viewpoints. Differences of opinion are natural in a vibrant, free society, yet at too many of our nation’s colleges and universities, students and professors are expected to share a single viewpoint under the banner of "community values" or "sustainability" or "cultural competence" or "social justice" or "diversity" or "multiculturalism." The year 2009 was not a good year for freedom of conscience, but fortunately FIRE won case after case. 

As Greg noted earlier today, the notorious thought reform program in the University of Delaware’s residence halls, dating back to 2007, has remained fresh in many minds. (What? You don’t know about it yet? Watch this video or read this article.)

The coercive elements of the Delaware program pressed students to reveal their sexual identity and political beliefs and to change their thoughts, values, attitudes, and beliefs to match the political, economic, and social agenda of the program’s directors, all under the banner of "sustainability." While the program was officially halted two days after FIRE made it public, it might never really die so long as the directors of the program remain in place, trying to bring it back. For instance, in 2009, the educational plan for the residence halls conveniently neglected to add the disclaimer that no activities for 2009-2010 will be mandatory. It took the efforts of faculty members and further publicity from FIRE to ensure that the disclaimer was put back in.

Would any university want to follow Delaware’s path of withering under nationwide outrage and opposition, or impose a program so damaging to the university’s image as a free marketplace of ideas? Unfortunately, the answer was "yes" in 2009. At the University of Minnesota, the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) established detailed plans for mandating the values, attitudes, and beliefs of students in its teacher education program. Under the banner of "cultural competence," CEHD prepared to implement the proposals of its Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group, redesigning admissions and the curriculum. Those with the "wrong" views and attitudes about society, politics, or education were to receive remedial re-education, be weeded out, or be denied admission altogether.

The negative press against Minnesota escalated at about the same rate as that against Delawarewe didn’t even have to issue a press release after we published our letter to the university’s president, Robert H. Bruininks, in November. Once the university and CEHD Dean Jean Quam defended the program, however, we started letting people know. Finally, we received assurance from the university’s top lawyer that the university will never "mandate any particular beliefs, or screen out people with ‘wrong beliefs’ from the University." We are going to hold CEHD to that promise.

Those with the "wrong" views, like dissenting student-blogger Michele Kerr at Stanford University’s Teacher Education Program (STEP), are often hounded out of their programs. (Just watch this video about the harrowing case of Emily Brooker, which FIRE released in 2009.) Fortunately, in July of this year, FIRE announced that STEP finally let Kerr graduate. Earlier in the academic year, Stanford tried to revoke Kerr’s admission after she voiced disagreement with "progressive" views held by STEP administrators. Kerr sought FIRE’s aid a second time after Stanford School of Education administrators demanded the password to her private blog and threatened to expel her for her opinions and teaching philosophy. The shameful story of Kerr’s travails was featured online in The Washington Post by education columnist Jay Mathews.

For a few schools in 2009, faculty members also faced serious encroachments on their freedom of conscience due to ideological mandates under the banner of "diversity" or a "commitment to multiculturalism."

At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), the president and provost mandated "diversity accomplishments" for faculty members across the university. They have made increasingly clear over the past few years that all faculty members are expected to prove their fealty to the university’s "diversity" mission, with potentially negative results on tenure, promotion, and merit raises for those who do not conform. The issue reached an apex in 2009 when Virginia Tech’s College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (CLAHS) made the requirement quite explicit, defining "diversity" in part as "acknowledging and respecting that socially constructed differences based on certain characteristics exist within systems of power that create and sustain inequality, hierarchy, and privilege."

In March 2009, after FIRE wrote Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger and the National Association of Scholars drew significant attention to the ongoing case (in a series of articles that have continued through this month), the CLAHS diversity requirements were dropped and made optional. However, university-wide, Virginia Tech still demands that faculty members every year "recount their efforts to promote diversity."

Following FIRE’s victory against CLAHS’ ideological litmus test, North Shore Community College (NSCC) in Massachusetts also completely removed its requirement that candidates for faculty positions have an "appreciation of multiculturalism." After we wrote NSCC President Wayne Burton about his college’s violation of freedom of conscience, NSCC agreed to keep this requirement out of all present and future job announcements. Recent listings now require only "successful experience interacting with culturally diverse populations," which is a matter of demonstrated skill, not ideology.

Similarly, in July 2009, Grand Valley State University (GVSU) promised to remove "demonstrated commitment to the principles of diversity" from the stated job requirements for faculty seeking appointment to GVSU’s Department of Music. The department agreed to restate its requirements in terms of relevant experience, not vaguely worded personal commitments regarding a controversial political issue. The change came after FIRE asked GVSU to restore freedom of conscience on campus.

And all of that was just from 2009. Here is FIRE’s list of key freedom of conscience cases over the past 10 years. Let us all remain vigilant to defend this most important human liberty.

Schools: Missouri State University Cases: Missouri State University: Political Litmus Test in School of Social Work