Victory for Freedom of Conscience at University of Delaware; More Debate Ahead

By on May 6, 2008

FIRE is very pleased that the University of Delaware Faculty Senate has delayed a vote on the deeply flawed Residence Life proposal for next year, as I requested. The campus now has a bit less than a week to genuinely debate it. I hope that sincere debate ensues and that Faculty Senate leaders and upper-level administrators do not try to keep pushing the proposal through.

As I have written before, the proposal is soaked in a highly politicized social and political agenda around the idea of “sustainability” as the correct model for “citizenship.” A good number of Senate faculty, and one courageous student, spoke up against the program at yesterday’s Senate meeting.

I am told that students will be coming out to make their voices heard, and I hope that there is ample time next week for all points of view to be heard.

The Associated Press picked up the story, which has been published by the Delaware News Journal. The UD Review also has published an original article on the story, along with a photo of the students who arrived with literature in protest against the proposal. The National Association of Scholars (NAS) has announced the news here. The point was amply made that in the proposal and for ResLife, sustainability is not just about the environment, as reported by the NAS:

Professor Matt Robinson, chairman of the Faculty Senate Student Life Committee, who presented the new Res Life proposal[,] offered the bold claim that, “The concept of sustainability, that’s only speaking in terms of environmental.” His attempt to package the new program as only conservation and environmental preservation, however, didn’t persuade skeptical faculty members who had taken the trouble to read the details. They replied that the term sustainability is being used to sneak in “a curriculum of indoctrination” similar to the one President Harker suspended in November.

The student who spoke up also sent a letter to the Faculty Senate. Here are some thoughtful excerpts addressed mainly to those who defended the program:

You also argued that the definition of sustainability is limited to environmental aspects, but this is not shown anywhere in the plan. Additionally, RAs are taught during their intensive two weeks of training in the fall that sustainability has three components: environmental, social and economic. RAs are to implement this broad notion of sustainability into their position as an influential peer. Although the ResLife program was “shut down” RAs were never given a new definition of sustainability or told to limit their sustainability education with residents to include only environmental aspects. Furthermore, it is clearly illustrated in the current Spring Plan as well as the proposed plan for next year that sustainability is a highly politicized term with broad interpretations relating to a specific political id[e]ology.

You consistently claimed that the problem lies with the implementation plan which is different than the program plan. This is not the case. You can insert the word “optional” in the document hundreds of times, but that does not change the nature of the department. Regardless of how optional floor meetings and programs are, RAs are judged as successful or unsuccessful based upon their ability to get residents to do what ResLife wants…

You have engaged the student population very little throughout this entire process. Any student you talk to usually has a very strong opinion on the topic of Residence Life, yet only a select group of people were allowed to take part in the creation of a future plan. I am very interested in the future direction of the program and I am an active student leader on campus, yet I was never once invited to provide feedback or personal insight into the process of creating the proposed plan. Many other students feel this way as well.

I would like to make a few suggestions. [...] Students pay thousands to get a comprehensive education in the classroom, and if they are passionate about a particular subject, they can join a student group related to their interests. Each residence hall complex has a community council which can take charge of implementing programming that interests students without carrying a political agenda. Resident Assistants are not qualified to “educate” other students and they should not be burdened with such an impossible task as RAs do not even have a bachelor’s degree.

As FIRE, the National Association of Scholars, and others on and off campus have argued, it will be a good thing if the proposal is rejected and ResLife continues doing what it reportedly has been doing this spring: running a traditional residential program that does not try to inculcate politicized values into students, a program that does not try to make students conform to ResLife’s favorite thoughts, values, attitudes, beliefs, and actions. That seems to me to be what students wantnot pizza parties where signs are posted that explain the impact of the party on the environment, not career counseling that pushes sustainability careers as the only ones that responsible citizens would choose, and not floor meetings where students are told they have to opt out of social time with their fellow residents if they don’t want to be bombarded with ResLife’s sustainability agenda.

I strongly believe that once the members of the Faculty Senate carefully consider and debate the ResLife proposal, they will conclude that this is not a proposal that can easily be salvaged in a way that respects students’ freedom of conscience and academic freedom. Again, I think the Faculty Senate should reject it because it is unworthy of a great university or any school that sees itself as providing a liberal arts education.

Schools: University of Delaware