After the University of Delaware Board of Trustees voted to approve a new Residence Life educational program for next year, FIRE rightly reported it as a new victory for freedom of conscience. At the same time, The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) rightly characterized the news as a new failure for freedom of conscience. We’re both right—it’s a half-empty/half-full situation.
To call it a failure, one need only go to the proposal itself to see that ResLife still intends to achieve specific “learning outcomes” through a variety of activities designed to change students’ thoughts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and actions to conform to ResLife’s view of so-called responsible citizenship. The goals and central activities are little changed from last year, and the directors of last year’s program still hold their jobs. ACTA writes:
This “curriculum” in the dormitories bears little resemblance to what most Americans remember from their college days, or to common sense.
Yet, to call it a victory, one should pay attention to the strong messages sent by the UD Trustees and faculty, together with the promises by Vice President for Student Life Michael Gilbert, that indoctrination of any sort must have no place in next year’s program. From the half-empty side, these look like empty promises and toothless messages, for the same reasons I have discussed elsewhere and have expressed to the Trustees. (You also can view ACTA’s May 14 letter to the Trustees here.) I will write soon on the inconsistencies between the cosmetic amendments to the proposal and the verbal promises on the one hand, and the actual proposal on the other. From the half-full side, though, I believe that Gilbert really has put his job on the line in promising that there will be no new abuses of students’ rights. That ought to make Gilbert at least a bit more diligent than he was last October, when he crazily defended the indoctrination program and we refuted him with plenty of evidence. At the Board of Trustees meeting on Monday, however, Gilbert reportedly declared that last year’s program was a case study in what not to do in the future, advertised that the redesigned program is “traditional,” and promised new oversight. Make no mistake—that is a huge change in UD’s attitude toward the program.
We keep claiming victory because ResLife keeps retreating. True, there is a long way yet to go before we can declare a full victory for freedom of conscience at the University of Delaware. We still have strong suspicions that new violations will occur again this fall. But with students, faculty, trustees, and national organizations watching, we believe we can keep ResLife’s indoctrination agenda in retreat.