Indoctrination, which aims to mandate students’ views rather than stimulate students to think through those views for themselves, is anathema to a liberal education. Yet, a recently published article by Jan Blits, one of the professors who alerted FIRE to the University of Delaware’s now infamous (and unconstitutional) Residence Life program, exposes how college administrators are eroding the faculty’s traditional prerogative to decide what students should learn. The result is too often indoctrination instead of true education.
Blits’ article, Hidden (and Not-So-Hidden) New Threats to Faculty Governance, addresses the increasing role of administrators and the diminishing power of faculty in making decisions concerning the educational mission of the university. Blits argues that senior administrators, who often know no other way, attempt to "corporatize higher education" and thus have relatively little respect for the role of professors in determining the curriculum. Meanwhile, "student affairs" administrators tend to believe that the classroom fails to provide a true education and that they can do better than the faculty. With the support of senior administrators, the student affairs administrators carve out new quasi-academic or non-academic areas of education such as residence life "education" programs that are never assessed by the faculty for quality or for how they fit with the university’s overall educational mission:
You only need look at the publications of the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) to see this. The publications proclaim "a shift in thinking." The traditional distinction between "academic affairs" and "student affairs" is said to be misguided, and Residence Life administrators must unite the two. The challenge, the publications say, is "to create living-learning environments that fully engage students at meeting desired learning outcomes." The emphasis is on "learning outcomes," as defined by Residence Life. ResLife administrators are to create so-called "education" or "curricular" programs that change students’ opinions, beliefs, and actions in a predetermined direction. The aim is to "turn" students, as UD Residence Life administrators openly announced—to convert students with "traditional" beliefs into "allies" and "change agents" of social justice, workers’ rights, living wages, fair trade, redistribution of wealth, water rights, immigrant rights, the rights of indigenous peoples, corporate responsibility, anti-consumerism, anti-environmental racism, multicultural competencies, affirmative action, gay rights, gender equality, domestic partnership, and so on.
Blits describes the unfortunate result: following their idea of a noble mission, administrators take up the authority to impose views on students and coerce them into altering their values in ways that faculty members would never be allowed to do, creating programs designed to push the college’s favored ideological viewpoints through mandatory programs. At schools like the University of Delaware, people without any real pedagogical training were put in charge of these programs, which led to the inhibition of debate instead of the promotion of academic inquiry. Delaware’s ResLife office, through humiliating and oppressive tactics, thus imposed its own highly politicized views about race, class, and sexuality on all students living in the dorms.
In order to do this, students were taught not to question the premises behind ResLife’s mandatory programs, resulting in "[r]adically diminished intellectual inquiry." Blits learned that when ResLife’s Resident Assistants (RAs) overheard students discussing fundamental topics like politics and religion, they were trained to stifle this type of dialogue by taking control of the discussion, breaking it up, and sending the students their separate ways:
One student described how, if a Residen[t] Assistant heard students discussing politics or religion, the Residen[t] Assistant would intervene, give each student the chance to state a position, and then tell them to disperse. There were to be no questions and answers, no back and forth. Discussion meant no exchange, no probing, no explanations, no real listening, no real thinking. It meant not being held accountable, or holding another accountable, for what one said or thought. Residen[t] Assistants said that they had been trained to quash such discussions, whether private or public, as being uncivil. Considerate behavior toward others came to mean considering no one’s thought, including one’s own.
Instead of expanding the students’ minds, this administrative program apparently was designed to impede critical thinking.
Blits argues against the conflation of "academic affairs" and "student affairs" so easily engendered by the corporatized university. While administrators are the primary culprits of this dilution of our understanding of what is "academic," Blits aruges, some blame should rest on faculty members as well. Professors who accept the notion of "service learning," he argues, run serious risks if they let non-professors guide the educational experience:
Service learning claims to combine service objectives and learning objectives, so that students take part in active education while at the same time addressing the concerns, needs, and hopes of their community. Typically, however, service learning lacks rigor and faculty oversight, and is based largely on the student’s own idiosyncratic, self-generated experience. I strongly favor students performing community service (as I did in college), especially at a time when students are often highly self-absorbed. My concern is that giving academic credit for such activity not only waters down academic standards, but also erodes the line between academic and non-academic. Everything becomes—or may become—academic, and so nothing is academic. Not just the standards within academics are eroded, but the standard for "academic" itself—and who may properly claim to be an "academic."
We hope that Blits is right and that thought reform programs like the University of Delaware’s can be prevented if faculty members take back full oversight of the curriculum. True learning—especially about controversial topics—should be guided by those with academic expertise who challenge students to question ideas, not by those who mandate that students conform to the ideas of their teachers.