FIRE Launches New Journal, ‘The Lantern,’ on Anniversary of University of Delaware Thought Reform Case

October 31, 2008

FIRE is proud to announce the forthcoming debut of The Lantern: The Journal of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, FIRE’s newest publication. The first issue of The Lantern will feature a comprehensive article on the indoctrination program implemented in 2007 by the University of Delaware’s Office of Residence Life, which used mandatory activities to coerce students to change their thoughts, values, attitudes, beliefs, and habits to conform to a highly specified social, environmental, and political agenda. The article explains the program’s invasive thought-reform activities, the horrified reactions of students and the press, and FIRE’s response one year ago this week. The online edition is available now, and print copies of the first full issue will be available in 2009.

On the first anniversary of FIRE’s victory at the University of Delaware, we thought a one-year retrospective was in order. In addition, the case continues to have a nationwide impact, which I chronicle below.

We were first alerted to the situation in October 2007, when a parent wrote us about the coercive activities his son was experiencing in the University of Delaware (UD) dorms. His son described the first set of activities as

ugly, hateful and extremely divisive. It forced the students to act out the worst possible racial stereotypes and was replete with left-wing ideological commentary and gratuitous slurs … The teachers handed out an array of propaganda materials to support this seminar. However, at the close of the session, they insisted on collecting all the materials so that the students could not take it with them.

We heard similar reports from two UD professors, Jan Blits and Linda Gottfredson.

We read ResLife’s online materials (most of which were later removed) and were appalled. ResLife was engaging students in mandatory activities designed to change students’ thoughts, values, attitudes, beliefs, and habits to conform to a specific, highly politicized set of "citizenship values" that had been pre-selected as the marks of responsible citizens. Anything deemed remotely "oppressive" by anyone was to be stamped out, and resident assistants were being taught that "[a] racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality."

We soon got a copy of the 500-odd pages of documentation on the reeducation program, its principles, and its activities, and a confidential source provided us with a detailed account of the first group activity. If we thought we were appalled before, we were absolutely flabbergasted to read these materials. Mandatory one-on-one sessions with resident assistants (RAs) required students to reveal the origins of their sexual identities. One student who resisted had an "incident report" written against her, and RAs were required to report their "best" and "worst" one-on-one sessions to their superiors, including students’ names and room numbers. Questionnaires asked students which genders, sexual orientations, and ethnicities they were willing to befriendor to date. After an investigation showed that males demonstrated "a higher degree of resistance to educational efforts," one dorm chose to hire "strong male RAs"; each such RA "combats male residents’ concepts of traditional male identity" in order to "ensure the delivery of the curriculum at the same level as in the female floors."

In addition, mandatory group sessions singled out and shamed non-minority students because of their "privilege" in American society. Other mandatory group sessions forced students to name and then act out the worst possible racial, sexual, and other stereotypes they could think of, which polarized students more than it helped them appreciate diversity. Staff members kept individual files on students and their beliefswhich were to be archived after graduation. Students with "traditional" beliefs had to become "allies" and "change agents" by their senior year. Posters and door decorations provided the politicized ResLife messages everywhere; one could not escape them. One administrator of the program, Sendy Guerrier, wrote that students "should be confronted with this information at every turn" and that the program should leave "a mental footprint on [students’] consciousness." The program was called a "treatment" for students’ alleged moral illnesses of consumerism, inherent racism, and oppressive tendencies. UD was proud of this "treatment," holding an annual Residential Curriculum Institute so that residence life officials nationwide could do the same. (All this and more is chronicled in the article in The Lantern.)

The guiding principle behind UD’s ResLife program was "sustainability." The term did not just denote a commitment to environmentalismindeed, ResLife Director Kathleen Kerr called it a "myth" that sustainability is about environmentalism. Rather, Kerr and other ResLife officials saw "sustainability" as a blend of highly specific social, political, and economic principles and practices that were required for the future of the planet and the social and economic equality of the world’s citizens.

We wrote UD President Patrick Harker on October 29, 2007, outlining our many concerns with the program and detailing the constitutional violations contained therein. The violations of students’ rights were so severe that we almost immediately put all our efforts into stopping them, so we put out a press release on October 30. The new Vice President for Student Life, Michael Gilbert, rather poorly defended the program (in a response that also has been removed from UD’s website), spurring FIRE to respond with a withering point-by-point refutation of his defense on November 1, using direct quotation from the materials which contradicted his defense.

By this time, the blogosphere (as well as FOX News and CNN’s Glenn Beck) had exploded in outrage. On November 2, President Harker announced that he had suspended the ResLife program, effective immediately. By most accounts, except for the mandatory classroom courses that RAs were taking, the program did cease.

ResLife Strikes Back

From that point forward, however, ResLife worked nonstop to bring the program back. To this day, ResLife has not given up its mission of changing students’ thoughts, values, beliefs, and actions in order to match ResLife’s version of "responsibility." Over the next several months, ResLife presented several proposals for the 20082009 educational program, all of which were rejected before they came anywhere close to reaching the floor of the Faculty Senate because they were too similar to the discredited 2007 program. True, ResLife’s proposals were watered down significantly, but even what was left was too much, given ResLife’s track record and its continually expressed desire to change and "treat" students so thoroughly.

Finally, when it was almost too late to have any plan at all for the fall of 2008, ResLife accepted a cosmetic amendment to its latest proposalsimply inserting the word "environmental" before each instance of "sustainability"without actually changing any of the activities in the program. With promises that the program was actually "traditional" (false), "optional" (doubtful), and under new, strict oversight (despite the fact that all the leading ResLife administrators kept their jobs and, as we now know, the new overseer of the program would not start work until November), the Faculty Senate and then the Trustees let the proposal pass. Michael Gilbert promised that he would be personally responsible for any problems in the new program.

Delaware’s freshmen are now going through the new program, but most reports are that the programming now really is optional and that not much is going on. The student reports that I’ve heard suggest that they are happy that nobody is bothering them with ResLife’s past kinds of activities in the residence hallsplaces where students are trying to study, socialize, and sleep.

National Reaction

In addition to the huge amount of press that the University of Delaware Residence Life curriculum generated, the topic has remained hot. The National Association of Scholars (NAS) began an extensive series on "How Many Delawares?" and discovered that although the UD program was the worst of the lot, it was more a matter of degree than a matter of kind. Residence life and "student life" officials across the country apparently believe that they should have a role at least equal to the educational role of the regular faculty and that they are somehow qualified to teach about ethics, politics, social diversity, and a range of other topics that are already being taught by academic PhDs on campus. Major installments in this series include "The Communitarian ResLife Movement" and "Rebuilding Campus Community: The Wrong Imperative," which have spurred a great deal of debate among residence life and student life officials across the country.

FIRE representatives continue to be asked to speak about the University of Delaware case. I spoke about it at conferences in St. Louis and Los Angeles, and the NAS will be hosting a panel on these topics in January 2009. UD became a case study for students in Chicago. Journalists continue to write about the case. And students at UD started a new student newspaper this fall, with its headline article all about last year’s program.

As for "sustainability," expanding the environmentalist mission into social and political activism has turned off conservative critics, even those who were warming to environmentalism. It didn’t have to be this way. When John Leo calls sustainability "The Worst Campus Codeword," you can bet that some potential allies are not going to jump on the sustainability bandwagon anytime soon. Whether you like each part of the sustainability agenda or not, the sad truth is that the UD ResLife program polarized and divided its students more than it united them.

Schools:  University of Delaware

Cases:  University of Delaware: Students Required to Undergo Ideological Reeducation