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Freed From Compulsory Attendance, DePauw Students Voluntarily Attend Day of Dialogue

By January 28, 2015

Today, classes are cancelled at Indiana’s DePauw University so that students can attend “DePauw Dialogue,” a day of campus discussion “surrounding diversity and inclusiveness.”

Unfortunately, DePauw initially attempted to ensure student participation by making the event mandatory. According to the student newspaper The DePauw:

An email sent Friday by Vice President for Student Life Christopher Wells and Senior Advisor to the President for Diversity and Compliance Renee Madison announced that the day, called “DePauw Dialogue,” would be mandatory.

“Students who do not attend on the 28th will not be able to register for fall classes or walk at commencement,” the email from Friday read.

Yikes. Universities attempting to mandate that students attend ideologically oriented programming is, unfortunately, nothing new to FIRE. What happened next, however, was less typical: DePauw students and faculty pushed back strongly against the compulsory nature of DePauw Dialogue. The DePauw reported:

This email led to a flurry of activity online including emails among faculty, posts on the anonymous social media app Yik Yak and a petition on Change.org.

“I believe that Diversity Day can be beneficial to the DePauw community, but I also believe that the way in which the University is conducting the event is going to have a negative influence on this day,” sophomore Frederick Soster, who started the Change.org petition, wrote in an email. “Forcing students, faculty, and staff to attend this event will not help the campus community if any students, faculty, and/or staff do not wish to attend, whatever the reason. Instead, I believe it will only create more problems on this campus.”

DePauw Student Government President Cody Watson sent an email to greek leaders and student organization leaders alike asking students to email him with any messages that they want passed to the administration.

In response to the pushback, the DePauw administration decided that DePauw Dialogue would no longer be mandatory. On Monday, January 26, Wells and Madison sent the following email to the DePauw student body:

Members of the DePauw Campus Community,

The upcoming day-long event on Wednesday represents an important opportunity for our entire campus to come together to expand our understanding of each other and to improve upon the ways in which we live and work together.

Unfortunately, our email message the other day has sparked a number of conversations that have felt like distractions from the purpose of the day itself. Faculty members have questioned whether the requirement to attend has become a new graduation requirement, a step that the faculty have not approved. This academic policy question has been raised even by members of our community who have been outspoken in their support for the day itself.  Students have also raised issues of academic freedom, and have suggested that the attendance requirement has made them less likely to join in the events of the day in a constructive frame of mind.

The academic policy concerns in particular have required that we re-think our position in regard to the student requirement to attend. Therefore attendance will not have an impact on registration or commencement activities.

The day’s program has required heroic labor from a large number of faculty, staff, and students who have worked hard to come together to produce a day that will be meaningful valuable for everyone in attendance. Wednesday promises to be a rare opportunity for our community, and also the individuals in attendance. We hope that, with these distractions out of the way, our campus community will choose to take advantage of the rare educational and experiential opportunity that the University will provide on the 28th.

Christopher Wells
Vice President for Student Life

Renee Madison
Senior Advisor to the President for Diversity and Compliance

This email leaves little doubt that, but for the outspoken criticism by students and faculty, attendance at DePauw Dialogue would still be compulsory. (All great dialogues start with making every single person participate whether they want to or not, right?) What has transpired since the university lifted the attendance requirement demonstrates precisely the folly of the “this is mandatory” attitude. Students have begun tweeting—using the hashtag #WhyImGoing—the reasons why they will be voluntarily attending the event. For example, students have written that they plan on participating “to better my understanding of others’ perspectives,” “because I care,” and “to give ALL students the opportunity to be heard.” Students have also been encouraging their fellow students to attend, adding on hashtags such as #YouShouldToo and #WhyAreYou. A picture posted to Instagram this morning shows a crowded room of attendees waiting for the event to begin. If the goal is to convince people to take the event seriously and actually be open to new ideas, this is a far better way to go about it than subjecting students and faculty to mandatory programming.

Making class registration and graduation contingent upon attending an ideologically oriented event would have had troublesome implications for freedom of conscience at DePauw. FIRE is glad that so many students and faculty recognized that. DePauw was right to take critics’ concerns seriously, and DePauw Dialogue is likely to be all the more productive because of it.

Schools: DePauw University