Looking Back at the University of Delaware

December 24, 2007

When FIRE first heard reports of a mandatory thought reform program at the University of Delaware (UD) this fall, we began an investigation that led to our exposing a deeply disturbing attempt at ideological reeducation—right in the residence halls of a public university in America.

The buzzword du jour used to describe the UD program was “shocking,” and that classification was spot-on. In fact, the details of the Residence Life program were so shocking that we fielded hundreds of calls and e-mails from the media, our supporters, our allies, and the general public questioning the validity of our claims. But FIRE posted the catalog of program materials on our website, and we directed people to read the language UD used. We asked them to judge for themselves whether this program has a place at any university, let alone a public institution of higher learning in the U.S.
Lest we forget how outrageous the situation at UD was, here’s a recap:
Before FIRE stepped in, approximately 7,000 students living in UD dorms were required to attend training sessions, floor meetings, and even one-on-one sessions with student Resident Assistants (RAs) where they were pressured to comply with university-approved views on issues such as politics, sexuality, and moral philosophy—highly subjective and personal topics. UD’s program tried to erase the personal viewpoints held by individual students—those that make a student body truly diverse—and replace them with what the university deemed a “correct” ideology.
The RAs running these sessions were forced to go to “diversity facilitation meetings,” where they were taught UD-sanctioned views, including “[a] racist is one who is 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.”
Did you catch that? According to UD materials, all white people are inherently and unavoidably racist simply because they are white, and RAs were forced to accept this indiscriminate definition as part of their reeducation.
After going through the training program, the RAs were expected to facilitate the same types of thought reform among students under their care. In mandatory one-on-one sessions between dorm students and their RAs, unsuspecting students were assailed with unbelievably disturbing and invasive questions about their personal lives, such as “When did you discover your sexual identity?” These questions were just part of the uncomfortable one-on-one sessions that the university’s own materials referred to as “treatments.” That’s right, UD called these sessions “treatment” for students’ incorrect attitudes and beliefs, as though students’ ideologies were inherently wrong upon entering the university and needed reform.
When the story broke, testimonials from students who were forced to endure these sessions poured in to FIRE, and we heard countless tales from individuals who said they felt terribly disconcerted and embarrassed by the nature of the questions their RAs asked them. We also learned that taking a stance against the UD-endorsed ideologies or missing sessions was not a viable option for UD students. Instead, such behavior often resulted in a written report from a student’s RA, sent straight to supervising staff members in the Residence Life department. For example, when one student was asked “When did you discover your sexual identity?” she (quite understandably) replied, “That is none of your damn business!” Not surprisingly, when her RA reported back on her one-on-one sessions, she identified this student’s session as one of the “worst.”
Thanks to FIRE, UD’s thought reform program is now defunct, according to school officials. Students will no longer be forced to accept the school’s philosophical or political principles at the price of sacrificing the beliefs that make them unique individuals. FIRE continues to monitor the situation there to ensure that the program is, in fact, gone.
Supreme Court Justice William Brennan correctly identified America’s public universities as “peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas,’” meant to foster individual educational growth and to introduce students to concepts they may or may not have encountered before college. It is not the job of a public university—a state agency, after all—to shove its own views down its students throats, telling them what they may or may not believe and which ideologies are acceptable for them to adopt.
If our colleges and universities afforded their students the First Amendment freedoms they rightfully deserve, egregious offenses to students’ constitutional liberties like the one at UD wouldn’t happen. Maybe FIRE wouldn’t be inundated with requests from students to investigate similar programs at their schools, as well as the many other cases we handle every year dealing with other constitutional violations.
But instead, the case submissions arrive steadily, and we are standing by for 2008, ready to help students from across the country when they have been wrongly denied their rights.

Schools:  University of Delaware