Delaware Program’s Continued Significance Informs Recent Articles

By October 13, 2008

"The abracadabra bon mot is ‘sustainability.’" So goes a recent editorial in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune by Katherine Kersten examining the growing trend on university campuses to promote a highly varied and politicized agenda among its members under the guise of a seemingly benign magic word.

"[W]hat, exactly, does ‘sustainability’ mean?" asks Kersten. For many, she says, it signifies small-scale, non-controversial efforts people can make to help preserve the environment. "It has the ring of improving the environment, and conjures up images of low-voltage light bulbs and farmers markets. If so, say many folks, bring it on."

While many universities have sustainability programs genuinely focused on environmental sustainability, the word has on many campuses become a shibboleth for administrators seeking to promote a highly variedand highly politicizedagenda that goes far beyond recycling and replacing Styrofoam with an organic substitute. Kersten demonstrates just how far the word has been stretched:

What might "education for a sustainable society" look like? In 2006, Keith Edwards of Macalester and Kathleen Kerr of the University of Delaware outlined their vision at a national conference.

It’s a myth that sustainability is "mostly about the environment," they assured their audience. Its reach extends to issues ranging from "environmental racism" and "domestic partnerships" to "gender equity" and "fair trade."

If we are to achieve a sustainable future, said Edwards and Kerr, students must "change their daily habits," reject their "consumer mentality," examine their society’s "oppressive systems" and "develop a libratory consciousness."

All of this is just fine as an ideal until such an agenda is forced on an unsuspecting group of studentsand here the names "Kathleen Kerr" and "University of Delaware" will jump out to Torch readerssuch as when there are material consequences for disagreeing with that agenda. As Kersten says, "utopianism of this sort, no matter how well-intentioned, slips easily into totalitarianism." She cites several invasive aspects of the University of Delaware’s (UD’s) Residence Life Program as proof of this tendency to violate students’ freedom of conscience, and she notes FIRE’s letter to UD President Patrick Harker in which FIRE’s Samantha Harris starkly tells him, "We have never encountered a more systematic assault upon individual liberty, dignity, privacy, and autonomy of university students than this program."

Having reviewed last year’s program at UD, Kersten calls it "tyranny."

Kersten’s editorial emphasizes the program’s continuing importance, almost a year after FIRE’s public efforts ignited a firestorm of controversy that led to the program’s immediate suspension (before being brought back in a reduced, strictly optional form this fall). Another recent article by Charlotte Allen for Minding the Campus continues to demonstrate the case’s importance, suggesting how the Delaware case may influence the tack universities take in reaching students with their programs.

Allen’s article, which also focuses on such aspects of college orientation programs as their increasing length, regimentation, and cost to the university (as well as to the parents who pay for their children to attend), cites FIRE co-founder Alan Charles Kors’ 2000 article in Reason Magazine, in which Kors laid out numerous examples of mandatory orientation programs that, says Allen, "typically belittled white people in general and white heterosexual males in particular." She sees the UD program as only the most recent manifestation of such "overtly Orwellian" programs, and she suggests that the somewhat softer programming that other schools use is a continuing trend: "[w]hile ideological re-education still lives as part of many a freshman orientation program, it might be more properly described as ideological re-education lite." Administrators of these programs seem to like taking thought reform as close to the line of coercion as they can.

Whether such a thing as "ideological re-education lite" can exist without becoming tyranny remains to be seen. As Adam previously noted, many of the same architects of UD’s disastrous program remain in charge for the current year, and it is not unreasonable to think that they will continueas will countless administrators nationwideto pressure students to adopt their preferred positions, even if they avoid outright totalitarian control. The UD administration has not given us sufficient reason to believe they will not attempt such an invasive program again. Fortunately for us, writers like Kersten and Allen seem to be maintaining a healthy skepticism as well.

Schools: University of Delaware