Teaching or tyranny? How U Del ResLife crossed the line

November 13, 2007

Ah, Residential Education. Does the name sound familiar? ResEd, as it is affectionately called, is behind all those dorm activities—namely free outings and free food. It manages RAs, Explorations floors and Peer Educators in residence.

“Our department specializes in creating community in each of the residence halls through an incredible staff and meaningful programs designed to support you in your academic and personal endeavors here at NYU,” explains the department’s website.

Seems friendly enough. ResEd spends a lot of money and effort to fill the vacuum left by NYU’s general lack of community. It’s a difficult task at a nontraditional school like ours.

Let’s see what dorm life is like at one of those “normal” colleges by looking at residential education on the other side.

Take the University of Delaware, for example. Over there, it’s “ResLife”–the Office of Residential Life, whose staff received national awards in 2004.

Its website reads: “Residence Life staff … are committed to encouraging, empowering and educating all residents. We strive to create inclusive communities that enhance and support each student’s college experience.”

Seems fairly standard, not much different from NYU’s welcome statement. There’s the same supportive goal of building community to improve student life at the university. Deeper into their respective websites lie the identical goals of promoting good citizenship, taking responsibility and embracing diversity, among others.

So far, this is unremarkable. NYU’s ResEd and UD’s ResLife share the noble goals one might expect of a major university’s residential programs. Some may call it BS; others may applaud their efforts. Here’s a bit from UD ResLife’s “Diversity Facilitation Training” manual:

“A racist: … 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. By this definition, people of color cannot be racists.”

Minorities can’t be racists? All whites are racists? This is a little disturbing. The saddest part about it is that the University of Delaware was, up until two weeks ago, force-feeding this and other university-approved doctrine to its 7,000 students in housing.

UD’s ResLife engaged in an “ideological re-education program,” describing it as “treatment/intervention” for students with “incorrect” attitudes and beliefs, according to a press release from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the watchdog organization that attacked the program and is partly responsible for ending it.

Students were expected to conform to university-approved views on politics, race, sexuality, sociology, moral philosophy and environmentalism, according to FIRE.

They were herded through training sessions, floor meetings and one-on-one sessions with RAs, in which residents were asked invasive questions. If a question went unanswered or was answered unsatisfactorily, the RA alerted the university by writing up the student.

In one RA-resident exchange, a girl declined to answer the question “When did you discover your sexual identity?” and, in response to the question “When were you first made aware of your race?” said, “That is irrelevant. … My race is human being.” UD ResLife thought her opinions were unacceptable, and used them as a model for the worst one-on-one RA session.

Obviously, the residential education goals shared by NYU and UD are unassailable. Who can argue against embracing diversity, good citizenship and social responsibility?

In its perverted attempt to achieve these goals, however, UD ResLife crossed the dangerous line between education and indoctrination. A fairly good sign of this is when a residential education program can be described as Orwellian, reminiscent of Big Brother’s total thought control.

We all want society to embrace certain norms and “correct” beliefs. We just can’t agree on them. One of the core principles of a free society, and one of our country’s basic foundations, is freedom of thought—which implies the freedom to disagree.

In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court wrote the following:

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

The University of Delaware, which initially hunkered down for a fight but later scrapped the program under pressure, broke that exact constitutional guideline. UD serves as a cautionary tale for our own very powerful and very active ResEd department, with its diversity programs and guiding principles. Hopefully its guiding principles will remain just that—guides, not doctrine.

The incident wasn’t disturbing because UD tried to teach students about acceptance and responsibility; it was unsettling because of how easily it crossed the line and violated these basic freedoms, all in the name of improving society and making better citizens. “1984,” indeed.

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