U. of Del. halts diversity program

November 3, 2007

The University of Delaware has ended a residence-life program on diversity and cultural identity after students complained that they were pushed to accept the university’s political views and to answer embarrassing questions about their sexuality.

President Patrick T. Harker said in a posting on the school’s Web site, “There are questions about [the program’s] practices that must be addressed and there are reasons for concern that the actual purpose is not being fulfilled.”

The program will be stopped immediately and administrators will work with the faculty Senate on any future programs, he said. Harker made the announcement Thursday evening after returning from a trip to China on university business.

A furor erupted this week on the Newark campus after parents, professors and students contacted a Philadelphia-based advocacy group about the program, which teaches cultural identity, diversity and environmentalism for 7,000 residential students, and a freshman-orientation workshop called Whole New World.

Greg Lukianoff, president of the group, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said he was thrilled by the school’s decision.

“Under the First Amendment, state institutions have no right to impose mandatory ideological training on their students,” he said.

In addition to terminating the residence-life program, the university removed training articles on white supremacy for a freshman orientation from its Web site.

Students said they were pressed into agreeing with a politically slanted ideology in which white people were oppressors of minorities. In one-on-one interviews with resident assistants, students were asked about their sexual awakening and racial beliefs.

Some RAs rated students on their attitudes during the session. The university maintains staff members were supposed to evaluate their own skills as facilitators, not students’ responses.

In some dorms, students were told the floor meetings and interviews were mandatory; officials say they were optional.

Christopher Boorse, an associate professor of philosophy, said there was no reason for Delaware to have such a program.

“Every university, including the University of Delaware, has courses in the philosophy department on issues like these, under the heading of ethics or social philosophy,” he said. “Almost everyone agrees that the professor’s job is not to indoctrinate students with a personal viewpoint.

“Rather, it is to explore the landscape of rational debate, surveying the range of views and the arguments for, and objections to, them.”

Michael Gilbert, Delaware’s vice president for student life, said he had gotten numerous calls from parents, students, faculty and alumni this week.

“There’s a general agreement from what I’ve heard that this is the appropriate time to terminate the program,” he said.

The social-justice program was developed four years ago by staff in the Office of Residence Life to help students become “active and successful citizens,” he said. Different topics are taught at each of the school’s eight living complexes.

A number of universities have similar programs and some had inquired about Delaware’s curriculum as they developed their own residence-life plans, Gilbert said.

For the last six months, a “very engaged” review committee of staff, faculty and students had examined the program, Gilbert said.

That review will be “broadened” if Delaware implements a new dorm program, he added.

For now, floor meetings will focus on traditional issues facing students living away from home for the first time: moving in and out, anxiety over tests, welcoming new students, socializing with floormates.

A former RA who lauded the program for promoting social justice said he was sorry to see it canceled. It’s “a vital part of the [University of Delaware] community,” said Grant Newman, 20, a junior.

The residence-life programs, he added, promote respect, acceptance of others, and education about people’s differences.

The controversy could not have come at a worse time for the university, as high school seniors face deadlines for sending off their college applications.

The school is attractive for area students because of its proximity, pristine campus, and reasonable tuition and board of about $28,000 for out-of-state students.

Gilbert said he had no idea whether the dispute would affect the number of applicants to the school, but he planned to spend the next few weeks answering questions from prospective students and their parents.

Download file "U. of Del. halts diversity program"

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