One of FIRE's most significant cases in our history has been at the University of Delaware, where early in 2007–2008 the Residence Life staff promulgated a thorough, mandatory curriculum in the residence halls that was designed to change students' thoughts, values, attitudes, beliefs, and actions to conform to a highly specific political and social agenda. The staff called the program a "treatment," and indeed it was highly invasive of students' privacy, conscience, and speech rights. Students, especially freshmen, couldn't escape the program; as one resident assistant (RA) wrote about one-on-one re-education sessions with students, "Not to scare anyone or anything, but these are MANDATORY!"
With the exception of the floor and building meetings held at opening, all activities detailed in this plan are attendance-optional.
Recently the 2009–2010 plan was revealed. In the plan, which like last year separates the freshman program from the upperclassman program, I note some warning signs. For one thing, the "attendance optional" line has been removed from the freshman program; indeed, the word "optional" appears nowhere in the plan. This is more than a little disturbing, for the ResLife directors have shown no scruples about declaring that "educating" about the program's particular morals and values is an imperative—and have shown zero public remorse about designing a mandatory curriculum to ensure delivery of their message.
I also note that the word "education" has dropped out of the plan. This was an important issue last year because some UD faculty members were arguing that ResLife was usurping the educational role of the faculty—indeed the ResLife staff had argued that ResLife's educational efforts were necessary because the faculty had been failing to properly teach the "right" values and beliefs. (The circumstances of this year's disclosure to the faculty were a bit shady, for unlike last year, the Faculty Senate was not given any chance to vote on the plan.) Even so, the Office of Residence Life maintains an "Educational Priority" statement online: "Become an engaged and active citizen by understanding how your thoughts, values, beliefs, and actions affect the people with whom you live and recognize your responsibility to contribute to a sustainable society at a local, national, and global level" (emphasis added). It is evident that ResLife cannot bear to rid itself of the mission of teaching students that they need to recognize their responsibilities as ResLife defines them.
Also, the plan on paper is shorter than last year, in many cases leaving the specific activities and teachings unclear. A central teaching resource for freshmen in ResLife's plan is the book It's Easy Being Green: A Handbook for Earth-Friendly Living. The frequent use of the book in the freshman program makes clear that ResLife still imagines itself to be in the business of education. Since we do not know whether the readings from It's Easy Being Green are required, we don't know whether there will be any penalty, overt or covert, if a freshman chooses not to do the readings—or doesn't agree with the views therein. In any case, where is the faculty oversight of this plainly educational agenda?
Finally, ResLife still appears to believe that students should learn through feelings of guilt about their "irresponsible consumerism" through freshman activities like these:
- A Thanksgiving-oriented floor meeting where RAs discuss the "environmental impact of consumption patterns through a simulated ‘shopping' exercise."
- "Sustainable vacationing" floor visuals in January.
- A "Personal Decision Making" exercise where students "learn about environmental sustainability issues related to retail stores."
- A "Welcome Back Party" where, "At each social event, information will be posted on walls and event supplies to inform students of the financial and environmental impact of the event and items."
- "Community Resource Tracking," which consists of a "personal tracking inventory of [students'] consumption patterns."
If all of these activities are truly optional, well, students can decide for themselves whether they want this kind of education in the residence halls. But with the "optional" language removed by deeply untrustworthy Residence Life directors, we have every reason to keep paying attention to ResLife in order to preserve students' rights and freedoms.