Taking My Licks at the University of Delaware

November 20, 2007

Last night I realized that I have had it pretty easy all these years speaking on college campuses as a First Amendment advocate. After dozens of speeches at dozens of colleges, I’ve come to expect low to moderate turnout. Those who show up largely support free speech even if it’s controversial (at least in theory), and usually no campus speaker or student—despite great efforts to find one, in some cases—seriously wants to take the other side of the issue.

That was not at all the case at University of Delaware (UD) last night, however. I was invited to UD to talk about the university’s invasive residence life education program, which the college recently suspended under pressure from FIRE. The event attracted over 100 students, and the debate was sometimes heated, harsh, emotional, and occasionally somewhat out of hand with yelling and accusations of “hidden agendas” abounding. I am not sure if those who came in already convinced of the rightness of their position were at all moved, but I was glad at least to have the chance to explain where FIRE stood to the students directly, in the hopes that future residence life programs will avoid the same truly Orwellian mistakes.

While my speech was supposed to be about half an hour long, the first students to arrive (from the groups sponsoring the event) told us that students were more interested in the question and answer period. So, I shortened my speech to about 20 minutes.  I said:

Overzealous programs like the one at University of Delaware are not only wrong and unconstitutional, they foster resentment, resistance and only confirm to the outside world that political correctness is out of control on college campuses. What frightens me the most about them, however, is that when taken together with speech codes and speech zones, I fear we are raising a generation of students who understand neither their own basic rights nor those of others, or even how to function with real differences in a pluralistic democracy.

The rule of the First Amendment is in some ways quite simple: no side gets to shut the other side up, and certainly no side gets to decide what the other side must say—let alone what they must think or believe. Nowhere are these principles more important than in our institutions of higher education. 

I then discussed some of the elements of what FIRE means when it talks about “thought reform” and violations of private conscience: mandatory and coercive programs, designed with the goal of creating a uniform, highly specific ideological point of view, which are outside the regular academic curriculum. Some examples of thought reform include speech codes like the one at Shippensburg University, which required that “every member of the community” mirror the official views of the university administration “in their attitudes and behaviors.” (This was overturned by a federal judge.) Other examples include mandatory pseudo-psychological training like Michigan State University’s Student Accountability In Community program; mandatory psychological counseling for non-dangerous, clearly protected speech like in cases at the University of New Hampshire, Valdosta State University, and Hamline University; mandatory orientation programs that force students to publicly identify their private political beliefs—effectively for public shaming; and so-called “dispositions” criteria that evaluate students not on their abilities but on the correctness of their beliefs, like the one currently in practice at Columbia Teachers College. I noted that the University of Delaware’s program included elements of all of the above, as well as unconstitutional compelled speech, mandated political orthodoxies, and gross invasions of privacy.

I concluded:

I believe the great innovation of academic freedom is that it enshrined an almost scientific commitment to open mindedness that recognizes that wisdom can come from surprising sources, that even bad arguments may contain a kernel of truth, and that the greatest innovation happens when all arguments are permitted. 

Yes, tolerance and appreciation of differences are important values but they cannot be imposed through fiat. Furthermore, by mandating particular political beliefs you do not encourage intellectual exploration; rather you stifle it.

When re-writing this dormitory policy it is crucial the university not forget its students’ basic rights of individual conscience, speech and privacy. Residence Life would be well served to get out of the business of reeducating students to correct beliefs. I am sure there is enough to be done just making sure students are safe and their basic questions answered. While RAs may not always like who their students are when they first come through the door, the college experience provides an education far broader than the experience of classrooms and hall activities. Residence Life would do well to remember that a diversity of opinion and expression both mild and coarse is a sign of a healthy environment, not a sick one.

And then, after a short silence, I asked for questions and the hands went up. The first several were civil but focused primarily on FIRE’s conclusion that the program was mandatory. As we have pointed out many times, it is well-documented in materials from the university that the program was presented as mandatory. Campus officials called it mandatory numerous times, and students believed it was mandatory. While some RAs may have taken a lenient approach, others e-mailed their students insisting that the programs were, to quote one RA, “MANDATORY!!”

Another student suggested that in his education classes, syllabi generally included the language of mandatory learning like the one the residence halls’ curricula included: “Students will recognize that systemic oppression exists in our society,” “Students will recognize the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression,” and “Students will be able to utilize their knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and consumer mentality.”

I was surprised by this assertion. If that was the case, the idea of student autonomy and academic freedom was in bigger trouble than I thought. Surely he was talking about “learning outcomes” like “students will understand the principles of organic chemistry,” not specific ideological assumptions? The student then explained that his experience was with K-12 courses. And while I doubt that even K-12 education requires students to adopt certain specific ideological points of view, the roles of higher education and K-12 are fundamentally different (as explored in the recent SFSU decision). Higher education regarding contested issues is about open-ended discussion and the search for truth, not rote memorization and inculcation as in grade school. As the Supreme Court wrote: “No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences, where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolutes. Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.” Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234 (1957). Besides, while a teacher can coerce students to, say, write a term paper or take an exam, applying such a “curricular” model to values education in a residence hall is fraught with practical, ethical, and legal perils.

After those questions a pattern emerged: it seemed that the students who hated the program had grouped in one corner at the front of the room, while the students angry with our opposition to the program sat together in the back, with many students in between—both literally and figuratively. At one point an audience member from the back became incensed with the idea that the program was “coercive” and yelled down at the students in the front to raise their hands if any of them felt coerced. One by one the hands went up. He continued to press them to explain how the program could be “coercive” without official punishments to enforce it. I tried to interject, but the speaker wanted the other students to respond.  University of Delaware student Bill Rivers did a great job of responding.  From this exchange, though, I did understand better why so many of the students who wrote FIRE to complain about the program asked that we not publish their names. The anger at those opposed to the program was palpable.

After the talk, I was able to respond to an RA about how a program could be coercive without official punishment. I explained that the RAs kept forgetting that they are state officials with power given to them by the state of Delaware. If they say that a compelled speech program is mandatory, that is enough. It’s similar to the situation with speech codes. If Congress were to pass a law saying “no criticism of the President,” it would be no defense for them later to claim that they “didn’t really plan to punish anyone under the law.” The use of state power to press students to hang door decorations with specific ideological points of view, to attend sessions that required students to single themselves out over their private political beliefs, or to answer invasive questionnaires is a gross abuse of that power. Sadly, some of the Residence Life officials seemed to think that such things were not only okay, but a responsible part of the university’s diversity program.

Then there were the accusations, including that FIRE was working from some secret agenda (presumptively either a right-wing or racist one) and that we wanted to stop all diversity education and discussion at University of Delaware. The first accusation was actually handled by a student who was in neither the front nor the back encampment, who said she looked into what FIRE does and found that we really do work to protect everyone. She cited our cases defending people at Hampton University and at other schools, who, she said, had views that Residence Life was promoting. As for the second accusation, I was quite clear that we would defend the right to discuss any topic, about diversity or otherwise, but we would fight mandatory reeducation programs no matter whether their goal is to “recognize that oppression exists” or to “recognize that the Bill of Rights represents the best way to protect individual liberty.” Our objections were not to the messages of the program but to the oppressive and Orwellian ways that the messages were pressed onto residents and their RAs.

Some students asked why FIRE did not engage with Residence Life officials before contacting President Harker and taking the case public. For one thing, the violations of students’ rights needed to stop immediately. For another, we already knew that students, at least one parent, and at least one professor had spoken up against the program to Residence Life officials and had their concerns dismissed. We later learned that our choice was right, given the inaccurate and distorted defense of the program published by Michael Gilbert after we published our letter to President Harker. The program had gotten entirely out of hand, and too many people in Residence Life were too fully invested in the program to expect them to entirely dismantle the program on their own.  Without the help of the public and the press I do not believe the school would have been willing to really address FIRE’s concerns.

The debate raged hot and fierce at some points. Eventually our time in the room ran out after a solid hour and a half of serious, and at times exhausting, discussion. I am proud of the students who made it out to speak or to listen. I know that many left believing the exact same things they came in believing, but I hope that the reasons why we objected to this program were better understood by the supporters of Residence Life in the room. Future programs should avoid mandatory ideological exercises, they should avoid invasive political questioning into people’s political beliefs, they should avoid forcing students to single themselves out for public shaming according to their beliefs, and most of all, they should be truly voluntary, with students knowing the goals of the programs in the first place. Residence Life officials should keep in mind that the rights they are bound to uphold as state employees are the same rights that protect them from intrusive government programs, inquisitions, compelled speech, or required beliefs in the larger society, and Residence Life officials undermine these values at their peril.

Thanks to the University of Delaware for having me, and thanks to the students who made this important debate possible.

Schools:  University of Delaware