How the Dorms Are Politicized: The Case of the University of Delaware

Jan 14, 2009 |  Adam Kissel

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How the Dorms Are Politicized: The Case of the University of Delaware

Jan 14, 2009 | 

Adam Kissel

This is a true story.

 A female freshman arrives for her mandatory one-on-one session in her male resident assistant’s dorm room. It is 8:00 p.m. Classes have been in session for about a week. The RA hands her a questionnaire. He tells her it is “a little questionnaire to help [you] and all the other residents relate to the curriculum.” He adds that they will “go through every question together and discuss them.” He later reports that she “looked a little uncomfortable.”

“When did you discover your sexual identity?” the questionnaire asks.

“That is none of your damn business,” she writes.

“When was a time you felt oppressed?”

“I am oppressed every day [because of my] feelings for the opera. … But I will overcome, hear me, you rock loving majority.”[1]

She is not playing along like the other students, and the RA confronts her using his “confrontation training,” but it isn’t working. He becomes so appalled by her resistance that he writes up an incident report and reports her to his superiors. After all, this is the University of Delaware, and the school has a zero-tolerance policy for anything remotely resembling “hate speech.”

This one-on-one session was not meant to be a punishment, some kind of mandatory sensitivity training for a recalcitrant student who had committed an infraction. It was mandatory training for all 7,000-odd students in the University of Delaware dorms. The sessions were part of a thorough thought-reform curriculum, designed by the school’s Office of Residence Life, to psychologically “treat” and correct the allegedly incorrect thoughts, attitudes, values, beliefs, and habits of the students. The ResLife staff considered students too intolerant of one another, too “consumerist,” and in dire need of reeducation to become responsible world citizens who could meet the planet’s environmental crisis and the requirements of social and economic “justice.”

The reprogramming sessions had the trappings of cultism. After an investigation showed that males in the dorms demonstrated “a higher degree of resistance to educational efforts,” one dorm chose to hire “strong male RAs.” Each such RA “combats male residents’ concepts of traditional male identity” in order to “ensure the delivery of the curriculum at the same level as in the female floors.” Mandatory group sessions singled out and shamed non-minority students because of their “privilege” in American society. Staff members kept individual files on students and their beliefs—which were to be archived after graduation. RAs were trained in the zero-tolerance policy against anything “oppressive”—an untoward word would trigger immediate notification of the campus police. RAs were required to report their “best” and “worst” one-on-one sessions to their superiors, including students’ names and room numbers. Posters and door decorations provided the ResLife messages everywhere; one could not escape them. One administrator of the program, Sendy Guerrier, wrote that students “should be confronted with this information at every turn.” Students with “traditional” beliefs had to become “allies” and “change agents” by their senior year.

All of this, according to the university’s own materials, was a comprehensive manipulation of the living environment to inculcate, unrelentingly, the ideological messages insisted upon by the ResLife staff. It was an extreme example of what Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate had predicted ten years ago in The Shadow University: a large apparatus of Residence Life officials usurping the educational prerogatives of the faculty in order to advance a deeply repressive agenda.

Fortunately, indoctrination cannot bear the light of public scrutiny. Within days after FIRE exposed the program to the public in October 2007—and put all 500 pages of the “curriculum” documents online—the university’s president ended it.

The media focused heavily on one part of the RA training called “Diversity Facilitation Training.” RAs were trained using definitions like these:

A RACIST: A racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. 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, because as peoples within the U.S. system, they do not have the power to back up their prejudices, hostilities, or acts of discrimination…

REVERSE RACISM: A term created and used by white people to deny their white privilege. Those in denial use the term reverse racism to refer to hostile behavior by people of color toward whites, and to affirmative action policies, which allegedly give ‘preferential treatment’ to people of color over whites. In the U.S., there is no such thing as “reverse racism.”[2]

The training was heavy-handed as it passed from RAs to students. One ResLife official described it as leaving “a mental footprint on [students’] consciousness.” The staff actually called the program a treatment: “through the … curriculum experience (a treatment) specific attitudinal or behavioral changes (learning) will occur.” The fact that ResLife viewed students as patients in need of “treatment” for their problems revealed their utter lack of respect for the students and their freedom of conscience.

A freshman at Delaware couldn’t escape the ideological, highly politicized messages about consumerism, social justice, affirmative action, world redistribution of wealth, and so on. The messages were woven into the fabric of the very place where students slept or talked late into the night.

The messages were reinforced by “roommate contracts,” “suite constitutions,” and the one-on-one sessions for which RAs, students themselves, had been trained with “delivery strategies.” And they were reinforced at the mandatory floor meetings, where RAs led activities that forced students to reveal their personal views and to suffer public shame for them if they took, for example, conservative rather than progressive positions on social issues. In one such activity, students were to stand on one side of the room if they agreed with, for example, gay marriage, the other side if not. Staying in the middle was not tolerated because, the students were told, the real world is polarized like this.

Freshmen had no way to opt out. One RA announced that the group sessions gave her “a chance to know how everyone’s doing and where everyone stands on certain issues or topics. Not to scare anyone or anything, but these are MANDATORY!!” (MANDATORY was in all caps, followed by two exclamation points.)

 

The Brainwashing Curriculum in Action

The first student outcry concerned the coercive, mandatory group sessions in the dorms. In the name of tolerance, students were being taught how different they were from one another—in ways that polarized the students and required them to reveal their most personal beliefs to people they had only recently met. Consider whether the following set of mandatory activities, given here with their original titles, reads more like brainwashing or like a critical, academic analysis of racism, sexism, or other dynamics in American society:

First: Surrounded by Stereotypes. Students find 13 pieces of paper posted around the room. Each piece of paper has a “social identity” written on it: Latino/Latina/Hispanic, Obese, Poor, Jewish, Male, Asian, Lesbian/Gay, and so on. All students must record on every sheet the stereotypes they have heard associated with these identities (or a zero if they can’t think of any), and then the RA leads a discussion of the answers. RAs are told to follow these guidelines:

Students are asked to focus on stereotypes in the media to encourage them to share “real” stereotypes that actually exist without the fear that they will be judged by their peers. … This activity needs to be done rapidly. Pressure is to be put on the participants as the goal is to have them write down the first thing that comes to their mind.

Clearly, the exercise is intended to be characterized by pressure rather than mature reflection.

Second: Day In, Day Out Deluge. Students break up into role-playing groups or “families,” each of which exemplifies one of the social identities by means of a narrative about the family. The narrative includes scenarios that express denigrating stereotypes about each identity. Then, the families are given the list of stereotypes from the first activity and are “reminded that from this moment on they have inherited all the stereotypes.” Thus, the students role-play by demonstrating the worst stereotypes they can imagine!

The third exercise is an interrogation called Fishbowl Discussion. A student from each “family” sits in the center of the room, surrounded by the others, and is asked to reveal his feelings. Each student is told to stay “in character,” yet the RA is told to “pay attention to body language and cues from the rest of the family to ensure that they are all fully engaged.” The point is to make everyone as uncomfortable as possible so that each student “learns” through adversity.

Finally: the Commitment to Diversity Statement. The first three exercises are designed to shame and pressure all students into signing a vow of commitment to diversity. The students identify which of thirty commitments they will make in college, based on their “level of activism.” Keep in mind: this is the beginning of the freshman year. Their choices include:

1. Create an anti-prejudice slogan for your floor, such as
“I Don’t Put Up With Put-Downs.”

17. Investigate the cultural diversity of various performers [brought] to campus.

30. Examine your textbooks and course work to determine whether it is equitable, representative and multicultural.

Each student now receives a Commitment to Diversity card on which each student is to record their responses. Later, “their RA will be asking them questions related to their responses during their first one on one meeting.”

Finally, each student “can choose to sign” the Commitment to Diversity Statement. By this point in the day, it would take an awful lot of chutzpah for a freshman to refuse to sign the statement in the presence of the RA and his peers—even if his objection were simply that RAs should not be treating adult students like morally deficient children in need of reform.

 

The Science of Social Change

But how did Residence Life know whether they were achieving the “educational outcome”? A major part of the answer was scientific assessment. The students did not know—and their parents did not know—that they were research subjects in a grand thought-reform experiment (n > 7,000). Like Soviet-era scientists, Delaware had a “research team” and, in at least one dorm, a file on every student.

The questionnaires included questions such as these:

2. Would you be comfortable being close friends with any of the following persons? Mark YES or NO

African American/Black………………………………....Y      N

A heterosexual man…………………………..…………Y      N

An international student…………………………………Y      N

An openly gay or bisexual woman……………………..Y      N

3. Would you be comfortable dating any of the following persons? (Assume that you are single)

Middle Eastern……………………………….…………..Y     N

A heterosexual woman……………………….………….Y     N

A person with different religious beliefs than yours…..Y     N

An openly gay or bisexual man……………….………..Y     N

3. Activities during my floor meetings helped me to gain an understanding that minority groups in our society are oppressed.

 

Since the beginning of the school year:

A

Absolutely

B

Usually

C

Rarely

D

Not at all

 

The RAs assessed themselves, too. When they reported their “best” and “worst” experiences with students, the self-evaluations were supposed to be about the RAs’ own ability to change hearts and minds. But the self-assessments often were about whether the students had values in “congruence” with the curriculum’s “citizenship values.” It is no coincidence that the “best” one-on-ones were those where the students showed “tolerance”—including the student who reported on the intolerance of her father—and that the “worst” were those where the students resisted the indoctrination, like the student whose story I began with. Some of the personal information on individual students went all the way up to the top and ended up in the official report on the 2006–2007 curriculum.

The negative psychological effects of this research, for many students, were quite damaging. One student wrote to FIRE:

We are told to “embrace diversity.” The way this has played out on my floor is performing multiple childish activities, “teaching” us how to handle situations involving racial, sexual, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity. In each of these meetings, the underlying theme seems to be to make us feel guilty about the privileges we have, and to convince us our part in white supremacy. Most questions we are asked must be answered one hundred percent in one direction or the other; there is no room for indecision, or holding a neutral view on any issue. This adds to the feeling of guilt imposed on us…. I’m being told it’s wrong to be a middle-class white male. The whole system being used seems to be trying to change the students into all holding the same views—the views the school, Residence Life specifically, wants us to hold. This is in no way diversity, and it is in no way right to attempt to brainwash the students…

Another wrote:

The questions asked at the one-on-one were way too awkward and personal. I honestly thought that the meeting was going to be about stuff that mattered. You know, what my major was …what I wanted to accomplish here, etc. Instead, I got a slew of questions that I’ve never even talked about with some of my good friends back home!

There are dozens of additional examples beyond these. Resident assistants who resisted the curriculum also suffered:

What concerned me the most was the focus on changing the way students think. We weren't encouraged to hold open dialog with the students until last semester because many higher ups believed that freshmen couldn't handle mature discussions. I think that they were also afraid of letting the students control the discussion. In meetings with our supervisors, we were often asked which students were most resistant to our curriculum. I felt like the secret police, *not* a mentor.

Humility, Freedom of Conscience, and the First Amendment

“Sustainability” was the codeword and central theme of the ResLife agenda. For ResLife, sustainability was not a choice but a necessity, with the fate of the world in the balance. The worldwide social, economic, and environmental emergency justified practically everything. Freedom of conscience was an expensive luxury.

In the United States, we know totalitarians when we see them. The First Amendment protects the right to keep our innermost thoughts free from governmental intrusion. It also protects the right to be free from compelled speech. During the Second World War, when Jehovah’s Witnesses challenged West Virginia’s law of mandatory observance of the American flag, the Supreme Court declared in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) that individual conscience must be respected. At this critical time in American history, the Supreme Court acknowledged:

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 Court concluded that “the purpose of the First Amendment” was precisely to protect “from all official control” the domain of individual thought, “the sphere of intellect and spirit.” The Court’s commitment to liberty in education far outshines the misplaced high-mindedness of the University of Delaware’s ResLife officials.

FIRE has never encountered a more systematic assault upon the individual liberty, dignity, privacy, and autonomy of university students than the University of Delaware “treatment” program. This program, which presumed to show students the specific ideological assumptions they needed in order to be better people, crossed the line—not just a little, but extensively and in many ways—from education into unconscionably arrogant, invasive, and immoral thought reform. The numerous moral and legal problems posed by this program cut to the core of the most essential rights of a free people. What made the program so offensive was moral: its brazen disregard for autonomy, dignity, and individual conscience, and the sheer contempt it displayed for the university’s students as well as the so-called dominant culture that made them so allegedly deficient.

For a free speech organization like FIRE, humility lies behind our support for freedom of conscience. We recognize that human limitations, our perpetual deficiencies in wisdom and knowledge, give us every reason not to yield power to those who claim to be worthy to dictate others’ deepest personal beliefs. We insist that the government’s power to reward and punish should not usurp the power of free individuals to work out their own beliefs in our very complex world. When we state in no uncertain terms what a government or its public university may not do, it is because we value what human autonomy, with all its faults, can do.

The University of Delaware case is a quintessential example of good intentions gone horribly, horribly wrong. What really unifies most Americans, I argue, is an appreciation for the freedoms that make us human. Being Americans means that we respect one another enough to tolerate all sorts of people in our democracy. When we encounter people with whom we disagree, the alternative to violence is not indoctrination but persuasion. For the most part, professors understand this concept. But if the residence life totalitarians had their way, our most esteemed institutions of liberal education would become unworthy of the name.

To conclude, this is why FIRE continues to monitor the Delaware program. All the senior staff of Delaware ResLife are still in charge, and they simply cannot be trusted. Indeed, three times they floated essentially the same program for 2008, and three times their proposal was rejected. The final version of their educational program, on paper, is not a problem from a rights perspective. But I don’t believe for a minute that ResLife is content now that the program is no longer mandatory, since the main innovation of the curriculum was explicitly to make the program mandatory.

At most other universities, I might give ResLife officials something they may not deserve, the benefit of the doubt. (Whether they deserve it or not is something we should discuss in the question period.) From a rights perspective, ResLife officials have their own rights, and these rights may well extend to strong efforts to persuade students to agree with what they believe. Whether such efforts are ethical, advisable, or educationally sound is a different question, and we need to remember that ResLife staff at most colleges are not faculty members; they are staff members who are bound to do what their superiors tell them to do. Also remember: the dorms are students’ homes, where they often sleep, eat, or even study. It is their home. They are a captive audience. It is not the place for ResLife officials, some of them with their PhDs in Residence Life but no real training in political science, philosophy, or American history, to presume to teach students as though they were faculty members. It is incumbent upon the faculty members of the National Association of Scholars to find out what’s really going on in the dorms at your college, to have a say in the education of your own students.


 


[1] All unattributed quotations come from University of Delaware documents archived at www.thefire.org except for personal accounts by students and an RA, which are personal communications between individuals and FIRE.

[2]Such definitions are not new or unique to Delaware; see The Shadow University, ch. 10.

 

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain 

 

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