The Communitarian ResLife Movement: Part 4 (Final)

Aug 25, 2008 |  Tom Wood

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The Communitarian ResLife Movement: Part 4 (Final)

Aug 25, 2008 | 

Tom Wood

Last November the dam broke and water splashed through the residence life program at the University of Delaware. It gushed through closets and hampers and unearthed soggy boxes of Charades, Outburst, and Taboo. Thomas Wood has been trying to making sense of the aftermath, leading NAS’s “How Many Delawares?” initiative. This latest report draws the connections between a popular campus ideology and its manifestation in the U of Delaware residence life program.

We have decided to serialize Tom’s new report in four installments, and we serialize it for four reasons. 1) It’s long and sometimes a bit complicated. 2) After reading the first section, you’ll want more. Delayed gratification builds character. 3) Since you will want more, you’ll come back to our website. We value regular readers. 4) By giving you a few days between installments we like to think we are facilitating time for reflection. (The same reason I would have serialized Walden, had I been Thoreau.)

We present this as an observation of the remarkable overlap of communitarian principles and the principles motivating sustainability and the residence life movement. Communitarianism is a notoriously elusive political concept. For example, what is the communitarian stance on abortion? The death penalty? Minimum wage? Healthcare reform? Depending on the communitarian you are speaking to, the answer will run the gamut of the political spectrum. Thomas Wood takes one of its most popular forms and shows the danger to the legitimate purposes of higher education in allowing advocates of a political ideology to force feed their views to students under the guise of fostering “citizenship” or similar anodyne-sounding rubrics.


This is the fourth and final installment in this series. Follow these links to read the first, second, and third installments.


I have already suggested that, if communitarianism is to be taken seriously at all, one can expect that a communitarian agenda will create more conflicts with principles of free speech and other individual rights than is the case with traditional, classical liberalism. The likely conflict has already been noted in a July 27, 2005 article by David French entitled "The Authoritarian Communitarian Impulse":

The phrase that stood out to me—“the elusive ideal of community”—reminds me of the impulse that animates many of the abuses that FIRE fights. From the Shippensburg speech code to Washington State’s heckler’s veto, university attempts to foster feelings of “community” often veer from exhortation to coercion. The desire to create a “close-knit campus” is understandable and—in many ways—laudable. Yet these attempts often collide not merely with the law, but also with the student culture itself. There is very little reason to believe that the modern secular campus will be any different from polarized red/blue America—a contentious, pluralistic melting pot of different ideas, religions, races, and ideologies. In such a circumstance, “community” often means “peaceful coexistence” more than it does “love and harmony.” This reality can be particularly frustrating for student life administrators who often define their job as creating the very kind of harmonious community that students say they want but then do very little to create. Consequently, it becomes easier to understand why these administrators are so tempted to use the institutional power at their disposal, both to coerce communitarian actions and attitudes and to punish those who threaten the community spirit that administrators spend so much time trying to build.

The two specific abuses French cites in this article—the "heckler's veto" at Washington State University and Shippensburg University's speech code—did plainly involve unconstitutional violations of free speech. But the problems that French identified with the modern American university's search for community are not limited to such clear-cut issues. In particular, the more general problem is not resolved simply by making communitarian programs like those at U Delaware voluntary. This might remove the most obvious and egregious constitutional offenses, but does not get to the real heart of the problem. Even if the 2008-2009 Res Life program that was approved on May 21 by the University of Delaware faculty senate does prove to be completely voluntary, compelling objections to the program will remain, because the program involves the university’s endorsement of particular political views, which thereby become preferred and privileged on campus. This necessarily diminishes the university as an unfettered marketplace of ideas and debate.

Free speech, at least in an academic environment, is not simply a constitutional issue, as if a university campus were nothing but a public square, like Hyde Park. Of course, public universities, at least, are that, but universities are also much more. A Hyde Park-type public square is free to the extent that a speaker cannot be arrested or penalized by the state for expressing unpopular opinions there. But a public square like Hyde Park is not expected to be a free market place of ideas in the same sense in which a university is. Governments have public policies, and citizens should be free to speak against them in the public square. It is not the function of a university to take stands on public issues in the way that governments do. With very few exceptions (such as rules against racial or sexual discrimination), universities should not have or endorse public policies. In this respect, a college campus is, or should be, a free marketplace of ideas in a much stronger sense than the public sphere itself is. One might criticize public policies and resolutions that the U.S. Congress or the City of London might adopt on issues like global warming, but no one imagines that it is inappropriate for them to have such policies. But with very few exceptions (anti-discrimination rules being one), a university or a faculty senate should not have such policies, because universities serve an entirely different social function than legislatures and other government bodies.

Even in the public sphere outside the university walls, maintaining a genuinely free marketplace of ideas involves more than simply protecting constitutionally sanctioned free speech, as is shown by the example of issues like media concentration and media democracy. Whether media concentration has reached the point in the U.S. today where it is a threat to a genuinely free marketplace of ideas is open to debate. But in principle, it is clear that media concentration in a modern, highly technological society can in principle reach levels that threaten the actual functioning of the marketplace of ideas. If that should happen, then it becomes a social and political problem, even though the media concentration may not trammel anyone’s constitutional rights of free speech under the First Amendment. Difficult, contentious issues in campaign finance law and copyright law provide other examples. As issues and problems in these areas of the law also demonstrate, maintaining an unfettered, genuinely free marketplace of ideas cannot simply be reduced to a question of whether a speaker on a soap box can be hauled off by the state for expressing unpopular opinions.

If this is true of the public square, it is even truer of the university, which must adhere to even higher standards for maintaining a free market place of ideas. Those higher and more exacting university standards are inevitably compromised whenever the university as an institution takes a stand on controversial issues, and thereby grants certain views an officially sanctioned corner in the marketplace of ideas. A university should never make its students wonder whether, given the views they might personally hold on controversial matters, they should have enrolled somewhere else. A university can certainly make its students wonder that without putting them at risk of being arrested by the campus police or getting graded down for expressing unpopular views on controversial matters on campus.

The same is true of faculty senates. There are virtually no instances where it is appropriate for faculty senates to take positions on controversial public issues. If individual faculty members feel strongly about, say, the rightness or wrongness of the war in Iraq, those members should feel that they are at perfect liberty to sign declarations stating their views. They should also feel free to identify themselves as faculty at their university, but their faculty affiliation should be for the purpose of identification only. It would also be appropriate to mention the number of signatories, together with the number of faculty at the university. If the ratio of the number of signatories against the total number of faculty members is large enough, the general public can infer, if it so chooses, that if the declaration or statement had been put to a vote of the faculty senate, it would have passed. But a declaration or statement by faculty members who would have constituted a majority of a faculty senate vote if it had occurred is not the same thing as a declaration actually passed by majority vote of that body. Individual faculty members, even groups of them, are at perfect liberty to take positions on any public or political issues that engage their attention, but that is not the business of faculty senates as official university bodies. These are concerned only with academic affairs.

The same is true of university staff. If a university's librarians, for example, want to take a position for or against, say, the war in Iraq, or if the entire non-academic staff of a university wants to do so, they are perfectly free to express their opinions publicly. But it would be inappropriate for them to do so in a body as university librarians or as university staff. That is not what a faculty senate does, and it is not what university staff as a body does. As university bodies, both are concerned only, albeit in different ways, with purely academic questions.

Communitarian activists on campus clearly want their ideology to be adopted as the university’s official ideology in a way that goes beyond adopting things like campus recycling programs. They are very earnest about creating a campus climate in which communitarian ideas and ideals are as normative as they are in many NGO environmentalist groups and other communitarian-minded organizations. This goes beyond having sustainability or other communitarian values represented in the curriculum, where courses about them are taught subject to accepted academic norms.

Norms are what membership organizations are about, but they are not what universities are about. Obviously, universities have norms of conduct as well—such as rules about noise-making after hours in the dorms. But the Res Life agenda, as exemplified in U Delaware’s controversial Res Life program, goes way beyond the norms required for cooperative living in dorms and elsewhere on campus. One does not have to be a libertarian in order to find it objectionable that the University of Delaware had signs in the commons areas of the residence halls with mottoes like "If you think the world is only about you, You are in the Wrong Place.” It would be equally objectionable for a public research university to post signs with libertarian mottoes like “The government that governs least governs best.” Of course, a dorm might have communitarians and libertarians who hold such views, and who post such views on the doors of their own dorm rooms. A university must protect such speech, even encourage it. But it should not be doing the same thing itself.

Any purely voluntary program is not likely to be found constitutionally infirm. That is because, unlike, say, Great Britain, the U.S. does not have laws prohibiting political indoctrination. (See “British Truck Driver Sues to Ban Al Gore’s Film from Schools”). Nor should there be such laws. The line between genuine education and political indoctrination is often very hard to draw, and the government certainly shouldn’t have the power to decide where that line should be. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t such a line, and it is vitally important for a university to draw the line in the right place.

If the 2008-2009 Res Life program at the University of Delaware does turn out to be purely voluntary, it will not be challengeable on First Amendment grounds. But the program remains unacceptable for other reasons. The program must be terminated if Delaware wants to support a genuinely free marketplace of ideas.

The Res Life administrators at U Delaware who designed and who will be running the 2008-2009 curricular program there clearly do not think of themselves as participants in the free marketplace of ideas in the academy, as if their programming were simply an extension to the dorms of the curriculum taught by the faculty in the university’s classrooms. The details of last year's programs and even this year’s greatly toned-down program clearly prove otherwise. The differences are predictable and even inevitable, given that university courses are not intended to be "programming" at all.



On the day the faculty senate at the University of Delaware approved the 2008-2009 Res Life proposal, Minding the Campus published an exchange of views between John K. Wilson, the founder and moderator of CollegeFreedom.Org, and Adam Kissel of F.I.R.E. Wilson’s piece (“Unsustainable? A Defense Of ResLife At Delaware”) is remarkable for the relentless perversity of its interpretations of the issues before the faculty senate and the nature of the criticisms leveled against the proposal by critics like F.I.R.E. and the NAS. It is a useful exercise to consider Wilson’s arguments, point by point.

According to Wilson, “…academic freedom is endangered whenever voluntary educational programs are banned.”

The language of “banning” is entirely misleading. On May 12, 2008, the faculty senate decided (mistakenly in our view) to approve a program. It had a multitude of compelling reasons to reject the proposal, but it didn't do so. If it had rejected the proposal, it would not have “banned” anything. Is Wilson seriously suggesting that any time a program proposal is rejected by a faculty body that this is tantamount to a ban on the ideas contained in it?

“But no one should have veto power to ban educational programs.”

In the sense of the action taken on May 12, faculty senates “ban” proposals all the time, if by that Wilson means that they veto them or reject them.

Critics opposed the Res Life program proposal, not because they wanted to ban ideas from campus, but because they thought the program was schlock, and that it was inappropriate for a university to endorse the program itself.

“If ResLife was proposing to promote abstinence and other conservative values, I might disagree with them, but I would never seek to ban any of their activities.”

No university worth the name should have programs promoting “abstinence and other conservative values,” either. In fact, a university should not have any “programming,” as Res Life conceives it, at all.

“But you are not free to ban the program from existing. And that is what critics such as FIRE are demanding.”

The faculty senate did not have the power to ban “programming.” Students who might have a taste for such programs are at perfectly liberty under the First Amendment to organize them themselves.

When it approved the 2008-2009 proposal on May 12, the faculty senate made the wrong decision, but if it had made the right decision, it would not have engaged in any thought repression. Faculty senates make decisions to terminate or reject programs all the time because they fail to meet academic standards, and not because they are engaging in “thought repression.”

“The quality of the ResLife program is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether it should be banned.”

This is absurd. It is entirely relevant to the question whether the proposal should have been rejected—as in fact it should have been.

“The conservative critics of the ResLife proposal also misunderstand the role of faculty. The Delaware Association of Scholars proclaimed that the educational program ‘appropriates the educational function of the faculty. Turning ResLife and its staff into a principal instrument of “the University of Delaware's educational priorities,” the program usurps the faculty's historic prerogative to oversee education at the University...By approving the program, the faculty would be relinquishing the prerogative.’ By this logic, the faculty could ban any educational program it wanted to, such as speakers invited by staff or students, on the grounds that only the faculty is entitled to educate students.”

Wrong again. If university staff want to bring speakers onto campus they may do so, and students do it all the time. Faculty may also do so. But those events are not university programs that have been awarded the imprimatur of the university. That is the kind of program that the University of Delaware had and continues to have in its dorms. When a faculty senate approves a course, it is not given an official sanction or status by the university itself in the way that the Res Life curriculum has been. In the first case but not the second, it is simply a matter of the faculty deciding that the course meets its academic standards.

It is expected that one-third of the time of Delaware’s Residence Assistants will be devoted to the “curricular program” that the faculty senate approved. In effect, the decision by the faculty senate on May 12 involved a significant delegation of the faculty’s teaching prerogatives and responsibilities to the student affairs and Res Life divisions on the campus. Since these are administrative divisions of the university, not academic ones, that delegation also entailed an ideological commitment to the program by the university itself that does not exist when a faculty member teaches a course. It is an ideological commitment that the university should withhold from any program no matter what the political orientation of the program might be: libertarian, communitarian, liberal, progressive, communist, right wing true-blue patriotic Republican, or whatever.

“The notion that faculty alone are qualified to educate students is absurd.”

Nine hundred years or more of academic history says that it is not absurd. Support of this long-standing university tradition does not commit one to the view that any program taught by any faculty member is going to be superior to any course taught by someone who is not a faculty member. It is just that universities are institutions with a structure and a tradition, and according to this tradition, educational instruction is put squarely in the hands of the faculty.

That Wilson is simply wrong about this is shown by the fact that even President Harker recognized that Delaware’s faculty had veto power over the Res Life program. Submitting the proposal to the faculty senate was not a gratuitous act of generosity toward the faculty on Harker’s part: it was an acknowledgment of the fact that in the university tradition, including that of the University of Delaware, teaching is in the hands of the faculty. That rule of university governance has been adopted, not because it will always lead to the right result, but because it is thought to be the best of all possible rules. Can Wilson really think think that non-faculty staff at the university should be able to teach anything they want, without the approval of the faculty?  That is what Wilson's article certainly suggests, though it is a pretty crazy view. 

"Everyone—including faculty, staff, students, and outsiders—should be free to educate students. The faculty do not have any ‘educational prerogatives’ outside the classroom, and no power to ban programs with views they might dislike."

Does the faculty have the power to “ban views they might dislike"? Well, it does have the power to tell the administration what educational instruction it might or might not conduct in the dorms. In fact, it is the responsibility of the faculty to terminate programs in the dorms that in its considered view are inappropriate for a university. The U Delaware faculty did not come to that decision on May 12. But it could have, and it should have.

“This is demeaning and insulting to all students, since it presumes that students would be better off with nothing to do rather than running the ‘risk’ of being pressured to attend an event.”

Even if a program like U Delaware’s is offered on a voluntary basis, and there are students who might want it, it still shouldn’t be offered by a university, because a university should not itself support such “programming.” If there are students who want such programs ardently enough, they are at perfect liberty to organize those programs themselves under the First Amendment.

 “Why can't a residence hall have intellectual activities and engage students in serious ideas?”

It can. If it wanted to, it could ask the faculty to organize such activities. It could also ask the University itself to pay for such activities. (Res Life at Delaware has said that it will try to make arrangements with the faculty for such events, though on May 12, apparently, it could not promise anything; at that time, Res Life could only promise that invitations to interested faculty would be issued.) Alternatively, dorm residents can arrange for “intellectual activities” that “engage …serious ideas” on their own. But their having the right to do this doesn't mean that Res Life should be able to run its own programs at the university’s expense.

“I object to the relativist approach promoted by FIRE, which seems to presume that all ideas are equal and that staff at a university should never dare to teach anyone that some ideas are better than others.”

Staff members at a university do not teach. That is the function of the faculty, not because faculty members are always good teachers, or better teachers than any others could be, but because that is their function. There are widely recognized norms and standards for faculty instruction in the academy, such as those adopted by the AAUP. These guidelines may not be perfect: they can be and have been criticized. But at least the AAUP has made the attempt to get it right. Because teaching is not the responsibility of staff members, there are no comparable norms or standards for them. That is undoubtedly why things like “transformative education,” “holistic learning,” “experiential learning,” and the like have been able to get a purchase in Res Life programs in a way that has not been possible—as yet, anyway—in the curricular sector of the university.

“FIRE is infantilizing college students”

On the contrary, it is Res Life’s curricular program that infantilizes students. It demeans them and patronizes them, because it treats them, not as scholars or students, but as citizens—and defective ones, at that. Students pay tuition and attend college in order to be treated as students not global citizens.

“In the Delaware case, FIRE has moved from a correct principle that students should not be compelled to participate in controversial residence hall activities to an incorrect belief that no controversial residence hall activities should be allowed out of fear that students might ‘feel’ compelled to participate. This is no small step; it is a massive leap from protecting free speech to attacking it. It is disgraceful to see FIRE betraying the principles of academic freedom and seeking to ban a program from a university because it finds the content too liberal for its conservative taste.”

“It is the liberal content of the program that FIRE and other conservative critics object to.”

“ResLife promotes social justice and civic engagement, and these are political values (albeit not very radical ones). I think these are good political values, and conservatives disagree, but that doesn't matter.”

Wrong again. FIRE and the NAS have not objected to Res Life’s curricular program at the University of Delaware because of its “liberal content.” The objection has always been that it is inappropriate for purely academic reasons for the University to be running such politically-charged programs.

“The only relevant question is whether the ResLife program violates the rights of students by compelling them to participate or censoring their views”

Not exactly. This is only one question of many. Programs are rejected by faculty senates all the time: (1) because funds are limited, the university has to make a choice, and necessarily some programs get approved and others don’t; (2) because a proposed program doesn't meet the faculty's standards, and is deemed unworthy of the university; and (3) because it doesn’t fit into the university’s structure or its rules of governance, quite independently of any judgments about its merits. As it happens, the University of Delaware should have rejected the Res Life proposal on all three grounds.


Communitarianism may have a politically promising future in the United States. If so, students, staff, and faculty who support that ideology will have more opportunities in the future than ever before to participate in voluntary political and NGO-type activities to support communitarian causes, on and off campus. But activists want more than this.  They want their universities to join in support of their causes and agendas in the same way as these other kinds of organizations, and this is a threat to academe.

The controversy at U Delaware over Res Life’s curricular program exposed to public attention a larger movement in higher education that has been at work for many years. It involves a commitment to a very strong version of communitarian ideology by student life and residential affairs professionals. The agenda is to first get strongly communitarian ideals into curricular programs that are taught in residence

Communitarianism may have a politically promising future in the United States. If so, students, staff, and faculty who support that ideology will have more opportunities in the future than ever before to participate in voluntary political and NGO-type activities to support communitarian causes, on and off campus. But activists want more than this.  They want their universities to join in support of their causes and agendas in the same way as these other kinds of organizations, and this is a threat to academe.

The controversy at U Delaware over Res Life’s curricular program exposed to public attention a larger movement in higher education that has been at work for many years. It involves a commitment to a very strong version of communitarian ideology by student life and residential affairs professionals. The agenda is to first get strongly communitarian ideals into curricular programs that are taught in residence halls. This is thought to be—probably correctly—the most promising place to begin on campus. But the ambition is wider than that. Proponents hope to transform all of higher education with this agenda.

Res Life at U Delaware was forced by criticism on and off campus to tone down its program significantly, and the agenda is now under public scrutiny in a way that it never has been before. One "former UD hall director," in a comment on an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the recent NAS statement, "Rebuilding Campus Community: The Wrong Imperative," even opined--apparently with considerable bitterness--that “transformative learning” is no longer allowed in the residence halls at Delaware.

It remains to be seen if that assessment is correct. It would be a very good thing for everybody concerned if it is, but if it is, it means that the current program is just window dressing, and one might reasonably doubt that this is the case. None of the culprits at the university was fired, and no apologies by any of those responsible for last year’s truly outrageous programs have been given. A program with the same agenda and ideology continues at Delaware, only now it is said to be voluntary.

In my view, it would be wishful thinking to believe that the Communitarian Res Life movement has actually been given its quietus. We must continue our efforts to combat it, for it has no place in any university that deserves the name.

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