8. Ideology @ UCLA Dorms

Peter Wood

Readers of NAS's postings to How Many Delawares? continue to spot hatchlings of the blue hen state in other venues. A faculty member at UCLA drew our attention to a front page story in The Daily Bruin, January 14, concerning a change in some UCLA dorms.

Currently UCLA offers students five "themed" housing floors: "an academic floor, a social justice floor, an art floor, a community service floor and a health and fitness floor." All five will be discontinued for the fall of 2008, to be replaced with four floors whose themes will be "sustainability; African Diaspora Studies; health, science and medicine; and Chican@/Latin@ Diaspora Studies. (The "at sign" is not a typo; it's the latest in gender-neutral orthography. I'm not sure how one might pronounce it. Chicanat? Latinat? )

Let me not get sidetracked. Why is UCLA retiring the old themes? According to The Daily Bruin, Dr. Suzanne Seplow, director of the office of Residence Life, explained that "less than 30 percent of students living on theme floors in the past have demonstrated any particular interest in the given themes." This is an arresting statistic. Fewer than 30 percent of the students on the "academic floor" are interested in academics? But the market has spoken. Seplow has sought "input from a number of focus groups" to come up with the new themes.

Dr. La'Tonya Rease Miles, associate director for the Academic Advancement Program and faculty-in-residence for De Neve Plaza, will serve as faculty-in-residence for the new sustainability and African Diaspora floors. Her enthusiasm for the concept extends to her keeping a notebook of possible programs to go with the new themes including, "taking the students on a toxic tour of Los Angeles."

Setting aside portions of residence halls for students who share a particular academic interest is a practice long-standing in higher education and one that has often been pursued to good effect. Setting aside floors of residence halls to emphasize racial and ethnic themes is a more recent and more questionable development connected with campus identity politics. But let's take particular note of UCLA's "sustainability" floor.

Here is a word has been circulating for perhaps twenty years among campus environmentalists but is suddenly in vogue. Sustainability programs are sprouting around the country, including the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University.

When Kathleen Kerr, the Director of Residence Life at the University of Delaware, was casting about for a way to package residence life, she presented it as a "sustainability" program. She was not a newcomer to this theme having presented on with Keith E. Edwards at the "Tools for Social Justice Conference" in Kansas City, Missouri, November 2006. That talk exposed some of the "myths" of sustainability (Myth: "Sustainability is mostly about the environment.") and explaining the "social justice aspects of sustainable development" (e.g. "environmental racism," "domestic partnerships" "gender equity," and "affirmative action.") It turns out that virtually the whole political agenda of the progressive left can be fit inside the word "sustainability." But Kerr is no less interested in "social justice education," and in that light she has proposed "student learning outcomes" that attach to each of the items on the political agenda. Kerr's vision of residence life bears a resemblance to the old experiment in sustainability "Biosphere 2." Those with long memories will recall that most of the animals and all of the pollinating insects died, and the volunteer humans emerged in none too great shape.

American College Personnel Association (ACPA) has its own Sustainability Task Force, whose members include the chair of a community college commission for wellness and the chair of a university's commission for social justice educators. ACPA isn't alone in this. In 2005, it joined with eight other higher education associations to form the Higher Education Association Sustainability Consortium (HEASC).

Thus when UCLA decides to dedicate a floor to "sustainability," there is a good chance that this means something beyond a really heartfelt commitment to recycling and short, cold showers. Sustainability is a new code word for political activism across a whole collection of issues. Maybe that's not what Dr. Suzanne Seplow has in mind, but the floors devoted to African Diaspora Studies and Chican@/Latin@ Diaspora Studies suggest that UCLA is not averse to using its residence halls to promote ideological causes.

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