The Communitarian ResLife Movement

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 make 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. Tom 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.


 Today we present the first installment. But first, a table of contents:


1st Installment

-         Connecting the Dots: Sustainability, Identity Politics, and Social Justice in ResLife

-         The Language of Sustainability

-         Communitarianism as the Ideology behind the Res Life Movement

-         Communitarianism and Identity Politics

-         Communitarianism and Sustainability

2nd Installment

-         Higher Education at the Intersection of the Three Circles of Sustainability

         Flying over the Cuckoo’s Nest: A View of the Communitarian Landscape at the U of Delaware

-         Critiques of Communitarianism

3rd Installment

-         Universities and Citizenship: Proper and Improper Ways of Handling Communitarian Ideas inside the Academy

-         Ideology in University Mission Statements

4th Installment

-         Voluntary Programs, Free Speech, and the Marketplace of Ideas

-         What Happened May 12: A Response to John K. Wilson

-         Looking Ahead




by Thomas Wood, NAS


Not necessarily hostile to social liberalism or even social democracy, communitarianism emphasizes the interest of communities and societies over those of the individual.

Wikipedia: Communitarianism


Sustainability education provides the opportunity to help students move beyond an ego-centric and "what's in for me" attitude. This type of education fosters an ethic of care for the community versus thinking solely of personal benefits and gains. We propose that it is in fact in students' best of interest to consider the community in their decision making process. The Rodney curriculum intends to help students adopt a worldview focused on the interconnectedness of networks and systems.

Rodney Complex Curriculum: A Sustainable Community, 2007-2008

July 2007

Developed by Sendy E. Guerrier

Rodney Complex Coordinator

Adjusted by Licinia B. Kaliher

Rodney Complex Coordinator

University of Delaware

Office of Residence Life 


There has been a good deal of discussion about “sustainability” in the controversies over the Res Life programs at the University of Delaware, since this term figured so prominently in those programs. The Central Complex Curriculum at the University of Delaware for 2007-2008 was entitled: “Think Global. Act Local. Serve! Service-Learning Through a Sustainability Lens"; the Dickinson Complex curriculum was called “A Sustainable Community,” and the Rodney Complex curriculum was entitled "A Sustainable Curriculum."

 “Sustainability” is a slippery term that warrants a closer inspection than it gets.  One oddity is that the firestorm at U Delaware was not ignited over the kinds of economic or ecological issues that seemingly comprise sustainability. It centered instead on the way the university had handled issues of personal identity like race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. To the extent that the controversy at the University came to the attention of the general public at all, it was generally limited to outrages like the claim in Shakti Butler’s training manual that every white person in America must be a racist. The controversy had little or nothing to do with questions concerning “sustainable development,” which most people regard as concerned with economics, environment, and ecology. Yet even the controversy about the 2008-2009 Res Life curricular program at Delaware is largely about “sustainability” and its proper role as a curricular program there.

Another oddity (I am not trying to be exhaustive here) is that the proponents and architects of sustainability programming in the academy do not themselves regard “sustainability” as being primarily or essentially about economics or ecology or the environment. Kathleen Kerr, the Res Hall director at U Delaware, has said so explicitly. On November 13, 2006, about twelve months before President Harker suspended her curricular program, Kerr made a joint presentation with Keith E. Edwards of Macalester College at a Myacpa conference. The power point slides of that presentation are available on the web pages for the Tools for Social Justice Conference at the Myacpa web site. Here is what they said on the matter (Slide 8):

 Which of these myths do you believe?:

Sustainability is mostly about the environment.

Sustainability is just another issue, like international studies or computer literacy.

Sustainability is secondary to the university's core mission and function.

Sustainability will almost always cost the university more money.

Sustainability is primarily a scientific and technical problem.

 So there you have it. According to Kerr and Edwards, sustainability isn’t really about what people think it is (economics or the environment, or a set of scientific or technical problems). On the other hand, we are asked to believe that sustainability is very much about things like racism, sexism, and other issues of personal identity, which most people do not associate with terms like “sustainability” or “sustainable development.”




It is important to consider the whole range of issues that “sustainability” covers. Since enlisting as the principal researcher and investigator for the NAS’s “How Many Delawares?” project, I have been frequently struck, even bewildered, by the multitude of topics “sustainability” is supposed to cover. Below is a selection. Since they are so numerous, I have categorized them as follows: GENERAL TERMS, DOMESTIC POLITICS/IDEOLOGY, INTERNATIONAL POLITICS, LAW, ECONOMICS, ECOLOGY, DIVERSITY & IDENTITY POLITICS, and ACADEMICS:

 GENERAL TERMS: the common good, the collective good, communalism, social justice, civic virtue, strengthening the bonds of community, "moving in the direction of favoring the community in the balance between community and the individual," commitment beyond "mere individual self-interest," socially caring communities, moving away from privacy and a rhetoric of rights to a "vocabulary stressing responsibility and obligation," introducing (or rather reintroducing) the vocabulary and rhetoric of values and morals into civil life, attacks on (extremes of) individualism


DOMESTIC POLITICS/IDEOLOGY: civil society, green politics (Europe), attacks on, or critiques of, private property, critiques of free markets, global warming activism, critiques of “uncompromising defenses of individual rights,” community building, supplementing or devaluing representative democracy in favor of community action, community activism and organization, critiques of "rights-oriented liberalism"


INTERNATIONAL POLITICS: internationalism, globalism, elimination of borders, global world government, global citizenry, restoring the balance between global community and prerogatives and rights of autonomous nation states—in particular, correcting the imbalance that presently exists in favor of the big and powerful nation states, especially the U.S.


LAW: communitarian law, community justice, restorative justice, social justice, restraining individual rights in many circumstances in order to defend and promote community values


ECONOMICS: critiques of capitalism as inimical to genuine, wholesome, personal and spiritual values, ecological economics, communities versus markets, socio-economics


ECOLOGY: sustainability; sustainable development; sustainable economies; saving the planet, the Green Movement; the anti-global warming movement


DIVERSITY & IDENTITY POLITICS: cultural diversity; respect for other societies; multiculturalism; racial and ethnic diversity; social diversity; critiques of heterosexism/ ableism; racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, ageism and every other divisive –ism, including nationalism and ethnocentrism


ACADEMICS: community service; service learning, civic engagement, campus compacts (linking course content with community-based work), engaged scholarship, holistic thinking (versus linear, logic-chopping, individualist thinking), emphasis on the civic and democratic mission of the university, community-university partnerships, education as an essentially moral enterprise, learning communities, holistic education and holistic learning, educating to develop moral and civic responsibility; community values, contextualized knowledge, transformative learning toward sustainability, participative learning, emphasis on the social nature of life and learning, critiques of “academic competitiveness,” cooperative learning communities, creative learning (vs. mere “information transfer”), non-hierarchical education, education built on social interrelatedness




I have a theory on the best way to make sense of this jungle of concepts and terms. There is a concept—an ideology or political philosophy if one likes—that ties all the foregoing terms and concepts together very nicely. The ideology of the modern Res Life movement—and for much else in the academy as well—I believe, is communitarianism. Other political philosophies or ideologies either include too much or leave too much out. But the mapping between communitarianism and the copious terms above is perfect.

 Communitarianism is the theory that individual freedoms have “weakened the bonds of community,” and that as a result, individual rights must be balanced against “the more moral interests of the community.” It “emphasizes the interest of communities and societies over those of the individual.” It asserts the “embeddedness of the self in a community.” It also holds that we are, intrinsically, “community-centered beings.” The present outlook of communitarians is global, rather than local or national.

Though the term “communitarianism” is of 20th-century origin, it is derived from the 1840s term “communitarian,” which was coined by Goodwyn Barmby to refer to one who was a member or advocate of a communalist society. The modern use is simply a redefinition of the original term.

Today’s most prominent communitarian writer and thinker is Amitai Etzioni, a University professor at George Washington University. The online center for communitarian activists and thinkers is Etzioni's web site at GWU, called the Communitarian Network. The Network was formed by a group of ethicists, activists, and social scientists. The list of founders, who were signatories to a document called the Responsive Communitarian Platform, includes many prominent names. The Platform begins:

American men, women, and children are members of many communities--families; neighborhoods; innumerable social, religious, ethnic, work place, and professional associations; and the body politic itself. Neither human existence nor individual liberty can be sustained for long outside the interdependent and overlapping communities to which all of us belong. Nor can any community long survive unless its members dedicate some of their attention, energy, and resources to shared projects. The exclusive pursuit of private interest erodes the network of social environments on which we all depend, and is destructive to our shared experiment in democratic self-government. For these reasons, we hold that the rights of individuals cannot long be preserved without a communitarian perspective.

A list of some of the more prominent founders and endorsers is given here, and of new endorsers here.



There is an obvious connection between communitarianism and identity politics. In communitarianism, the notion of an autonomous individual, independent of any community or communities of which individuals are members, is an abstract fiction. In this view, we are defined by the group identities of family, race, sex, ethnicity, linguistics, nationality, and so on. In this respect, at least, communitarian thinking is at odds with both classical liberal thinking and with Marxist thinking. Formulations of traditional classicial liberalism, like John Rawls’, are typically based on the concept of the free, autonomous individual. In classical Marxist thought, the only class or group in society that has a determinative role is economic class. Marx dismissed every other class or group in society as the product of false consciousness, i.e., as ultimately unreal. But identity politics and communitarian thinking do not believe that the only real social grouping is economic class.

The problem for communitarians, as for many on the Left, is to see how a homogeneous or at least harmonious society or real community can develop, given the acknowledged power of subgroups. The more power particular identities have, the more difficult it is to generate commitment to larger, more inclusive communities. This is the old problem of how to generate e pluribus unum according to strictly liberal principles.

The problem is at least as great for communitarians as it is for traditional, classical liberals. For a theoretician like Rawls, the problem lies in getting to a cohesive society in a way that is solidly built on liberal notions of social justice, using the idea of the autonomous individual. The problem for a communitarian lies in getting to a similar place without getting stuck in narrow tribalisms.

Theoretically, the problem for communitarians is reduced and might even be eliminated by invoking the inequality of groups in society. This is an attractive solution, particularly for left wing communitarians (There are conservative communitarians as well.) From this perspective, the alliance between communitarian left-wing thinking and multiculturalism is a natural one: the fight against heterosexism, ableism, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, ageism and every other divisive –ism is an essential and inevitable component of any struggle to create a wider (ultimately even global) sense of community. The enemy, on this view, is not community or social grouping per se, but rather inequality and the hegemony of some groups over others—with white male patriarchs being the worst of the hegemons. Nor is it surprising that most communitarians are globalists to some degree or other. For those communitarians deeply allied with the struggle against “all divisive –isms,” there are political advantages to globalism, since the marginalized and oppressed minorities of the U.S. become majorities when the issues are viewed globally.

There is another possible link between “sustainability” and the agendas of diversity and multiculturalism. While I have never found the following argument set out very explicitly, I believe it does lie behind much communitarian thinking. The argument goes like this: A sustainable, sound ecology will promote and protect biological diversity of species; similarly, a sustainability movement built on sound moral principles will respect ethnic and cultural diversity. But this argument, if that is what it is, is simply a verbal sleight of a hand. It is obvious that there could in principle be a very racist and/or sexist community that was as eco-friendly and ecologically sustainable as one could imagine. So we are back with one of the two oddities with which we began: the apparent lack of linkage between sustainability concerns and concerns about “racism” in curricular programs like those that the University of Delaware has in its dorms.

It is not surprising that the first public relations disaster of major proportions for the communitarian Res Life movement came over personal identity issues like race and sexual orientation. It’s an indication of how problematic it is for communitarians to build a commitment to a wider sense of community, given the deference it gives to subgroups. Come what may, however, it is clear that communitarian activists will not and cannot sever or weaken their commitment to the “struggle against all divisive –isms.” Left-leaning communitarians, who appear to be fully committed to such ideas themselves, are also political coalition builders. Politically, it is not desirable or even possible to ignore issues of social justice and diversity as many campus activists become increasingly committed to “sustainability” as the overarching theme for their larger agenda.



The connection between communitarianism and sustainability is pretty straight forward. According to both viewpoints, societies based on individualism tend to be unsustainable in the long term. Western capitalism, valuing profits over the environmental consequences, is regarded as the worst offender. This selfish thinking needs to be corrected with an enhanced concern for community (moderate or non-radical communitarianism), if not a complete revolution in capitalist society on a global level (radical, non-moderate communitarianism).

For Kerr and Edwards (see above), any curricular program that treats sustainability as primarily a technical or scientific issue about the environment is inadequate—even intellectually dishonest—because it will fail to get to the root of the crisis that is threatening the planet. To be intellectually honest and effective, a curricular program must attack the ideal of a society built on autonomous individuals as outmoded and invalid. Students must see that everything is interrelated.

However controversial or questionable its claims may be on particular points, there is no doubt that the sustainability movement has been highly successful in putting skeptics and opponents on the defensive, because if the analyses and predictions of the proponents are valid, it is in everyone’s interest to support what advocates call “sustainable development.”

Pace Kerr and Edwards, however, there is something special about environmental concerns in this movement, which should probably be regarded as the first and most important of the three circles of sustainability studies. Sustainability has attracted so much attention because it claims that our society can’t maintain its economic and technological success over the long run, if it hasn’t peaked already. Since many accept this claim as probably true, people are willing to consider what sustainability theorists have to say about the economic and societal circles of sustainability. Thus the movement gains support because one doesn’t have to begin with the assumption that the claims are true, but only with the assumption that the claims are worth investigating.

Sustainability studies are riddled with controversy. But there is now widespread and growing public debate about the dangers of pumping large amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, deforesting the Amazonian basin, or generating nuclear waste that lasts almost forever. We appear to be running out of oil at an alarming rate, with no economic alternative in sight. And so on. Sustainability advocates have a prima facie case that the trend lines for such things can’t go on forever, so the case is easy to make that we need more research and more answers to these questions. If sustainability partisans are correct, we are quickly approaching an ecological apocalypse, and such studies are long overdue. But even if their predictions and claims are largely incorrect, sustainability studies could still be justified, since the knowledge generated in the process will be useful, regardless of the conclusion.

The university is not particularly threatened when activists promote recycling, waste disposal, and anti-designer water campaigns on campus. Such campaigns and their resulting policies are no more threatening in themselves than dorm rules about noise or any of the other garden-variety rules for community living in the academy. It is only when sustainability is used for the much larger agenda of transforming the academy that the sustainability movement becomes a threat to the academy.

The university should not be treated as a kind of Non-Government Organization type with the goal of saving the world. Any member of the university community who wants to join with other activists on or off campus to save the environment is at liberty to do so. But the university’s function in society is very different from that of an NGO, and it should not be treated as one. An NGO begins with the premise that certain things are true; the concern is to change the world according to those premises. The purpose is not to debate or investigate: it is to produce social change. That is not the function of a university.

Look for the next installment later this week. It will investigate how the overlap of the three circles of sustainability result in a new pedagogy that is popular in residence halls: it educates the citizen in the student, not the student in the citizen. It will also feature a series of statements from the horse’s mouth, i.e. the U of Delaware website, that show exactly how integral sustainability doctrine is to Delaware’s student life programs.

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