The Communitarian ResLife Movement: Part 2

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.


This is the second installment in a series of four. Read the first installment here.



Much of the energy behind the critique of sustainability studies in the academy has been misdirected, because it has focused unduly on the content of the three circles of sustainability. Debate about the content of these three circles already has a place in the academy, and there is much debate about the issues in the public sphere as well, but it is precisely because they are controversial that courses and debate about the issues deserve a place in the academy.

What is new and deserves more attention than the content of the three circles is the insistence of many campus activists that the university itself has to change in fundamental ways in response to the challenge posed by the three circles. For these activists, simply studying or researching or teaching about the issues in the old, customary ways is insufficient. It is clear that for at least some sustainability advocates in the academy, the intersection of the fields represented by the three circles of sustainability requires a new pedagogy. We need to do more work on exotica like ecopedagogy and critical pedagogy and the way they influence important sectors of the academy like Res Life. I suspect that working beneath the surface of curricular programs like those at U Delaware are "transformative" intentions involving much wider and more radical ambitions than first meets the eye.

One way that such things as radical ecopedagogy or critical pedagogy can be shoehorned into mainstream academia is to use citizenship education and moral education as the shibboleths.

At Delaware, seemingly benign notions of citizenship and civic responsibility have been used as a vehicle to attack the students’ perceived egocentricity and other shortcomings as global citizens. Personal challenges of this kind are sometimes appropriate in a classroom, but a good teacher will use them sparingly and judiciously. At Delaware, their use has been systematic, and this systematic use has been justified as part of a pedagogy of "personal development" and education in civic responsibility for the new global citizen.

In retrospect, it was predictable that this sort of thing would surface first in dorms on campus, rather than in classrooms. In the classroom setting, the expectation is that members of the class will be treated as students, and according to more or less well-established academic norms. This is not true of residence halls, where many Res Life professionals now seem to that think it is perfectly acceptable to treat dorm residents as citizens to be trained and programmed rather than as students who are attending college to be educated by the faculty.

In the rest of this paper, I will be focusing largely on citizenship education in U Delaware's Res Life curricular programming. But it is important to keep in mind that citizenship education, education in civic responsibility, morals education, etc., are probably only a small part of the whole picture—the more radical parts of which are behind the scenes.

Although what lies behind the scenes is probably much more radical and disturbing, the stuff that has already surfaced is strange enough, at least as measured by any reasonable standard of what counts as acceptable pedagogy in an institution of higher education. As we will see, reading it is a little like being subjected to a Power Point presentation by Nurse Ratched at a really boring Res Life academic conference after she has tried to assimilate some Frantz Fanon or Paulo Freire.


There are stronger and weaker, radical and less radical, versions of communitarianism. Higher Education often represents the stronger, more radical versions. One good example has been the Res Life program at the University of Delaware.

It has been very difficult for critics to convey to those who have not studied such programs in detail some sense of what they are like. Most people do not have the time to wade through the 500 pages on the University of Delaware program alone that FIRE has uploaded to its web site. Still, an attempt at this has to be made.

I have tried to distill the essence of it all in the following excerpts, which have been taken from the Rodney Complex curriculum for 2007-2008 at the University of Delaware. These excerpts will have to suffice as a very brief account of much of the thinking behind what I think of now as the communitarian Res Life movement in American higher education today:

Rodney Complex staff members, in keeping with the UD Office of Residence Life educational priority of citizenship education, will help students begin the journey towards becoming civically engaged and active community members.


Sustainability involves the simultaneous pursuit of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity famously known as the triple bottom line. The three elements of sustainability are rich in opportunities to mobilize students to act, move, and make a difference in the world around them.


Sustainability provides a mechanism to take a comprehensive look at the interconnections that exist between ecological, economic and equity issues such as global warming, pollution, health and poverty and work towards lasting solutions (Edwards, 2005). While students will not be prepared to, nor are they expected to tackle these complex topics during their freshman year, it is imperative that they begin to develop a value system that considers how their actions contribute to the further augmentation of these issues. As such, sustainability provides a viable conduit for citizenship education and the development of a particular values system.


By providing an environment where active, experiential and collaborative learning and problem-solving takes place, residents will learn and practice how to be socially responsible and active citizens in a global society.


Definition: Citizenship

Become an engaged and active citizen by understanding how your thoughts, values, beliefs, and actions affect the people with whom you live and recognize your responsibility to contribute to a sustainable society at a local, national, and global level.


An on-going paradigm shift within student affairs has led to an intense exploration of how we induce learning in the environments we oversee. In Learning Reconsidered (2004), learning is defined as the "comprehensive, holistic, transformative activity that integrates academic learning and student development" (ACPA & NASPA, p. 4).


The educational focus in Rodney is impossible without a level of peer to peer engagement. The Office of Residence Life learning outcomes require significant individual reflection, and the quality of this reflection depends greatly upon the exploration and interpretation of meaning in the larger floor social unit. Topics of social justice, sustainability, individual power within a community, and so forth cannot be examined with any degree of educational success if residents remain individually isolated from their freshmen peers.


It is essential to create this community of practice where residents learn the knowledge, skills and values necessary to serve as citizens that actively engage in local, national, and global issues. By providing an environment where active, experiential and collaborative learning and problem-solving takes place, residents will learn and practice how to be socially responsible and active citizens in a global economy.


Universities have always existed to nurture healthy communities and economies through education. But today, more than ever before, universities are realizing that they also need to set positive social, environmental, and economic examples for their societies to follow (The University of British Columbia Sustainability Office, 2006). Sustainability reflects a new social ethos that relies on the web of relationships that exist in our society.


It has been reported that the average American spends $738.11 during the holiday season alone (Wisdom Financial Inc., 2005). The majority of UD students are privileged in their purchasing power. They have the ability to buy, use, and seek out what they want, when they want it with very little effort exhibited on their part. This desire to possess brings up a number of different issues that our students should explore: What causes them to buy? Advertising? Peer pressures? How does what they buy impact those around them, in terms of establishing a local campus culture or to a greater extent what manufacturers and suppliers will sell? This issue will be examined from a social justice and wealth disparity and inequities position in terms of assessing what is spent on meaningless, temporary things, while there are individuals who do not have basic necessities. This will also be explored in terms of impact on environment.


Complex-Wide Visuals: This will be a series of small quotes and messages that will be placed all over the complex that deal directly with the freshman learning outcomes. Examples include sayings like, "If you think the world is only about you, You are in the Wrong Place," "Have you considered your daily impact?", etc. The small sayings will send a message about the values and expectations of individual living within the complex.


Title: Sustainability Door Decs

Each room door in the complex will have a door decoration that has a representation of the interlocking circles of the triple bottom line. These door decs will be distributed by the complex coordinator at the beginning of the year. To minimize waste, these door decs will be designed in such a way that they can serve as book marks for students.


Title: Floor Bulletin Boards This strategy allows the RA freedom in creation as they can interpret these bulletin board topics in the manner that best represents their talents and creativity. Each bulletin board must include two components- 1) the current state of affairs and 2) what students can do to impact change in this area. Each hall staff is expected to evenly distribute these topic areas among the members of the staff. All bulletin boards within a building must be designed using these specified topics, unless prior permission is granted.


Title: Choose a Side Learning Outcomes:

• Understand how your social identities affect how you view others.

• Understand how differences in equity impact our society.

Learning Goal Connection:

• Each student will understand their social identities which are salient in their day-to-day life.

• Each student will recognize his/her personal tendencies towards ego-centrism

• Each student will learn the benefits of moving beyond an ego-centric mind set.

• Each student will learn about the forms of oppression that are linked with social identity groups.

Lesson Timing: November 1 - December 5th

Facilitator: RAs will facilitate the first half and then the Hall Director will facilitate the Hula Hoop Saliency Lens activity

Description: Students will gain an understanding of how social identities impact how they view the world and concurrently impact how the world views them. Terms, such as homophobia/ableism/sexism, will be introduced and defined, and residents will identify how the use of oppressive language (such as, 'that's so gay", "that's so retarded") is used in conversations without any consideration of how it affects individuals from this community. Various statements will be read by the RA and residents will move to a sign placed on the wall containing the words: Always, Sometimes, Never. After each statement read by the RA, residents will be asked to respond with the words, "always, sometimes or never," and explain why they answered that way. Through the use of personal stories and funds of knowledge, residents will realize the personal impact that language and stereotypes have on individuals. The Hall Directors will facilitate the "Hula Hoop Saliency Lens" to further this examination, as well as advertise and talk about the Multicultural Leadership Retreat.


When students have a violation or charge that results in a monetary expense—staff members will let them know of some other ways that money could be spent. For instance, $100 for a alcohol violation could go to buying half a cow to send to a developing country or be donated to assist in local flood disaster relief • Staff members will stress to students the interconnectedness of their actions on the community

 John K. Wilson, to name one defender of Delaware’s Res Life curricular programming, has claimed that this kind of programming is a “good idea.” What, one might ask, is good about it? This, as I have suggested, is a vision of the Good Society as it might be conceived these days by Nurse Ratched.

Defenders of this kind of programming and the University of Delaware itself have claimed that all the “problems” in the 2007-2008 programming have been removed in the 2008-2009 curriculum program. But Adam Kissel at F.I.R.E. has done a very thorough job of showing the fundamental continuities between the 2008-2009 proposal that the faculty senate recently approved and last year’s program. There is also other compelling evidence of a more general nature that the ideological commitments of the Res Life staff at U Delaware remain unchanged.


If there is one word that sums up the communitarian ideology, it is “anti-libertarian.” Even so, critiques of communitarianism have not come entirely, or even mostly, from libertarians themselves. The longest and most searching debate over communitarianism has been conducted between communitarians and traditional, classical liberals.

Communitarians have criticized classical liberalism as based on untenable notions of individualism and individual rights that they believe are corrosive to any viable notion of community. Classical iberals have responded by arguing that, if communitarianism represents any coherent political philosophy at all, it threatens individual liberties and rights.

To the extent it does not do this, they have argued, communitarianism simply reduces to traditional, classical liberalism, or represents a contradictory ideal. Both libertarians and traditional, classical liberals have criticized what they see as the marked authoritarian impulses within the communitarian philosophy and movement.

The central idea behind communitarianism is that we are inevitably and unavoidably embedded in the social groups of which we are members. Communitarians have therefore attacked liberal political philosophies that are based on the concept of the autonomous individual, the best example of which is probably that of John Rawls. According to Peter Berkowitz, who knew Rawls and followed his work carefully, the criticism of his own theory of justice and society that Rawls took most seriously was the communitarian one, according to which his approach was artificial. In his later work, Rawls tried to build his liberalism on a foundation that was not based simply on the concept of the autonomous individual. Nevertheless, there was clearly a limit to how far Rawls could go in this direction without abandoning his fundamental principles. In any traditional liberal or classical position, like Rawls’, there is a strong, natural barrier against overriding the rights of the individual that are not present in systems that begin from a pure communitarian basis, according to which the community in which the individual is embedded is primary and the individual is secondary.

I have not found any passage in the Student Affairs / Res Life literature that explicitly states that the current Res Life agenda is communitarian, or indeed that it has a political agenda at all. This might seem to be a fatal weakness of the present analysis, but I don’t believe it is. There are reasons why Res Lifers are not forthcoming about naming their ideological agenda, even though they have one.

It would not be in the interest of Res Life professionals to state that they have adopted an ideology, nor is it necessary for them to do so. Acknowledging that they have a political agenda and naming it would likely endanger their movement, because it would make it a more visible target for criticism and political attack. It is much safer, and much more politically savvy, to treat the communitarian ideas that are being advanced as similar to the air we breathe. The basic truths of communitarians are allowed to simply permeate our lives, unconsciously, as views that are so obvious and so important that no reasonable person could possibly disagree with them, just as we breathe the air that surrounds us.

I have said that the single word that describes the communitarian ideal best is “anti-libertarian.” A straightforward anti-libertarian, communitarian curricular program, therefore, would attack individualism itself. Res Life materials flirt with such frontal assaults, but usually attempt to undermine “individualism” in a more muted way, by attacking the “extremes of individualist thinking.” This can be seen in the list of catchwords or keywords above. Alternatively, the curricular materials attack “egocentricity” rather than individualism per se. Individualism, after all, has strong partisans in the academy itself. Traditional, classical liberals also defend “individualism.”  Individualism is also widely supported in the larger society, and a healthy respect for it is thought to be one of the founding principles of the American polity. That is undoubtedly why it is much more common for curricular materials like those at U Delaware to attack individualism obliquely, by attacking things like “egocentricity” instead.

Most people—even those who might value strong individuals and even pride themselves on being strong individuals themselves—do not want to think of themselves as egocentric. Some libertarians or objectivists might not fight shy of describing themselves as egocentric, or as advocating egocentrism, but such people have a flare for the heroic. It should also be noted that egocentricity is a psychological term, not a philosophical or political one. It is in the realm of psychotherapeutic terms and concepts that Res Life communitarians seem to feel most at home.

Look for the third installment on Thursday. It will investigate the use of sustainability ideals to transform students from defective citizens into model citizens. Also, Thomas Wood asks, “What’s in a mission statement?” How can we identify warning signs in mission statements that will alert us for “trouble ahead.” He compares the mission statements of U of Delaware, Harvard, and UC Berkeley.


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