The Communitarian ResLife Movement: Part 3

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 third installment in a series of 4. Follow these links to read the first and second installments.


Advocates of communitarianism in higher education argue, in effect, that (1) universities are communities; (2) communities should be governed by communitarian principles; therefore (3) universities themselves should be run according to communitarian principles and should as institutions support and promote communitarian agendas in the dorms and elsewhere.

Obviously, something is wrong with that logic. Let’sbegin with a comparison of the agenda of communitarian advocates on campus and Tocqueville.

The current Res Life agenda goes far beyond Tocqueville. The kinds of associations that Tocqueville admired in America were voluntary associations of citizens that were organized for public and political action. Non-Government Organizations are Tocquevillian associations in this sense. Universities are not.

If we are to regard universities as communities—an idea that has some merit—it is important to be very clear about the kind of communities they are. In an earlier paper I suggested that a university should aim to be a community of scholars. I was aware that this is an ideal that has not been, and might never be, fully realized in the real world But the notion of a community of scholars is an interesting and useful concept, unlike that of the Res Life communitarian movement, which holds the notion that a university is, or should be, a community of citizens. This is a very different matter.

The purpose of a university is to pass on a valuable intellectual heritage, a body of essential facts, and an appreciation and development of skills like critical thinking and objectivity. It is necessary to have these skills if one is to be a really good and effective citizen. But citizen-making ought not be an independent, separately-identifiable goal for the university in addition to its academic mission. A university should not impede—in fact it should actively support—Tocquevillian, citizenship-oriented activities that are organized by the students themselves, but it should not have its own programs of this kind.

On and off campus, there are lots of organizations and associations—NGOs, volunteer organizations, and political parties—into which students may throw their Tocquevillian energies when they are so inclined. I have been browsing a book called Students' Guide to Colleges. I am amazed at the extent and intensity of students’ engagement in their campus organizations at the nation's top (100) colleges. All universities should give unstinting support to these activities; and public universities, at least, have a constitutional obligation to do so. I was at Berkeley during the days of the Free Speech Movement. Few people today seem to remember that the legal issue at the root of that controversy was the students' campaign to force the university administration to lift a ban on on-campus political activities and acknowledge the students' right to free speech and academic freedom.

It is one thing to have purely voluntary student organizations flourishing on campus, in which students are engaged in political, social, and charitable activities. That is what good citizenship is about. It is quite a different thing to have such activities organized and run by the university itself—in the dorms or anywhere else. It is hard to see how such efforts by any university, public or private, could turn out well. This is true regardless of the political or ideological orientation of the programs.

The current cadre of Res Life professionals has decided that the citizenship of their dorm residents needs improvement. So they supplement the regular curriculum, taught by the faculty, with special citizen-building vitamins in the form of curricular programming in the dorms. As a remedy, "transformative" peer-facilitated group programs are introduced.

Any program trying to introduce this kind of thinking into higher education is demeaning, insulting, and patronizing to students. Why? Because it doesn't address students as students, that is, as learners. Instead, it is clearly meant to address them as citizens, whose citizenship is defective and needs improvement.

We need to purge our universities of the cadre of people who think that students need to be addressed as citizens (defective or otherwise) rather than as students and learners and intellectuals and academicians. If I take my car to a car wash, I do not expect to be treated as a citizen, I expect to be treated as a car owner. If I go to a bank, I do not expect to be treated or regarded as a citizen, defective or not, I expect to be treated as a consumer with a financial interest or question, and so on. Similarly, when I enroll in a university, I expect to be treated as a scholar and student, not as a citizen. It is the purpose of a university to educate the student in the citizen, not to “transform” the citizen in the student. Curricular programs with the latter intention have no place in the university, even if there are students who want such programs and think it is appropriate for a university to support them.


Given the proven authoritarian tendencies of the modern communitarian Res Life movement, universities need to take precautionary measures against them. Even seemingly innocuous mission and goals statements about the importance of civic responsibility can be, and have been, used by partisans to advance programs that have no place in the academy.

The dangers here are exemplified by the Ten Goals of General Education at the University of Delaware, which were adopted by the University Faculty Senate in March 2000. According to Goal 4 of this document, the university is to: "Engage questions of ethics and recognize responsibilities to self, community, and society at large."

Although the language might seem innocuous enough, it is a breach in the university walls so wide that partisans have been able to drive their tanks through it. Res Life professionals at U Delaware have repeatedly invoked Goal 4 of the General Education Plan at the university in designing and in justifying their curricular programming, including the egregious programs that had to be suspended by President Harker last year.

The uses and abuses of this language show very clearly that no language about the university's responsibility to "recognize" and develop “responsibilities to self, community, and society at large” can be immune from abuse and exploitation by communitarian activists. The problem is that the language raises important questions about potentially contentious issues, but it fails to answer them. What are the "responsibilities" that the University “recognizes,” who has recognized them, and when?

Those who care about the quality and integrity of academic life need to recognize the dangers of such language in any university goals or mission statements. In fact, it is preferable for universities to jettison such language altogether. The language is not needed, and in fact is inappropriate for the academy, since such language is most naturally read as putting the goal of developing good citizenship on the same footing as genuinely academic and intellectual goals that are the essence of the university, such as teaching and research.

U Delaware's Ten Goals of General Education are not formally part of the mission statement of the university. Different versions of U Delaware’s formal mission statement can be found on its web site. The University’s mission statement that is given in the Faculty Handbook, which was adopted by the Faculty Senate on April 5, 1993 and approved by the Board of Trustees on May 26, 1993, is quite a good one. A new one, which was approved on by the Trustees on May 19, 2008 (nothing is said in this news release about any prior approval by the Faculty Senate), appears to be an attempt to incorporate the spirit and purpose behind Goal 4 of the General Education Plan, and is therefore much worse.

The 1993 mission statement, as found in the Faculty Handbook, reads as follows:

The central mission of the University of Delaware is to cultivate both learning and the free exchange of ideas. To this end, the University provides excellent undergraduate and graduate courses of study in a variety of disciplines. Our graduates should know how to reason critically and independently yet collaborate productively. They should understand the cultural and physical world, communicate clearly in writing and speech, and develop into informed citizens and leaders. The University faculty has a strong tradition of distinguished scholarship, research, and teaching, which is grounded in a commitment to increase scientific, humanistic, and social knowledge for the enrichment of the larger society. ... The University works cooperatively with the area's unique cultural and technical institutions; it provides the finest library in the state and offers the region's people a rich array of public lectures, exhibitions, performances, service programs, and athletic competitions. The University strives for an atmosphere in which all people feel welcome to learn, embracing creativity, critical thinking, and free inquiry, and respecting the views and values of an increasingly diverse population.

This statement does refer to citizenship, but it says nothing about citizenship broadly defined. It concentrates instead on the special contribution that the university can make towards the development of “informed citizens and leaders.”

The new mission statement, unfortunately, is much weaker in this respect. It reads as follows:

The University of Delaware exists to cultivate learning, develop knowledge and foster the free exchange of ideas. State-assisted yet privately governed, the University has a strong tradition of distinguished scholarship, research, teaching and service that is grounded in a commitment to increasing and disseminating scientific, humanistic and social knowledge for the benefit of the larger society. ...

The University of Delaware is a major research university with extensive graduate programs that is also dedicated to outstanding undergraduate and professional education. University faculty are committed to the intellectual, cultural and ethical development of students as citizens, scholars and professionals. University graduates are prepared to contribute to a global society that requires leaders with creativity, integrity and a dedication to service.

The University of Delaware promotes an environment in which all people are inspired to learn and encourages intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, free inquiry and respect for the views and values of an increasingly diverse population.

It is the specific and special function of a university, as opposed to innumerable other social institutions, to disseminate scientific, humanistic and social knowledge for the benefit of the larger society. If the university does that job well, it might reasonably hope to assist in the development of good or at least better informed and better educated citizens as a byproduct. But the development of students as citizens cannot be one of the university’s specific and direct goals. While it is in the business of disseminating and advancing scientific, humanistic and social knowledge, a university is not in the business of turning out better citizens. The 1993 mission statement, as currently found in the Faculty Handbook, states all of this pretty clearly, at least by implication. The mission statement that replaced it on May 19 of this year does not. My guess is that this very undesirable change in language was intended to help justify citizenship development and training programs like the one the university now has in its residence halls.

Mission statements and statements of educational goals are not just window dressing: they can have important consequences. It would be an interesting task to study systematically the mission statements of leading American universities, particularly in light of the kinds of problems that have emerged in the Res Life program at U Delaware. I would like to do that in the future. For the time being, however, it will have to suffice here to consider briefly two other university mission statements, in order to show what a larger study might reveal.

I have selected for this purpose the mission statements of Harvard College and the University of California at Berkeley. I have picked these two as the two leading universities in their respective categories in the 2007 ranking of the top 200 universities in the world in the Times Higher Education Supplement. In the Times 2007 list, Harvard is ranked as the world's leading university. UC Berkeley, which is ranked 22nd worldwide by the Times, is listed as the leading public university in the U.S. Berkeley, as an American public research university, is therefore the leading university in the Times’ list that is most like the University of Delaware.

Here is the mission statement for Harvard College:

Harvard University (comprising the undergraduate college, the graduate schools, other academic bodies, research centers and affiliated institutions) does not have a formal mission statement.

Harvard College, the undergraduate program, released the following mission statement:

The Mission of Harvard College

Harvard College adheres to the purposes for which the Charter of 1650 was granted: "The advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences; the advancement and education of youth in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences; and all other necessary provisions that may conduce to the education of the ... youth of this country...." In brief: Harvard strives to create knowledge, to open the minds of students to that knowledge, and to enable students to take best advantage of their educational opportunities.

To these ends, the College encourages students to respect ideas and their free expression, and to rejoice in discovery and in critical thought; to pursue excellence in a spirit of productive cooperation; and to assume responsibility for the consequences of personal actions. Harvard seeks to identify and to remove restraints on students' full participation, so that individuals may explore their capabilities and interests and may develop their full intellectual and human potential. Education at Harvard should liberate students to explore, to create, to challenge, and to lead. The support the College provides to students is a foundation upon which self-reliance and habits of lifelong learning are built: Harvard expects that the scholarship and collegiality it fosters in its students will lead them in their later lives to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society.

Harry R. Lewis

Dean of Harvard College

February 23, 1997

This is an admirable statement. It accurately identifies the proper mission of the university (its essence. i.e. what makes it a university as opposed to something else) and commits the university to doing that job well, without adding anything extraneous to those purely academic and intellectual goals. All the other good things that are mentioned are expected to follow from that.

The mission statement of the University of California at Berkeley is briefer than Harvard's:

"The distinctive mission of the University is to serve society as a center of higher learning, providing long-term societal benefits through transmitting advanced knowledge, discovering new knowledge, and functioning as an active working repository of organized knowledge [emphasis mine]. That obligation, more specifically, includes undergraduate education, graduate and professional education, research, and other kinds of public service, which are shaped and bounded by the central pervasive mission of discovering and advancing knowledge [emphasis mine]"

— from the University of California Academic Plan, 1974-1978

 At least with respect to the kinds of concerns we have been discussing here, this mission statement is, if anything, even better than Harvard's. Like Harvard’s, Berkeley's mission statement zeroes in on what is essential about higher education: teaching and, in the case of a research university, discovering and advancing knowledge. It speaks of "long-term societal benefits," but it is also careful to identify how the university is to achieve these benefits: by sticking to what it is supposed to do as an institution of higher education, "through transmitting advanced knowledge, discovering new knowledge, and functioning as an active working repository of organized knowledge." There may be other ways that other individuals and organizations might try to promote citizenship and "societal benefits," but they are not UC's.

 Berkeley has got this exactly right.

To say that Berkeley has gotten this right should not be construed as a political point. Critics of Delaware's Res Life program, especially FIRE and the NAS, have been accused of attacking the program for conservative political reasons. Some of Delaware’s critics may very well have had conservative objections to the program, but the public criticisms were also always based on non-political opposition to any ideological agenda in the academy, not just “liberal” ones.

Perhaps the best way to counter the baseless allegation that the criticisms were political is to show that the very same principles I have been elaborating above carry equal force against a university that is avowedly based on the political philosophy that is perhaps most antithetical to communitarianism: libertarianism. That university is Francisco Marroquin University in Guatemala City, Guatemala. An article about Marroquin University by Marla Dickerson entitled "Leftist thinking left off the syllabus" appeared in the LA Times on June 6. Dickerson dubbed Marroquin University in that article as a "bastion of libertarianism” and as "Libertarian U."

As a bastion of libertarianism, Dickerson says, the university draws "potshots from both sides of the political spectrum." She reports that Manuel Francisco Ayau Cordon, the founder of the university, believes that "universities should stay out of politics” and "place themselves beyond the conflicts of their time." But his opinion that his university is above politics does not appear to be tenable. At most it seems to mean that the libertarian ideology of Marroquin University does not fit well into any niche of the political spectrum in Guatemala, or even anywhere else. But that doesn't mean that Cordon’s university is above politics, since there are ideologies (like libertarianism) that are undeniably political but which do not fit easily into the left-right spectrum. Communitarianism is also attacked by both liberals and conservatives. But that doesn’t mean that communitarianism and libertarianism aren’t political.

The mission statement of UFM says: "The mission of Universidad Francisco Marroquín is to teach and disseminate the ethical, legal and economic principles of a society of free and responsible persons."

This gives me an unease similar to what I feel when I read U Delaware's new mission statement or its ten goals of undergraduate education. It is very hard to argue against “recognizing responsibilities to self, community, and society at large.” But one feels (and subsequent events have borne this out) that this kind of language has a trajectory in the hands of certain campus activists that can take the university to places it shouldn’t go. Similarly, I do not believe that any reasonable person can be against a society of "free and responsible citizens," or against the “legal and economic principles” on which such citizenship is based. But similar questions arise in both cases. In the case of U Delaware's goals, one wants to know what constitutes "recognition" and who identified these responsibilities? Similarly, in the case of UFM, one wants to know what legal and economic principles Marroquin believes underlie a society of free and responsible citizens. My misgivings increase when I read that at Marroquin every undergraduate, regardless of major, must study market economics and the philosophy of individual rights embraced by the U.S. founding fathers, including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”; that its founders intended Marroquin to be a university teaching "natural law and free-market economics”; and that banners quoting Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations "flutter over the campus food court."

Last year, Res Life staff at the University of Delaware posted banners in the Rodney Complex dorms that proclaimed "If you think the world is only about you, You are in the Wrong Place." UFM has banners quoting The Wealth of Nations. From the point of view of fundamental principles of university governance, what is the difference? Obviously, there is a huge difference between the two political ideologies. But from the point of view of fostering a truly free marketplace of ideas, and from the point of view of fundamental academic principles, both kinds of banners are equally inappropriate (again, as statements made by a university, though not as made by individual students, faculty, or staff in the appropriate settings).

Harvard and Berkeley’s mission statements correctly articulate what a university is and should aim to be; those at Delaware and UFM fall short of this. Of course, it might turn out on investigation that Harvard and Berkeley have agendas that are at work behind the scenes as well, but it is very hard to discern political agendas in their mission statements.

Getting its mission statement right is not the only thing a university must do in order to maintain an academically appropriate climate of free debate and inquiry, but while it's not a sufficient condition, it is a necessary one. I would not go so far as to claim that Marroquin as an institution has no merit. Maybe the views it teaches (rather exclusively, it seems) are the correct views—though I doubt it, as I am not a libertarian. But even if they aren’t the correct views, there is undoubtedly a place for such an institution, in Guatemala and elsewhere. It takes all kinds to make a world. But I would submit that something is seriously amiss here with the mission statement. What the mission statements and political banners at Delaware and at Marroquin embody is a view of the academy that is different from, and lower than, the highest and best that a university should aim for. That is certainly true of a "major research university," which is what the University of Delaware claims to be.

Look for the next installment on Monday. Thomas Wood will address in which ways a university is a public square, and in what context it is appropriate for faculty and staff to champion their political convictions. He also responds point-by-point to John K. Wilson’s article, written after the Faculty Senate voted on the new-and-barely-improved ResLife Program at the U of Delaware.

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