We'll Be Watching

Jan H. Blits

The University of Delaware’s Board of Trustees approved a new “enhanced Residence Life Education Program” at its annual May meeting. It replaces the notorious “curricular” program, which UD President Harker had been forced to suspend last fall after it was revealed to be a carefully crafted, Pyongyang-like “citizenship” program for indoctrinating all 7,300 students in the residence halls. 

Annual trustees meetings are normally devoted to institutional self-celebration, with all thorny questions having been resolved in private beforehand. Not so this time, we are happy to report.
On May 12, the UD administration had been celebrating. After months of behind-the-scenes engineering, it had just succeeded in getting the Faculty Senate to endorse its new residence life plan by a vote of 45-7. The Administration had reason to celebrate. The new program is so vague and incoherent that it gives Residence Life officials license to pursue their old aims under the cover of faculty blessing. 

Echoing the previous program, the new program aims to affect students’ “thoughts, values, beliefs and actions.” “[I]nformed by programmatic goals and student learning outcomes,” it is intended to show “how history, background & culture affect one’s perspective” and specifically takes up “concepts of citizenship,” “concepts of justice,” “the connections…between the concepts of environmental sustainability, personal choice, community, and citizenship,” “the concept of individuals’ consumption in relation to environmental impact,” and other politically charged topics.

But the Administration’s celebratory mood had evaporated by the time the Board of Trustees met on May 19. The Trustees had been under the false impression that the person responsible for last fall’s infamous program had left the University. They apparently had no idea that the administrators who had designed, implemented and nationally trumpeted the old program, particularly Residence Life Director Kathleen Kerr, were the same as those who had designed and would implement the new program. Thus they were no doubt jolted a few days before their May 19th meeting when Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, wrote to UD Board Chairman, Howard E. Cosgrove, correcting the Trustees’ mistake. From what we can tell, the effect on the Board—and consequently on the administration—was immediate and strong. 

It was evident about an hour into the Trustees meeting, at least to those of us who have followed developments closely, that something had happened since the Senate vote. The self-congratulatory, pro-forma tone of the meeting ended abruptly when the chair of the Student Life and Athletics Committee concluded his report on other matters and asked VP for Student Life, Michael Gilbert, to explain the program. 

The change of tone was evident in several ways. Gilbert was the only administrator, among many, who didn’t give simply a summary report, but was forced to explain and defend a program which UD had already so happily announced, in a press release, issued just minutes after the Faculty Senate vote. In the Senate debate, Gilbert had deflected all questions concerning the new program’s implementation, leaving unclear who would actually be responsible for bringing in the new and eradicating vestiges of the old. But in his comments to the Board, he promised that he would take “a new look at the supervision and training of residence life staff” and announced that two positions would be changed to provide close supervision of the 200+ staff who will implement the program. Gilbert was still more forthcoming, though, when asked pointed questions by two Trustees. When one Trustee asked who would make sure that all the promised changes would be carried out, Gilbert replied that he would take “responsibility for [the program’s] success and any failures.” 

In the Senate debate, Gilbert had also waffled on the program’s content, indicating that it both was and was not an education program. But when the second Trustee asked whether the new program is similar to others at peer institutions, Gilbert emphasized that it is a "traditional program," like those at UVA and elsewhere. And, in contrast to last fall, when he aggressively defended the discredited program and accused its critics of misrepresenting it, he now said that he would be using the former program as “a case-study” in what to avoid. 

It is hard to reconcile the plan that the Senate approved and the assurances that Gilbert gave the Trustees. The Senate’s plan is not a “traditional” residence life program, but an “enhanced Residence Life Education Program,” with “learning outcomes” to be “assessed.” Nor is there the slightest indication that Kerr and the others responsible for last fall’s debacle are inclined to implement a program different from what they designed and implemented before. Quite the contrary, although the administration assured the Senate that it has “complete confidence” in her, Kerr has not answered questions from the press or discussed the program in a public forum on campus since the scandal broke in October. In her presentations at professional conferences off campus she continued to reiterate what Gilbert now rejects: residence life programs should include “social justice,” “fair trade,” “domestic partnership,” “rights of indigenous peoples,” “affirmative action,” “multicultural competence,” “worker’s rights,” “corporate responsibility,” “living wage,” “gender equity,” “environmental racism,” and so on. 

Despite the rolling ambiguities in the new program’s aims, content and oversight, Gilbert’s promise of a “traditional plan” is helpful. It provides the standard by which next year’s residence life plan can be judged and to which Gilbert can be held “fully responsible.” With ominous irony, Gilbert has made himself hostage to his own staff and other administrators who are disposed by strong personal and political inclination, as well as by sheer careerism, to do exactly what he described as “a case-study” in what to avoid. And as Gilbert, other administrators and the Trustees surely know, we’ll be watching—as will students, parents and the public at large.

May 24, 2008
Jan H. Blits, President
Linda S. Gottfredson, Secretary
Delaware Association of Scholars

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