7. Inside the ACPA Conference

Peter Wood

The residence life folk at the University of Delaware, proud of their innovative program, January a year ago, hosted a "Residential Curriculum Institute" titled "From Just Residential to Resident Intentional: Developing a Curricular Approach to Residence Life." The institute, according to Kathleen Kerr, director of UD's Office of Residence Life, offered the Delaware program as a model for other universities.

Success breeds success, and UD residence life folks decided to hold another institute in January 2008. Billed as "the Second Annual Residential Curriculum Institute," the meeting was planned to help residential life officials "to uncover the opportunities to deliver educational messages in every student interaction," beginning with the moment when students first check-in to their rooms. It was co-sponsored by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA).

But before the ACPA conference arrived, the UD residence life program became engulfed in controversy over its radical ideology and coercive methods. In late October, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent two letters to UD president Patrick Harker pointing out some of strange excesses of his campus's residence life program. On November 1, President Harker announced that he was suspending the program.

In the wake of this decision, the UD residence life officials decided to move the ACPA meeting off campus, to Frazer, Pennsylvania, where it took place at the Sheraton Great Valley Hotel, from 24 to 26 January 2008. The meeting was open only to ACPA members who could prove in writing that they worked in residence life. At least one member of the press was turned away.

Fortunately for readers of the NAS website, one of the attendees, a staff member from Hillsdale College, agreed to be interviewed by me. The following account is based on his answers to my questions. The analysis, however, is my own. The Hillsdale residence life staffer found the meeting "benign," testified strongly to the well-meaning intentions of the participants, and came away with what it took to be some constructive ideas for residence life at his own College.


The conference opened with a presentation by a senior residence life official from a large private university in the northeast. She lit one large candle "to represent the knowledge and responsibility that we have as student affairs and residence life professionals." The large candle was next to a plate of many smaller candles, which she explained were the students, to whom "we pass on that light." The little candles were different colors. She said that residence life personnel are not only responsible to share the light in the immediate sense, but that ultimately they are responsible in helping to change the world. In particular, she said that social justice, multiculturalism, diversity, and sustainability are all essential parts of this great mission

Suddenly, she blew out the large candle.

She dramatically looked at the audience and said that in fall 2007, "Our light went out," and it was "hate, fear, ignorance, and stupidity" that caused it to go out. She did not name the source of these candle-snuffing iniquities, perhaps because the name FIRE would have damaged her metaphor.

She then rallied the audience. Producing a match, she declared, "With this conference, we relight the candle…and hate, fear, ignorance, and stupidity will not snuff it out [again]." She relit the candle, and continued in this vein, concluding, "Journey with me towards our revolution of the future."

Audience Response

Not all the attendees were aware of who had snuffed the great candle of enlightened responsibility. One attendee explained to another that the culprit was indeed FIRE, which she characterized as a "bad organization with ties to white supremacy groups." Others did not put all the blame on FIRE, and instead blamed the UD student affairs directors for giving too much latitude to the RDs and RAs in carrying out programming.

The Revolution of the Future: Some Background

The conference as a whole was a reverberation of a "revolution" in campus student life that began in the early 1990s. In the fall of 1993, the president of ACPA, Charles Schroeder, convened a committee called the Student Learning Project "to examine how student affairs educators could enhance student learning and personal development." The outcome of the Project was a document, The Student Learning Imperative: Implications for Student Affairs, issued in 1994. ACPA continues to make this tract available and copies were on hand for the January conference

In essence, The Student Learning Imperative calls on residence life officials to redefine themselves as educators. Their task was no longer to foster a wholesome environment in which students could live together, but instead to "enhance student learning and personal development." To this end, The Student Learning Imperative has to set out an account of what kinds of learning belong in residence life settings, as distinct from the classroom, and what sort of "personal development" is to be championed. The answers offered by those who champion this Imperative -- the Imperativists we might call them -- focus on human identity. Via residence life, students, for example, should learn "an understanding and appreciation of human differences," and develop "a coherent integrated sense of identity, self-esteem, confidence, integrity, aesthetic sensibilities, and civic responsibility."

It is not clear that residence life officials possess any particular expertise in these areas, many of which involve cultivating the judgment of students. A key question that The Student Learning Imperative never addresses is, "Why should students look to resident life officials for guidance about who they are and who they should become?"

Be that as it may, the "revolution of the future" in residence life looks a lot like the revolution of 1994, and some follow-on revolutionary pronunciamentos, including the Principles of Good Practice for Student Affairs issued by ACPA in 1996. (The list includes Powerful Partnerships: A Shared Responsibility for Learning, AAHE, ACPA, and NASPA 1998; Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, AAC&U 2002; and Learning Reconsidered: A Campus-Wide Focus on the Student Experience, NASPA and ACPA 2004.)

In practice, this is a revolution that attempts to turn all of the minutiae of daily life in dorms and dining halls, on campus quads and student unions, into learning opportunities that have been (or should be) thought through by the res life experts in search of specific "learning objectives and outcomes." Students should never just hang out. They should seize the moment to discuss their co-optation by the structures of racial oppression in American society, their need to fan the flames of awareness of their carbon footprints, their too facile readiness to accept heteronormativity, and other matters of moment.

In res-life speak, this assiduous attention to learning opportunities is called the "Curricular Model" of residence life, and it is meant to replace the tired old "Programming Model," wherein students were offered empty time-fillers such as debating clubs, blood drives, and movies.

Another key rationalization of the revolution in student affairs is the assertion that the college academic curriculum is, by its nature, intellectually narrow. The Imperativists believe that residence life can repair the situation by focusing on the "whole" human and "holistic learning." In doing so, they will tear down the wall artificially separating "academic affairs" and "student affairs." This might sound presumptuous to faculty members, charged with developing the curriculum and maintaining the integrity of academic programs, but res lifers should not be intimidated. Res life is the kingdom of "issues of intimacy" and topics such as race, gender, and sexual identity -- issues that apparently never arise in the ordinary classroom.

A widely cited source for this view (mentioned above) is Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College, issued by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2002 with the support of the Pew Charitable Trusts. The authors of this report view America as moving toward "universal participation in higher education," and see this horizon as requiring "a dramatic reorganization of undergraduate education to ensure all college aspirants receive not just access to college, but an education of lasting value." Toward that goal, they posit that college is about "producing intentional learners who can adapt to new environments, integrate knowledge from different sources and continue learning throughout their lives."

These seem anodyne prescriptions for higher education. No one, after all, is calling for an increase in unintentional or inadvertent learning in college; no one favors an ideal of college graduates frozen in time and unable to adapt to "new environments"; no one has summoned us to ensure that students learn only how to compartmentalize knowledge and avoid the temptation to integrate it; and surely no one goes to college in the hope to get his or her learning over and done with once and for all. Yet formulaic declarations like those in Greater Expectations do have consequences. In this case, the res lifers have seized on these bland desiderata as the basis for their "revolution." In their eyes, the call for "intentional learning" equates to a movement from information-transfer (located primarily in the classroom) to identity development (located primarily in the dorm.) They take learning not to be the acquisition of knowledge, intellectual skill, and judgment, but rather a form of personal "transformation" that begins with seeing the "big picture." Which big picture? Theirs, of course.


Immediately after the introduction, a conference official emphasized, "This conference is not a U of D tell-all." In fact, the conference included very few direct references to the University of Delaware situation. Recognizing that res life programs across the country have come under more skeptical scrutiny, the speaker added, with pronominal perplexity, "Each institution must journey through this on its own…fit things to them." Every college and university official who presented at the conferences remained guarded. They discussed "lesson plans" to take advantage of those myriad "learning opportunities" that arise in res life, but they held back many details and often resorted to a coded way of referring to controversial matters.

Equal Partners

A tag line began to emerge over the course of the conference: that res life officials are "equal partners" in higher education. No one said outright that res lifers deserve equal standing with the faculty, but that was clearly the idea. And it was often couched defensively. Said one speaker, "We are educators, and we do not need permission [from faculty] to educate, and we certainly do not need to apologize for it." This point seemed very important to the hosts and presenters, as a foundation to the curricular model.Another participant declared, "SA [Student Affairs] personnel needs to take it upon themselves to change the organization".

The defensiveness was not just aimed at the faculty. The participants are also alert to the possibility that colleges and universities under financial pressure may begin to trim expenses in residence life. Res life budgets have ballooned during the "revolution" as res life administrators have made the case for adding more and more staff to meet the ever-growing needs of the "Curricular Model." There is little to show for the vastly increased expenditures beyond increased controversy. This puts res life in a position where it must somehow conjure results or face cutbacks.

Thus a frequent topic of the conference was how to find "measurable outcomes" from the good work of res life. This was coupled with a troubled awareness that res life has gotten as far as it has with its revolutionary transformation of its role in college by keeping college administrations in the dark. One college official openly confessed that the Senior VP over his department doesn't really know what they are doing in Residence Life.

The need to measure outcomes, however, poses a challenge. Having pitched their tent on the sands of identity formation, the res lifers now need to reconnect what they do to the actual missions of their colleges and universities. One participant suggested that res lifers become "archeologists," and dig up all the important relevant documents of the university…recent or old…that would give an indication of what the university's priorities are. Then res life can retrofit what it does to what it was supposed to be doing.

Another speaker said that directors in res life should simply declare what the "learning outcomes" are for first year students. She offered a six-point model: self-awareness, inter-personal skills, diversity, citizenship, social appreciation, sustainability. Lesson plans could be created to realize each of these. Yet another participant suggested that a good learning outcome would be, "Students must acknowledge power and privilege." Still another participant pointed out that res life need not focus all its energy on proving what it accomplishes with freshmen. After all, "We keep them on campus their freshman and sophomore years, so we have a captive audience for two years."

To turn these vast abstractions into anything measurable, however, requires that res life engage in what many outside critics have complained is highly intrusive and controlling intervention in the lives of students. Conference participants acknowledged that such intrusions were part of what got the UD res life program in trouble. Thus res life faces a dilemma: on one hand, it needs to impose the intrusive measures to get the data that will support its continued funding; and on the other hand, the intrusive measures themselves may call down adverse publicity and threaten its continued funding.

The consensus at the conference was that all res life actions should have their own "lesson plans," and thus res life officials need to think through, for example, formal and social programs; one-on-one interviews between freshmen and RAs; community meetings; community agreements; and roommate connections, for how to convert each of these into lessons.

In this light, the conferees discussed some of the techniques that their colleges and universities had tried. One was having RAs and RDs call dorm meetings to discuss identity questions. When such meetings are referred to as "mandatory," students object; and to call a mandatory meeting, ask very personal questions, and then tell students who have already been publicly asked such questions that they don't really need to answer them breeds ill will.

Perhaps this could be summarized as the dawning recognition that humiliating students is not a good approach.

One discussion focused on whether the RA's notes of discussions with a student become part of the student's record. It was agreed that they can become part of the student's record, but that res life officials would never misuse such information or release it.
Another technique that drew fire at Delaware was having the RAs pursue one-on-one interviews with freshmen. Several participants mentioned that such one-on-one meetings "about diversity" did not work well. No one, however, proposed that they be stopped.

Actual lesson plans were not shared, but one that was displayed on screen began, "The project is to help all students (especially Caucasian American students) learn that they come from culture. Even if a student is from a dominant culture, it will help him/her realize what around him or her has gone into forming him/her. It also allows people to learn of the cultures of others in the group."

One category of lesson plans that received attention was "coming out" lesson plans, for helping students embrace and understand homosexuality and the full menu of currently acceptable sexual appetites.


Some of the techniques discussed by the Frazer, Pennsylvania conferees seem a bit overzealous, although it is easy to imagine that they have some legitimate place in the residence life's toolkit. Surely there is a time and place for one-on-one discussions, group meetings, and the like. Most of the topics that the conferees brought up likewise seem to have some legitimate place in campus discussion. Students are inevitably going to explore "identity" issues. They always have; they always will. The mischief that ACPA invites and encourages is its prescription for a regimented combination of intrusive techniques, single-minded focus on the race-class-gender-sexual preference, and ecological friendliness of students, and a highly ideological stance to what kinds of identities and social attitudes it would like to flourish. The result is an asphyxiating microcosm of the nanny state moved into the campus dormitory.

It is an ironic outcome for many res-life officials who pride themselves on their political progressivism, but who in their workaday lives have become ardent apostles of social control. They condone without a second thought many kinds of social license that would have been anathema to an earlier generation of college officials, but at the same time they deny freedom of conscience and freedom of speech to many in their charge. Res life officials at the Frazer meeting complained about helicopter parents who remain an intrusive presence in the lives of their college-age children. But it appears to be a kind of professional jealousy, since the res lifers themselves are a constant, hovering presence in the lives of the students.

The ACPA's Second Annual Residential Curriculum Institute did not reveal any new and more sinister agenda for turning residence life programs into vehicles for political indoctrination. Rather, it was a gathering of res life officials who yearn to play a more important role in their institutions and who have hitched their ambitions to an extravagant idea about how to perform their role. Left to their own devices, the Imperativists can damage the intellectual mission of a college or university and probably inflict considerable harm on students who are vulnerable to these forms of zealotry.

Residence life officials, contrary to the battle cry of the Frazer meeting, are not "equal partners" with the faculty in higher education. They are functionaries with an important but limited role to play in maintaining a wholesome environment for students to live and study. The mischief lies in allowing res lifers to misconstrue themselves as primarily educators, self-charged with the "curriculum" of transforming the identities of students. Because college and university officials higher up the chain of responsibility, including provosts and presidents, have allowed this to happen, it falls now to the faculty to put residence life back on track. In other words, it is time to take a deep breath and blow out that candle for good. What the res lifers take as an "Imperative" is really just a dereliction of their primary duties.

The blame for this situation does not fall entirely on res life administrators with an expansive vision of their role. Rather, residence life adopted its "revolutionary" role in response to calls from mainstream academic associations in the 1990s which were alarmed over the declining capacity of colleges and universities to offer their students a compelling vision of a worthy way to lead their lives. The collapse of in loco parentis doctrines in the 1960s and 70s, and the increasing retreat of faculty members into their research specializations left a campus that large numbers of students found inhospitable and alienating. As reported by the Carnegie Commission in the early 1990s, the most common complaint of students nationwide was the lack of "community" on campus.

One way of reckoning what followed is that residence life administrators decided to repair this breach in community. Some of the techniques they developed have worked well, but the project has always been vulnerable to those whose idea of "community" is drawn from the deep well of radical reformist, utopian, and coercive ideas. It has proven difficult for many residence life officials to draw the line between fostering a tolerant community centered on intellectual aspiration and imposing a vision of social justice that celebrates some identities and attempts to demolish others. Over the last fifteen years, the reasonable aspiration to provide college students with a stronger sense of community has grown into something else: an attempt to mold students into people who see themselves primarily through the lens of progressive identity politics, who join in a shared contempt for ordinary American society, and who lend their efforts to advancing a particular blend of activist causes.

Even faculty members whose sympathies lie with these political positions should recognize the folly of attempting to use residence life as a recruitment tool, if for no other reason than that such coercion will color a whole generation's view of these political positions as illiberal. Faculty members whose sympathies lie elsewhere on the political spectrum can rightly wonder why the residence life offices of their universities have been allowed to become partisans of culture war extremists.

The Second Annual Residential Curriculum Institute is a small window on a widespread movement in residence life. The National Association of Scholars, through its How Many Delawares? Project is in the midst of a more systematic investigation of the misdirection of residence life programs across the country. For more on this investigation and for some of the preliminary results, visit our website, http://www.nas.org/.

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