The “Residence Life” Movement Finally Attracts Attention

Very few people knew anything about the growing “Residence Life” movement on college campuses prior to the revelations about the program at the University of Delaware last year. In brief, students there were required to participate in group and individual discussion sessions outside of regular classes. The sessions were led by Resident Assistants who had been through an intensive training program and the subject matter consisted of extremely tendentious theories — often presented, however, as unquestionable truth — about race, economics, the environment, and so forth.

(Much more information about Delaware’s program is available in this document published by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.)

This whole program (referred to by the university as “the treatment”) was designed by Student Affairs personnel, not faculty members. Its objective – to get students to accept a set of “politically correct” beliefs. Students who disagreed were singled out for criticism.

Delaware’s Res Life program is part of a nationwide project to turn residence halls into new educational centers on campus, not just places where students sleep and do their coursework. Simultaneously, it turns student affairs employees from lowly administrators into very influential educators with their own agenda and curriculum.

Supported by the likes of the Ford Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts and organized through the American College Personnel Association, the Res Life movement envisions itself as a force for the transformation of the American campus. The movement began in the early 1990s and has been rapidly growing ever since.

Since the University of Delaware story broke, the National Association of Scholars has been diligently investigating to learn more about the “Residence Life” movement. In a series of reports, Dr. Thomas Wood has unearthed a great amount of troubling information. The Res Life movement, Wood shows, is a malignant cancer that is spreading across America’s colleges and universities. It’s an effort to import a new sort of “transformative education” into the curriculum, one that is about indoctrination rather than the search for truth and to which all students would be subjected.

The Res Life program at the University of Michigan is among the oldest and best established. Wood’s research into it reveals much about the goals and methods of the movement.

One of the foremost goals of Res Life, Wood writes, is to help preserve affirmative action programs. Despite Justice O’Connor’s statement in Grutter v. Bollinger that universities may use racial preferences in admissions to obtain the “educational benefits” that supposedly flow from “diversity,” affirmative action proponents know that this is a slender reed. Grutter was only a 5-4 decision and the Court simply took the University of Michigan’s word for it that those benefits exist. In fact, there is evidence that the attempt to sculpt a “diverse” student body is educationally detrimental.

Therefore, the defenders of racial preferences want to have an alternate justification and they think that Res Life can provide it. How? Because the discussion sessions that are integral to Res Life programs require racial diversity. A key idea behind Res Life is that socio-economic progress can be made when individuals from different groups in society have to confront each other. Obviously, if the student body doesn’t have enough members of minority groups, these “intergroup dialogues” won’t be possible.

The importance attached to “intergroup dialogue” is highly revealing. Wood explains, “An intergroup dialogue is a face-to-face meeting between members from two different social identity groups that have a history of conflict or potential conflict….Participants engage in a semi-structured process to explore commonalities and differences between and within social identity groups to recognize, negotiate, and learn from intergroup conflicts.” The Marxian undercurrent is hard to miss. Group or class antagonism is presumed to be a key force in society, but Res Life experiences supposedly can erase the antagonism.

This is simply absurd. Hardly any young Americans feel any antagonism toward others on a class or group basis. Why should a white student and a black student be paired off to “negotiate their conflicts” when as individuals they have none? Some whites and blacks had “issues” long ago, but why do white and black students today need to “explore commonalities and differences?” Scarcely any young Americans think in terms of group identity and conflict.

At best, this is a waste of time, but it’s apt to lead to trouble. Which student gets picked for an intergroup dialogue with a Jewish student? Or a homosexual student? If it’s a white southerner on the assumption that he somehow represents the prejudices of “his group” in the past, isn’t that offensive stereotyping?

Many have argued that affirmative action is a bad policy because it mismatches students and schools. Now we have a foolish program intended to defend it.

These intergroup dialogues are not the whole of the program. Res Life also envisions a major addition to college education, one that moves “beyond the classroom model.” In their discussion sessions, students are exposed to the usual litany of complaints about America and western civilization generally – racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and so on. The need to work for “social justice” is constantly pressed on the students – and of course that nebulous term is always interpreted to mean that government must intervene more in the workings of civil society. In short, students are surrounded with collectivist ideas, but they are not encouraged to think about them as they might in a class. Group facilitators won’t, for example, ask students to analyze the claim that racism is widespread or to contemplate the consequences of adopting the tenets of radical environmentalism. Res Life presents students with a catechism.

True, there are already some courses like that in the catalogues of many institutions – courses where students are immersed in the professor’s own political beliefs. (We covered one such course here). Students can usually avoid highly politicized courses, if they learn about them, but they can’t avoid the Res Life sessions.

Comparing the Res Life experience with that of traditional college pedagogy, Wood explains the difference: “The excitement that can be generated by a good teacher in a classroom setting is not detached from the world of books in the way that student-facilitated dialogue sessions are. These are not about books at all: they are about personal experience.” Making Res Life part of the learning experience in college is as if the Biltmore Estate put on an addition constructed of two by fours and vinyl siding.

The architects of that addition, however, think that it is equal with the rest of the university. At a recent conference of Res Life advocates, one speaker declared, “We are educators, and we do not need permission (from faculty) to educate, and we certainly do not need to apologize for it.” The true educators – the faculty – ought to pay close attention to this incursion, if for no other reason because the unscholarly nature of the “education” through Res Life is going to make it harder for them to get students to engage in true scholarly work. The dogmatism that characterizes Res Life sessions is incompatible with the spirit of intellectual inquiry.

The University of Delaware’s Student Life Committee has recently floated a proposal to revive the disgraceful program that was axed last fall. Naturally, some cosmetic changes had been made, but it was the same old wine in a new bottle. Professor Jan Blits excoriated the proposal in a letter to the Delaware faculty. He wrote, “Most serious of all, the new program like the old one, appropriates the educational function of the faculty. Turning ResLife and its staff into a principal instrument of ‘the University of Delaware’s educational priorities,’ the program usurps the faculty’s historic prerogative to oversee education at the University.”

Unfortunately, the cosmetic changes were sufficient for most of the faculty senate, which voted to approve the new plan on May 13 (Details available here). It now goes to the Board of Trustees.

College students have (or should have) plenty of work to keep them busy without subjecting them to ideological indoctrination sessions. It’s time for the university community to call a halt to the Res Life movement.