Brave New Dorm

In last week’s Clarion Call, I wrote about the debate over academic freedom at the recent National Association of Scholars conference in Washington, D.C. But equally important was the contentious final session, devoted to the agenda of the “Residence Life” movement.

That movement is a nationwide initiative that has managers of student dorms teaching a leftist political catechism to students under their control in an effort to radicalize them.

The discussion focused on the infamous ResLife program at the University of Delaware. It took some interesting turns, including opposition to the programs from AAUP president Cary Nelson. He is a man of the left, but nevertheless doesn’t want to see curriculum and instruction handed over to people who aren’t even remotely scholars.

First to speak was Adam Kissel of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). He explained the objectives of the Residence Life movement generally and concentrated on the University of Delaware, where the program was first seen in all its authoritarian splendor: prying questions, indoctrination sessions, and special “treatment” for students who were either uncooperative or, worse, had the temerity to disagree. Kissel made it clear that the ResLife agenda consists of clumsy, authoritarian indoctrination of students meant to color their thinking toward leftist bromides about the environment, capitalism, institutional racism and so forth.

(If you want to read about FIRE’s findings on ResLife, go here. For the investigative work NAS has done on the matter, go here. For the Pope Center’s previous commentary on ResLife, go here.)

Kissel told some disgusting stories about the enforcement of ResLife policies. For example, a female student was reprimanded with an official complaint when she refused to cooperate with the questionnaire that asked about intimate details of her life. Even though Delaware paid lip service to student privacy rights, the supposed need to gather information to identify those who have “incorrect” beliefs trumped that. People who are intent on remaking society seldom let little things like privacy, civility or due process get in their way.

The second speaker was University of Delaware education professor Jan Blits. He was instrumental in bringing the school’s Orwellian program to light. After a student told him about the program, he went to see the administrator responsible for running it. She gave him a thick folder full of documents, apparently believing that once he read the details, he would be won over. That was a tremendous miscalculation. Not only was Professor Blits not won over, he was appalled at the program.

Its intent, Blits said, was to “shape the whole human being.” That “shaping,” however had nothing in common with the traditional college liberal arts education; instead, the objective was to “turn” students by getting them to accept an array of politically-charged conclusions. It was telling that the Delaware administrators wanted to avoid any faculty involvement or oversight, fearing that at least some professors would be outraged at this coercive effort at dictating to students what they should think.

Blits revealed a detail about the ResLife program that was astounding, even for listeners already aware of its domineering nature. Dorm RAs, the “front-line troops” of the program, were trained to intervene whenever a political discussion broke out. Students weren’t to be trusted to discuss issues on their own. Instead, the RA was supposed to intrude and properly organize the discussion, allowing one student to state his or her view, then the other student, and then to break it up. Just as communists could never trust people to engage in any sort of commercial transaction without the control of the state, at Delaware the ResLife thought police could not trust students to have political discussions without their control.

The crowning irony of the program for Blits was the fact that a university was entrusting an educational mission to people who had little or no knowledge about the subject. The socio-economic subjects that comprise the core of the ResLife belief system are emphatically not matters that lend themselves to simplistic treatment–environmental issues, for example—but it had RAs and other administrators “teaching” about them. It was as if a doctor had his receptionist doing medical diagnoses for him.

Finally, Blits said that the ResLife movement has obviously learned from the shellacking it took at Delaware, but not by shedding its arrogant assumptions and coercive tactics. Instead, the lesson it learned was to be more circumspect so that opponents of its efforts at turning college dorms into re-education camps would find little traction.

The final speaker was Illinois State University English professor John K. Wilson. Wilson, author of The Myth of Political Correctness is a resolute defender of leftist orthodoxy. After the strong arguments of Kissel and Blits, Wilson knew he was in a difficult position, namely wanting to defend the indefensible. He admitted that there were troubling aspects of the Delaware program, but argued that the general goal of the program, to increase political awareness and discussion, was good. For Wilson, the program’s compulsion was bad, but its effort at trying to “enhance intellectual activity” in college was good.

There’s a gaping hole in Wilson’s argument. The sort of orchestrated “learning” under academically untrained people that comprises the ResLife program necessarily crowds out other kinds of learning that students would choose to engage in. The vapid programming of ResLife has, in other words, opportunity costs, including time students might devote to actual coursework, spontaneous discussions of the issues that most matter to students, and independent reading about politics or whatever else students are interested in. Wilson’s defense rests on a false dichotomy between the “intellectual activity” of the ResLife program and nothing. But students aren’t usually doing nothing. The activities they choose are probably more beneficial (even sleeping!) than the hectoring they get in ResLife.

In the Q and A following the three presentations, Nelson spoke up in opposition to the ResLife program, saying that the college curriculum should be under the control of the faculty, not administrators and students. I’m in agreement with him on that. Again, it’s like doctors and receptionists. Doctors aren’t always right, but as a rule it’s far better to keep the decision-making in the hands of people who have some expertise.

At most schools, the academic curriculum is weak enough as is. Instead of allowing ResLife zealots to engraft another branch, one that is the antithesis of open inquiry and debate, college administrators should firmly veto the idea that students need another curriculum shoved down their throats. Instead they should work to restore integrity to the real curriculum.