Monday, May 12, 2008

Defending Intellectual Freedom at the University of Delaware

[Update: crossposted at Minding the Campus, with a response by Adam Kissel. See my reply to him above.]

The Faculty Senate at the University of Delaware is meeting later today to discuss approving the controversial Residence Life (ResLife) proposal for educational programming in the residence halls. The faculty should approve the proposal, partly because it’s a good idea, but primarily because academic freedom is endangered whenever voluntary educational programs are banned. Conservative critics of the program are demanding censorship of ideas they dislike, and the Faculty Senate at a free university must not participate in such repression.

The only relevant question is whether the ResLife program violates the rights of students by compelling them to participate or censoring their views. There is not even a shred of evidence that this is the case, and the program explicitly says otherwise. There is no compulsion to participate or agree, there is no grading, there is no threat at all to a student’s academic progress or to a student’s ability to remain in a residence hall. In terms of compulsion, there is no there there, and no amount of hyperbolic fantasizing about what might happen can change this fact. The fact that in the past there were some minor issues about intrusive questions being asked of students by RAs is irrelevant to the consideration of this current program.

Even in last year's program, there was no clear evidence of serious compulsion beyond the feelings of some students who disliked the program. What students were punished by administrators if they refused to participate in dorm activities or expressed dissenting views? The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has correctly addressed many cases where students face campus trials and punishment for their protected speech, but the Delaware case included none of this. And if any compulsion ever is shown, then the proper response is to address the specific violation and personnel, not to shut down the entire program. I cannot imagine why dorm staffers could be prohibited next fall from leading events promoting diversity or social justice simply because a few RAs last fall inappropriately pressured students to attend activities and asked them idiotic personal questions.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) claims, “Saying that the programming will be optional is hard to swallow. After all, how can a freshman, first day on campus, opt out at a time of great social pressure to do the activities everyone else is doing, and without full knowl edge of what the program really entails?” Easy: stay in your room, hang out with other people, and ignore what the ResLife staff does.

FIRE is infantilizing college students, treating them like dumb puppies who will follow administrators mindlessly if any programming is allowed in residence hall. This is demeaning and insulting to all students, since it presumes that students would be better off with nothing to do rather than running the “risk” of being pressured to attend an event.

It is the liberal content of the program that FIRE and other conservative critics object to. FIRE argues that ResLife’s proposal is “soaked in a highly politicized social and political agenda.” I agree. It is a politicized agenda. Virtually all intellectual activity has a politicized agenda, because important ideas are political. ResLife promotes social justice and civic engagement, and these are political values (albeit not very radical ones). I think these are good political values, and conservatives disagree, but that doesn’t matter. If ResLife was proposing to promote abstinence and other conservative values, I might disagree with them, but I would never seek to ban any of their activities. Instead, I would express my views and organize activities that reflect my values. So why won’t these conservative groups try counterspeech instead of suppression?

It’s true that some faculty (and students) might have good ideas for residence hall programs, and it appears they have already had input into the proposal. They’re also free to organize their own programs if they are dissatisfied with what ResLife has created. But no one should have veto power to ban educational programs.

Another objection is made by FIRE: “The program still tries to change students' ‘thoughts, values, beliefs, and actions.’" Trying to change what students think is a primary goal of all education. Adam Kissel of FIRE writes, “Try cutting half of the proposal out, and getting rid of the educational goals and intended learning outcomes, and the program might have a chance of being morally and legally sound.” Exactly when did having educational goals become a thoughtcrime? I object to the relativist approach promoted by FIRE, which seems to presume that all ideas are equal and that staff at a university should never dare to teach anyone that some ideas are better than others. Adam Kissel imagines students being “bombarded with ResLife's sustainability agenda.” But all of us are bombarded with ideas we may not like. No one at a university has a “right” not to hear ideas they don’t like.

The attacks on ResLife’s program are also anti-intellectual. FIRE seems to want ResLife to hold pizza parties and mindless social events, and never organize any controversial activities. Why can’t a residence hall aspire to have more? Why can’t a residence hall have intellectual activities and engage students in serious ideas

Kissel claims that these are “re-education programs” that “violate the Constitution and the canons of academic freedom.” To the contrary, if the Delaware faculty (or anyone else) tries to ban the ResLife program because they dislike some of the political views that might be expressed, they will be violating the Constitution and the canons of academic freedom. To call it a voluntary residence hall program “re-education” is insulting and demeaning to students who adults fully capable of expressing their own ideas and engaging with ideas different from their own.

If you do not like an educational program, then you are free to criticize it. You are free to propose and organize your own educational programs. But you are not free to ban the program from existing. And that is what critics such as FIRE are demanding.

The quality of the ResLife program is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether it should be banned. Academic freedom demands that even stupid ideas must be protected from censorship. Dorm activities at colleges across the country are almost universally vapid, and I am not especially fond of the ResLife proposal. I wish idiotic things like the “Discovery Wheel” could be consigned to whatever circle of self-esteem hell they came from. But overall, the University of Delaware proposal is a step above the average because it makes some halting effort at engaging students in serious issues. So my only objection to the ResLife proposal is that it doesn’t try to educate students enough.

The conservative critics of the ResLife proposal also misunderstand the role of faculty. The Delaware Association of Scholars proclaimed that the educational program “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...By approving the program, the faculty would be relinquishing the prerogative.”

By this logic, the faculty could ban any educational program it wanted to, such as speakers invited by staff or students, on the grounds that only the faculty is entitled to educate students.

In an open letter to the University of Delaware, Adam Kissel wrote: “I would be ashamed if faculty members would give up their educational prerogatives to the unrefined intellectual forays of residential staff who have nothing like the education and teaching abilities of the regular faculty.”

This kind of elitist nonsense has no place in higher education. The notion that faculty alone are qualified to educate students is absurd. Everyone--including faculty, staff, students, and outsiders–should be free to educate students. The faculty do not have any “educational prerogatives” outside the classroom, and no power to ban programs with views they might dislike. While it amuses me to hear that conservatives are now so anxious to protect faculty “prerogatives” against “usurpers,” the truth is that the faculty role does not permit them to control extracurricular activities.

Back in November, I was disturbed by the ban on the previous ResLife program imposed by the university president, but there were many legitimate criticisms of the program’s heavyhanded implementation. There is no evidence, however, that this mistake will be repeated. Indeed, I have no doubt that the ResLife program will be the most scrutinized program at any residence hall in the country.

According to Kissel, “I do not see how the faculty can trust ResLife to help students explore their values and attitudes.” But trust can never be a prerequisite for free speech. A university might distrust a student organization, but it should never ban the group from organizing an event. If there are any genuine abuses of student freedom in this program, then by all means they should be dealt with. But claiming that a perfectly legitimate proposal deserves suppression because you “distrust” some of the personnel implementing it is a clear violation of academic freedom. There is absolutely no repression evident in the proposal, and no one can automatically assume it will happen to justify banning a program.

In the Delaware case, FIRE has moved from a correct principle that students should not be compelled to participate in controversial residence hall activities to an incorrect belief that no controversial residence hall activities should be allowed out of fear that students might “feel” compelled to participate. This is no small step; it is a massive leap from protecting free speech to attacking it. It is disgraceful to see FIRE betraying the principles of academic freedom and seeking to ban a program from a university because it finds the content too liberal for its conservative taste.

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