Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Delaware ResLife Plan Approved

Yesterday, the University of Delaware Faculty Senate passed the ResLife proposal 45-7, rightly resisting the calls for censorship from external groups.

I do worry that the plan has been dumbed down by the attacks, and that staffers and students may be afraid to express controversial ideas or create additional activities, on the grounds that nothing that deviates from this plan has been approved. I also wish that the proposal included a provision encouraging faculty, staff, and students to organize additional programs and providing them with an easy mechanism for doing this in the residence halls.

I want to draw attention to a comment by Sherman Dorn about a previous post. Dorn is making a common misconception about academic freedom, namely that it’s something owned by the faculty and doled out in small doses to others, rather than a guiding principle of higher education that belongs to everyone.

Peter Wood and Dorn both make a false analogy to academic programs. Faculty should have control over the curriculum, because that involves college credit, grading, and the use of compulsion. Faculty should have no veto power over the extracurriculum, which does not involve compulsion, credit, or grading. It is absurd to imagine that faculty should be able to control all “intellectual” activities on campus even when they’re strictly optional.

However, if a faculty committee did say that a program could not be approved because of the political ideology advocated or speculative fears of indoctrination (as conservatives urge in this case), then it would be violating normal academic freedom standards.

Faculty do have a role to play here, and they’ve played it. The faculty student life committee was directly involved in giving advice to the ResLife proposal. There’s a big difference between faculty shared governance and faculty veto power. (To use Dorn's example, that would be like having the Faculty Senate vote on overruling admissions decisions made with faculty input.) There should have never been a collective Faculty Senate vote on approving this program, just the formal (and informal) process of faculty providing their individual views.


Sherman Dorn said...

I think you've misconstrued my argument, but maybe I've misunderstood yours, so let me ask to clarify:

1) You think that any group on campus can do anything (including using institutional resources) without restraint, including calling it institutionally sponsored?

2) If I understand your position correctly (see #1), then who determines whether something is institutionally sponsored vs. a free-floating "we're at the university and taking advantage of a preexisting community"?

John K. Wilson said...

Sherman, I'm not sure what you're asking. The job of the residence hall folks is to organize activities for students, so they are doing their job. It's the view of some that they should be banned from any activities with controversial political views. It doesn't really matter whether it's institutionally sponsored or free-floating, neither one can be banned.