Topic: Professions & Institutions

Exposing Indoctrination at the University of Delaware: FIRE Acts While the Media Sleeps

This is an important story with disturbing implications for our nation and our culture. It involved an outrage against free thought, individual autonomy and fairness perpetrated by a state university, calling into question whether the nation’s commitment to core freedoms and educational principles has eroded to a dangerous degree. Yet the overwhelming majority of print and broadcast media did not believe it was newsworthy — which may be the most disturbing thing of all.

On October 30, the education watchdog group FIRE released the following:

NEWARK, Del., —The University of Delaware subjects students in its residence halls to a shocking program of ideological reeducation that is referred to in the university’s own materials as a “treatment” for students’ incorrect attitudes and beliefs. The Orwellian program requires the approximately 7,000 students in Delaware’s residence halls to adopt highly specific university-approved views on issues ranging from politics to race, sexuality, sociology, moral philosophy, and environmentalism. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is calling for the total dismantling of the program, which is a flagrant violation of students’ rights to freedom of conscience and freedom from compelled speech.

“The University of Delaware’s residence life education program is a grave intrusion into students’ private beliefs,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. “The university has decided that it is not enough to expose its students to the values it considers important; instead, it must coerce its students into accepting those values as their own. At a public university like Delaware, this is both unconscionable and unconstitutional.”

This was not some hysterical characterization by right wing fanatics who think teaching evolution will put the U.S. on the road to perdition. The story was true, and not exaggerated. Resident students starting at the University were required to state their opinions on issues such as gay marriage, affirmative action, even global warming in a groups setting. They were required to attend training sessions designed to show them that their views were racist, anti-feminist, bigoted and wrong. The Office of Residence Life established numerous “competencies” that all students “must develop in order to become fully functional and effective citizens towards a sustainable society after they leave the University of Delaware campus.” The university’s residence halls were required to embrace a “complex curriculum” that incorporated these competencies, which read like the platform of an autocratic political party founded by Al Sharpton, Ralph Nader and Jane Fonda: “Students will recognize that systemic oppression exists in our society,” “Students will recognize the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression;” “Students will be able to utilize their knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and consumer mentality.”

Twice a semester, campus resident staff interviewed the students about their “attitudes,” and then gave evaluations assessing the degree to which each student had made progress assimilating University-sanctioned beliefs. This process was called measuring students’ “level of change or acceptance.” Among the ideas that students were pressured to accept were hyper-political definitions redolent of the worst ideological clap-trap of the Seventies. These were listed in the program’s voluminous training materials, and included a definition of “racist” as “one who is privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people.” The training manual also mandated that students be shown that a “non-racist” is “a non term…created by whites to deny responsibility for systemic racism.”

If that isn’t enough to start your “it can’t happen here” alarm bells ringing, in some parts of the training materials the program was even referred to as “treatment,” just as Mao Tse Tung’s political re-education camps were categorized as “treatment.” Students and some faculty members had other, more accurate descriptions, such as “brainwashing,” “indoctrination,” and “political propaganda,” and “intimidation.”

The question arises: why did so few media news outlets believe this was something the public needed to know? Only the Philadelphia Inquirer among the major urban dailies featured the story, which was occurring virtually in its back yard. Meanwhile, the airwaves were filled with detailed coverage of Britney Spears’ custody battle, and newspapers examined meaningless poll data about presidential wannabes. Apparently these life-and death matters didn’t leave space for such mundane matters as a state university trampling on the Constitution.

Freedom of thought and expression under attack on campus? Who cares?

Or perhaps this was a case of a story being sullied by its association with those who first noticed it. Fox News covered it, and so did many conservative bloggers, giving the rest of the media an excuse to dismiss the issue as another bit of local trivia that raised Bill O’Reilly’s blood pressure. If a state university’s evaluating its 7,000 students according to whether they have fully accepted specific political and social beliefs isn’t alarming to the New York Times and Washington Post, what would be? Sixth graders required to genuflect under a giant poster of President Bush? Solitary confinement for Young Republicans? Or perhaps those alarms would only sound if a state university forced students to listen to daily one-on-one rants about the need to fight in Iraq, ban abortions and drive SUVs.

Fortunately, once some Delaware students and parents alerted FIRE, the matter was rectified swiftly and decisively. First a letter went out from the group to Patrick Harker, the University president, which began:

“…we have never encountered a more systematic assault upon the individual liberty, dignity, privacy, and autonomy of university students than this program. The program —referred to in the university’s internal materials as a “treatment” designed to alter student beliefs and behaviors —requires students to adopt highly specific university-approved views on issues ranging from politics to sexuality, sociology, moral philosophy, and even science. These views are reinforced through a comprehensive manipulation of the residence hall environment, from required meetings and one-on-one sessions all the way to door decorations. The program brazenly invades students’ privacy and forces them to confess their “privilege” or their “oppression.” Students’ progress towards the desired outcome is recorded by Resident Assistants (RAs) and reported to their superiors. Such utter contempt for the autonomy and free agency of others is the hallmark of totalitarianism and has no place in any free society, let alone at a public university in the state of Delaware.”

Harker’s response was at once defensive, disingenuous, and lame. For example, he argued that the program was not mandatory, but rather that certain “over-zealous” RA’s had represented it as so. (Ethics note to Harker: if University employees use their authority to impose such a program on students, whether it is because of overzealousness, policy or lax supervision, that program is mandatory for those students, and the University is responsible for an abuse of power and trust.) FIRE took his word-parsing letter and decisively rebutted it point-by-point. For example, here is FIRE’s withering response to this statement by Harker in his letter: “Students are not required to participate in any residential activity, educational program, or to maintain the University provided nametag on their door.” 

“This assertion is directly contradicted by direct quotations from the university’s own materials. As we have demonstrated, public and internal documents alike stress time and again that “every student” must be reached. As an RA wrote to students about one-on-one sessions, “Not to scare anyone or anything, but these are MANDATORY!!” Moreover, the philosophy of the program is defined explicitly as being distinct from that of the “voluntary” program model. Additionally, the entire residence hall environment is manipulated so that students cannot avoid persistent exposure to the university’s approved messages.

 “Additional examples abound. All quotes are from the 2007-2008 curricula for the individual residence complexes:

At the Dickinson complex:

  • “All students are expected to be at community meetings. As this is the primary educational delivery strategy, follow up will be expected by the RA/HD for those residents who do not attend a community meeting.”
  • “Each room door in the complex will have a door decoration that has a representation of the interlocking circles of the triple bottom line.”

At the Christiana Towers complex:

  • “As a means to take action, students will become engaged in the Adopt-a-Rainforest project.”

At the Russell complex:

  • “In late October, students will take action by advocating for a social group that is oppressed…this sequence is capped with the second one on one between the RA and the student in which the student will recognize his/her negative stereotypes and learn how to challenge them.”

FIRE’s thorough indictment persuaded Harker that this battle was not going to be won, even if the national media was apathetic. He announced that the program was being suspended:

“…While I believe that recent press accounts misrepresent the purpose of the residential life program at the University of Delaware, there are questions about its practices that must be addressed and there are reasons for concern that the actual purpose is not being fulfilled. It is not feasible to evaluate these issues without a full and broad-based review.

 Upon the recommendation of Vice President for Student Life Michael Gilbert and Director of Residence Life Kathleen Kerr, I have directed that the program be stopped immediately. No further activities under the current framework will be conducted.”

Happy ending? The Ethics Scoreboard is not happy. The University committed an unforgivable breach of trust, taking young students and subjecting them political indoctrination and thought-policing rather than encouraging and teaching debate, inquiry, analysis, creativity, and individuality. Its arrogance, and contempt for essential human autonomy and free expression, almost certainly represents a far more powerful virus in the educational community than most of us knew or suspected (Mea culpa, David Horowitz), and that this brazen manifestation of it ultimately failed is scant consolation. The fact that supposed champions of the First Amendment like the ACLU, the New York Times, the American Bar Association were totally unconcerned can only be described as disillusioning and scary.

It can’t happen here? But it did…and the press didn’t think it was worth mentioning, much less investigating

The Ethics Scoreboard urges its visitors, whatever their political affiliations, to visit FIRE’s website at and read the whole story of the University of Delaware’s aborted program. FIRE is a conservative organization, no doubt about it; but the Delaware “training” should have offended liberals and conservatives alike. As the liberal ACLU slept and journalists shrugged, FIRE was ready, effective, and in the right. It stood up for the students of Delaware, freedom of thought, privacy and fairness, and against political correctness and the abuse of power.

Every American owes the organization at least a thank you. I’m sure it would accept a donation as well.

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