By Donald Downs
A lot has been written about the details of the residential life program at the University of Delaware, and the ways in which it has bullied students and residential assistants to accept regnant orthodoxy. The nation's collective hat should go off to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for exposing this program, and for compelling the university to back down - at least temporarily. The episode brings to mind last spring's heated debate in the Chronicle of Higher Education over whether FIRE was too extreme in its attacks on higher education, and whether FIRE had outlived its usefulness. One case is not statistical proof, but the fact remains that without FIRE, this remarkably repressive program would still be in effect.
I want to address a broader issue in the Delaware case that has not attracted enough attention thus far: the role of non-faculty members in promoting the politicization of higher education. Kathleen Kerr, a mastermind of the Delaware program, is director of residential life for the University of Delaware. Interestingly, as John Leo has recently pointed out, she is also the chairperson of the American College Personnel Association's Commission for Housing and Residential Life - a group with connections to universities across the country.
Most of the literature on the ideological politicization of higher education has focused on faculty members. The standard line is that the rise of political correctness and its tools of war (e.g., speech codes, sensitivity training, etc.) have been the product of left-wing baby-boomers assuming positions of authority on faculties and in the upper echelons of administration. The standard line provides an explanation in some cases. But my own experience and reading have caused me to look for further explanations of this state of affairs.
I do not know all the facts, but I would be surprised if the faculty at Delaware had been deeply involved in promulgating and promoting the residence halls program. I know that if such a program were to exist at my school, the faculty would have remained in the dark about its existence in the first place, and would have raised serious questions about it once faced with the facts. Though the faculty at my school is widely regarded as very much on the left, it has shown itself over the years to be very suspicious of policies that raise the specter of thought control. Other than the speech codes - which the faculty abolished after giving the measures a second look in the late 1990s - the major threats to free thought at Wisconsin have arisen from programs pushed by professionals who have not spent a lot of time teaching and researching, or have turned away from teaching and researching to pursue administrative careers.
This situation is similar to what others have found. In The Diversity Machine (2002), for example, Frederick Lynch provided a detailed portrait of numerous interlocking national programs designed to promote diversity and attitudinal change, almost all of which were run by non-faculty personnel. The University of Michigan, for example, had about 100 such programs (this is not a misprint), but the faculty tended to ignore them because they applied to areas outside of the faculty's main concern. As long as such programs did not jeopardize faculty research, no problem. In The Shadow University, Harvey Silverglate and Alan Kors also provide many examples of violations of academic freedom committed by administrative staff in the name of pet causes. Despite these and other works, public concern remains targeted at faculty members, not staff.
A few years ago I served on a speech code committee that ultimately led to the abolition of the university's faculty speech code. The committee consisted of faculty, students, and staff. One of the things that struck me during this year-long service was the posture of the staff members toward academic freedom and free speech. With one outstanding exception, the staff members evidenced little concern about the effects broad speech codes can have on the intellectual honesty and integrity of the classroom. Their experiences and professional agendas simply did not prepare or predispose them to take academic freedom all that seriously. This was not the case for faculty members on the committee, including those who supported some sort of code. (I should add that the students were among the most energetic defenders of freedom on the committee.)
It will be interesting to follow the plight of the residence life program at the University of Delaware now that it has the full attention of the faculty. Will the faculty exercise its fiduciary responsibility to defend the principles of free thought that comprise the core of liberal education, or will it eschew the burden of this responsibility out of indifference or fear? Nothing I have said here is meant to get faculty members off the hook for supporting such programs as Delaware's. Nor is it my intention to reflexively criticize university staff. After all, universities would grind to an immediate halt without its valued staff members. The problem is those staff members who promote agendas that threaten the truth-seeking mission of the university.
There is some evidence to suggest that faculties' main culpability may not lie in the active promotion of such programs, but rather in a kind of not so benign neglect. If this surmise has merits, it opens the door to a more nuanced analysis of the contemporary politics of higher education. Rather than routinely lumping faculty and staff together in a critical evaluation of higher education, perhaps we should look more closely at how faculty and staff culpabilities might often differ. It might be time to look more closely at the problem of faculty neglect as a distinct problem, and at the factors and forces that contribute to this neglect - above and beyond active faculty perpetration or complicity. I hope to do so in a future essay.
Donald Downs is a professor of political science, law, and journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He specializes in issues involving law, politics, and society, as well as political thought, and has recently published Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus.