DOVER, Del. — University of Delaware officials yesterday defended a residence-hall program that a civil rights group has criticized as trying to force dormitory residents to adopt university-approved ideologies on moral and social issues.
School officials said students who choose to participate in the residential-life educational program are not required to adopt particular points of view but are presented with ideas to challenge them and stimulate conversation and debate on various topics, including diversity.
"Far from stifling free speech, the residential-life educational program seeks to encourage free speech," said vice president for student life Michael Gilbert.
School officials say students are not forced to participate in the program or to agree with any particular point of view. Instead, they are presented with questions to which there are no "correct" answers.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education alleged on Oct. 30 that the university's program amounts to an "Orwellian" attempt at thought control that violates students' rights to freedom of conscience and freedom from compelled speech. The group described the UD program as a "systematic assault upon individual liberty, dignity, privacy and autonomy of university students" and called for it to be dismantled.
FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said the group began looking into the university's residence-hall program after being contacted by a parent and a professor, and that it also had spoken to several students.
According to FIRE, the university sees the program as a "treatment" for incorrect student beliefs on issues ranging from politics to race, sexuality and the environment. Among other things, the group cited a training session document that defines "racist" as a term synonymous with white supremacist, and one that applies to "all white people" in the United States "regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality."
FIRE also noted that students are expected to recognize that "systemic oppression exists in our society."
"The idea that students are 'required to adopt university approved views' on the issues listed is not a goal of this institution or of the residence life department," Gilbert wrote in a letter to FIRE. "This type of goal is both highly undesired and wholly unattainable."
While describing FIRE's assertion that students are told what to think as "inaccurate," Gilbert acknowledged that there have been "some missteps with the implementation of our program."
"Each of the issues FIRE presents are (sic) currently under review," he wrote. "In fact, we recently became aware that students in several residence halls were told their participation is mandatory at these activities and we have taken steps to clarify this misconception and to notify students of their rights in this area."
Gilbert's strongest contention was with FIRE's seeming presumption that UD students "are so empty-headed and ignorant that they would be 'indoctrinated' with ease."
"While I consider many of your points to be open for legitimate discussion and debate, the supposition that University of Delaware students are simply empty vessels to be filled by any willing authority figure is an unstated assertion where we can find no common ground," he wrote.