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Foundation for Individual Rights in Education


October 30, 2007

FIRE Press Release

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.”

The university’s views are forced on students through a comprehensive manipulation of the residence hall environment, from mandatory training sessions to “sustainability” door decorations. Students living in the university’s eight housing complexes are required to attend training sessions, floor meetings, and one-on-one meetings with their Resident Assistants (RAs). The RAs who facilitate these meetings have received their own intensive training from the university, including a “diversity facilitation training” session at which RAs were taught, among other things, that “[a] racist is one who is both privileged and socialized on the basis of race by a white supremacist (racist) system. The term applies to all white people (i.e., people of European descent) living in the United States, regardless of class, gender, religion, culture or sexuality.”

The university suggests that at one-on-one sessions with students, RAs should ask intrusive personal questions such as “When did you discover your sexual identity?” Students who express discomfort with this type of questioning often meet with disapproval from their RAs, who write reports on these one-on-one sessions and deliver these reports to their superiors. One student identified in a write-up as an RA’s “worst” one-on-one session was a young woman who stated that she was tired of having “diversity shoved down her throat.”

According to the program’s materials, the goal of the residence life education program is for students in the university’s residence halls to achieve certain “competencies” that the university has decreed its students must develop in order to achieve the overall educational goal of “citizenship.” These competencies include: “Students will recognize that systemic oppression exists in our society,” “Students will recognize the benefits of dismantling systems of oppression,” and “Students will be able to utilize their knowledge of sustainability to change their daily habits and consumer mentality.”

At various points in the program, students are also pressured or even required to take actions that outwardly indicate their agreement with the university’s ideology, regardless of their personal beliefs. Such actions include displaying specific door decorations, committing to reduce their ecological footprint by at least 20%, taking action by advocating for an “oppressed” social group, and taking action by advocating for a “sustainable world.”

In the Office of Residence Life’s internal materials, these programs are described using the harrowing language of ideological reeducation. In documents relating to the assessment of student learning, for example, the residence hall lesson plans are referred to as “treatments.”

In a letter sent yesterday to University of Delaware President Patrick Harker, FIRE pointed out the stark contradiction between the residence life education program and the values of a free society. FIRE’s letter to President Harker also underscored the University of Delaware’s legal obligation to abide by the First Amendment. FIRE reminded Harker of the Supreme Court’s decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), a case decided during World War II that remains the law of the land. Justice Robert H. Jackson, writing for the Court, declared, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

“The fact that the university views its students as patients in need of treatment for some sort of moral sickness betrays a total lack of respect not only for students’ basic rights, but for students themselves,” Lukianoff said. “The University of Delaware has both a legal and a moral obligation to immediately dismantle this program, and FIRE will not rest until it has.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process rights, freedom of expression, and rights of conscience on our campuses. FIRE would like to thank the Delaware Association of Scholars (DAS) for its invaluable assistance in this case. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the University of Delaware and elsewhere can be seen by visiting www.thefire.org.


October 31, 2007 Delaware Association of Scholars Denounces University of Delaware Reeducation Program

Yesterday, the Delaware Association of Scholars (DAS) joined FIRE in denouncing the egregious program of thought reform at the University of Delaware. Extreme by any measure, the program is an out-and-out assault on the individual liberty, dignity, privacy and autonomy of UD students. It is tyranny disguised as citizenship education.

DAS makes the same point that FIRE made yesterday:

While such a program would be very problematic on any campus, it is also unlawful and unconstitutional at a public university. A public university is required by law and the Constitution to respect the constitutional rights of its students. No public university may permit, let alone actively engage in, the violation of its students’ basic rights.

DAS joins FIRE in calling for the immediate and complete elimination of the Residence Life “education” program. No mere reduction in its scope or activities will do.

In its conclusion, DAS thanks those students and staff who were responsible for gathering the information about the program and turning it over to organizations such as DAS and FIRE. Indeed, as Greg says above, students, faculty, and concerned citizens are essential to pressuring wayward universities into doing the right thing. We encourage our readers to join the growing outrage, contact University of Delaware President Patrick Harker and Director of Residence Life Kathleen Kerr, and demand that they respect the human dignity and individual liberty of their students.

October 31, 2007 Is the University of Delaware Violating the Federal Law on Human Subject Research?

A core part of the University of Delaware’s residential life program focuses on finding the most effective method for behavioral and thought reform. As covered in the FIRE press release, the University’s own research agenda, and previous posts, the University’s residential life program requires its students to undergo experimental thought-reform “treatments.” The University assesses and tracks the efficacy of their various “treatments” through pre- and post-treatment surveys, one-on-one interviews and behavioral observation. Unfortunately, it conducts this research without informing its students that they are being used as subjects in a massive reeducation experiment.

The federal law governing research on human subjects was first passed in 1974 after the public became aware of the government’s Tuskegee Syphilis Study. One of the law’s overriding purposes, as described in the accompanying Belmont Report, is to ensure that government agencies conducting research treat individuals as “autonomous agents.” “To show lack of respect for an autonomous agent,” the report explains, “is to repudiate that person’s considered judgments” or “to deny an individual the freedom to act on those considered judgments.”

As it acknowledges, the University of Delaware is legally bound by federal law regulating research on human subjects. The law requires school officials to obtain the approval of its Institutional Review Board (IRB) and the informed consent of all human subjects prior to commencing any human subject research.

The University of Delaware’s Office of Residence Life is at least superficially aware of the legal issues involved. It states in its Research Agenda that those who wish to transform “assessment results” gathered from the residential “treatment” program into “publication-quality” reports “need to discuss such plans in advance with the Director or Associate Director to make sure all human subject protocols have been followed.” Not only do they admit their research is intentionally not rigorous enough for publication, they also imply that their “treatments” will have to follow the human subject law only if somebody seeks to publish the “results.” In fact, however, the research’s lack of publication is irrelevant to whether the research is governed by the human subject law. The law applies to any human subject research, which is defined as any “systematic investigation” designed to gather “generalized knowledge” involving human subjects (§46.102 Definitions, D).

The University of Delaware’s school-wide guidelines regarding the human subject law make it clear that any research that goes “beyond the diagnostic and therapeutic needs of the subject” is regulated by the law. This includes activities categorized by the school as “training” and “development.”

The Residence Life memo concerning the residential “treatment” programs recognizes that “our tools designed to examine educational techniques will require advance approval” by its IRB. However, it follows this up by committing to “further training on human subject regulations,” raising the question of whether the approval was acquired prior to the instigation of their “treatment” program. The memo also claims that the parts of its program which are “primarily educational in nature” are “fully exempt” from the law. Unfortunately, not much of its “treatment” program falls into this benign category.

The “treatment” program is riddled with human subject research. Its “action based research,” which it claims is exempt from the human subject research law because it lacks generalized conclusions, includes “developing an understanding of the students’ behavioral changes in reaction to RL [Residence Life] educational strategies.” Although the memo claims that “action based research” does not produce any generalized conclusions, it says the staff is free to “conduct summative, research style studies” alongside the “action based research.” The report itself calls for generalized research to be conducted alongside the “action based research” by the “research team,” using “validity controls and question precision necessary to reach broader conclusions.” (4-5)

The “treatment” program is designed to study and determine the best way to change students’ behaviors, values and beliefs. This does not fall under the “normal educational practice” exception to the law. As a result, Delaware should have obtained approval from its IRB and informed consent from all its residential students. If it has not done so, its program is likely a manifest violation of federal law governing the use of human subjects. This would not be entirely surprising, as the law was designed to ensure that state actors respect the autonomy of citizens—a task the University of Delaware clearly has difficulty completing.

Update: November 1, 2007, More About University of Delaware: Students Required to Undergo Ideological Reeducation »