Delaware's Amateur Hour or For Whom the Gong Tolls

Steve Balch

On the old-time radio show, the Amateur Hour, untalented wannabes got yanked off the boards to the reverberations of a gong. Major Bowes, after all, had his standards. The Faculty Senate of the University of Delaware might have done well last Monday to follow his example. Instead, it sounded the gong for itself, leaving the amateurs in firm possession of the stage. 

Who should define and who should enforce intellectual standards have been the central questions of academic governance for more than a century. America’s faculties, until now at least, have been of no doubt as to the answers: “themselves.” There can be no clearer expression of this doctrine than in the words of the 1994 statement of the American Association of University Professors, On the Relationship of Faculty Governance to Academic Freedom

Since such decisions as those involving choice of methods of instruction, subject matter to be taught, policies for admitting students, standards of student competence in a discipline, the maintenance of a suitable environment for learning, and standards of faculty competence bear directly on the teaching and research conducted in the institution, the faculty should have primary authority over decisions about such matters – that is, the administration should “concur with the faculty except in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.” 

But then came last Monday’s debacle in Delaware. On that day, a new breed of administrators called residence life professionals, equipped with a mandate from the zeitgeist to do all manner of good, brought a “plan” before the Faculty Senate. (It was actually a revisit, a first round of debate having occurred the week before). According to this “plan,” residence lifers, with doctorates in meaty disciplines like “Education Leadership,” would ensure that the University’s dormitories became a “rich environment for learning” wherein students were helped, among other things, to understand “how history, background and culture affect one’s perspectives,” “their own and others’ concepts of justice,” and “the connections that exist between the concepts of sustainability, personal choice, community, and citizenship.”

To be sure, this was a modification of a plan in actual operation the fall before, suspended by the University’s president following revelations by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and our own Delaware affiliate, of its bigoted, coercive, and inquisitorial nature.  When establishing this earlier incarnation, the residence lifers hadn’t bothered with the slightest nod toward faculty approval, much less input – apparently convinced that the professorial writ over academic content dead-ended at the dormitory door. Now somewhat chastened, they did so with reassurances:  faculty would have a chance to participate, residence life graduate assistants would no longer act as teachers, and students wouldn’t be required to take part in whatever was taught. It was also agreed that the Faculty Senate would get a chance to review the program again in six months.  Exactly how faculty would participate was left vague, as were most other aspects of implementation, but one thing was clear, the plan would still be residence life’s to run.

The decision of the Faculty Senate, registered in a lopsided 45-7 vote, represented an astounding turnabout in academic attitudes on institutional governance. Those who peruse the doings of academe will recall the anguished debate of but a few years back over the Academic Bill of Rights and varied spinoffs, in which the AAUP, and most other official organs of American higher education, passionately opposed the idea that legislatures should exercise even modest oversight over decisions pertaining to curricular balance or intellectually fair conduct in the classroom. They stoutly contended that legislators, as non-specialists in the myriad specialties assayed in college, had no business second-guessing the decisions of professors. Late last year, the AAUP again returned to the charge, reiterating in a statement entitled “Freedom in the Classroom” the argument that only those trained in a particular discipline could decide what was, and was not, necessary to its teaching. Yet, when it came to residence life’s astounding grab for academic power at Delaware, all that could be heard from the AAUP, national or local, was silence.     

Perhaps the legislative sponsors of these oversight measures simply lacked the requisite levels of  ambition needed to command professorial respect. After all, they merely wanted state universities to develop internal mechanisms for professional accountability, or submit to the legislature annual “intellectual diversity reports.” By contrast, Delaware’s residence lifers thrust themselves whole hog into academic midstream, advancing an entire educational plan covering history, sociology, political science, and environmental studies – a new rekindling so to speak, in amateur dress, of the American university’s forgotten commitment to integrated general education.         

The welcome given residence lifers’ exuberant entry into curricular cohabitation has, of course, far less to do with scope than content. To believe that those trained in counseling and dormitory management are equipped to shed new light on vexed topics in moral philosophy, cultural evolution, political theory, and environmental science requires an astonishing leap of faith.  Delaware’s faculty made this leap because residence lifers, however unscholarly in credential, are masters of the progressive newspeak about “social change,” “affirmation,” and “sustainability” that dominates campus discourse. As academic piety is now defined, they stand as the nonpareils of rectitude, leaving the average professor, as well as senior university executives, too morally embarrassed to oppose them. 

Had state legislators come forward with a scheme to create a dorm-based education program organized around “values,” “justice,” “citizenship,” and “sustainability,” to be taught by local conservative activists, one can imagine the howls of indignation that would have arisen. Had the Faculty Senate been faced with a resolution authorizing any such design, it members would surely have cried as one, “it shall not pass.” Yet confronted by res life’s postmodern righteousness, courage departed, IQs dropped, and paralysis overtook the will. Resistance was truly futile. America’s faculties bear a leading responsibility for the ascendancy of political correct rhetoric on campus. Now they risk becoming its leading victim. Having fostered obeisance to mindless totems, they are pressed to bow before those totems’ equally mindless priests.  

Maybe Delaware will prove an alarm bell in the night that awakens other academics to the impending peril. So warned, perhaps they’ll arm themselves against it. But they’ll only succeed if they can come to a renewed understanding of what the university is, and what the faculty role in it must be. The university is a place where reason is exercised and sharpened, where ideas are weighed and tested, where individuals are set free on a path of discovery, and where authority rests, to the extent it rests at all, on the power of intellect and learning. That is why it is right and proper for faculty to play the primary role in shaping curriculum and instructional method. No other justification can exist. 

The faculty’s power over the curriculum and instruction is, to be sure, not absolute. Absolute power, by whomever exercised, corrupts absolutely. The new residence life agenda would be unthinkable had not faculty absolutism first given sanction to purely scholarly creeds.  In a free society like our own, trustees, donors, yes even legislators, representing a liberal social order, have a residual responsibility for seeing that faculty orthodoxies don’t calcify and that the academic marketplace remains open.  But it is a backstopping, a safety net, a court of last resort that knows its limits and invokes its jurisdiction with care. What can, by contrast, never be permitted is the aggressive intrusion into university decision-making of moral philistinism posing as education, to which, alas, Delaware’s faculty has just given a pass. By so doing it has opened a major breach in the defenses of academic freedom through which other unlettered hordes may eventually pour.

Professors everywhere, take care! The gong that tolls at Delaware may soon be tolling for thee.          

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