Once again, state legislators and the national media have turned their attention to the UW System. This time, their fiery gaze has zeroed in on UW-Eau Claire.
Over the summer, RAs who led Bible studies during their off-hours were contacted by Associate Director of Housing and Residence Life Deborah Newman and informed that they are not permitted to hold the Bible studies in their dorm rooms. The decision has been furiously condemned by numerous Wisconsin legislators and the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
For all the attention given to Eau Claire, they are not the only institution with this kind of restriction. Many, including the Madison campus, have a similar rule.
We strongly disagree with this policy.
We feel that the decision to ban religious and political activities limits the free expression and association rights of resident assistants. RAs are, first and foremost, students of the university and as such should enjoy all the benefits of being a student.
The policy puts an unfair burden upon this particular subset of students and treats them as if they were full employees of the university — all this despite Supreme Court rulings clarifying that students do not surrender their rights when they accept an institutional stipend, as resident assistants do.
Furthermore, this policy is detrimental to the educational mission of a great university. Part of the experience of being a student is the chance to be exposed to a wide variety of belief systems, to experiment and to cast aside ideas that do not fit. By prohibiting RAs from acting on their views, the university blocks an avenue of exploration for many residents.
We believe the UW System is best served by allowing the greatest number of voices to be heard. Making a few students temporarily "uncomfortable" is no reason to stop the free flow of ideas.
However, knowing that some ideas and beliefs may make residents pause, RAs should make every effort to ensure that their residents are comfortable and that they feel free to talk to the RA despite religious or ideological differences.
It incumbent on the UW System to respect the free exchange of ideas, but RAs must also respect those around them and not inadvertently force their ideas on residents. It's a fine line, but one that's worth walking.