Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Service Learning Requirements, Part II

Here's an update to my earlier post about the service learning requirement at UW-Eau Claire.

I had a long conversation this evening with a friend who worked in the service learning department at UW-EC in the first few years of its inception. From what I understand, UW-EC is one of only five public universities in the nation to add a service learning requirement for graduation. The requirement has been in place since 1995, but it seems as if the question of what constitutes a valid service learning project in the eyes of the university, has been rather vague. Students choose their own projects, and projects must connect with a student's chosen major, but I gather that approval of a project has been left up to the student's faculty advisor and the director of service learning.

In other words, the decision of whether a service project meets the requirement is a somewhat arbitrary one. Though since the inception of the program, the department has continually attempted to refine it.

Also, students in the schools of nursing or education, for example, can get their service learning requirement met through coursework. (Student teaching, for example.) Whereas students in the schools of business and arts & science must come up with their own projects. These are the students mainly affected by this.

What is now being called a "ban on religious service-learning" is due to a clause added to the requirements that states: "Religious instruction, religious proselytization, conducting religious services or projects requiring belief or affiliation are not acceptable as service-learning experiences, since they are generally viewed as constituting a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution."

The clause was challenged by both students and faculty because it was added to the requirements without approval of the Academic Policies Committee.

In October, the APC met to discuss the ban. An article about the APC's second meeting on the subject can be found here. Here's one telling section of the article:

APC Chairman Kent Syverson and board member Bobby Pitts emerged as the only apparent opponents of the ban.

Pitts, however, voiced an overlying concern. He said he was uneasy with the idea that walking dogs, which he considers a trivial project, is allowed while religious projects are not.

"I don't really want anyone going around getting credit for proselytizing, but, frankly, I don't want them to get credit for walking damn dogs either," Pitts said. "To me, it's a ridiculous use of student time. It's an incredibly dumb activity. I don't think this is about freedom. I think this is about choice."

He went on to say that his desire to overturn the ban comes secondary to his desire to see service learning graduation requirements disbanded altogether.

Donald Mowry, director of service learning, defended the example of dog walking, saying it's a legitimate service learning project.

"I've had many students who realize once they walk dogs that . . . believe it or not . . . it is a societal issue, that it is a societal problem," he said.

The APC approved of the ban in late October over concerns that they were treading into constitutional law territory. And indeed, the ACLJ submitted a five-page brief reprimanding the university for the ban.

Constitutional attorney Geoffrey R. Surtees argued in the brief that if "the university takes a religion-neutral stance with respect to the types of community service students may engage in, the university is not violating the Establishment Clause, but complying with it."

"Supreme Court case law is clear that religious instruction is constitutionally protected speech," he said.

I think this is what's know as "buying trouble." For fear of being sued, the university enacts a policy that could wind up getting them sued anyway. Meanwhile, I would find it hard to argue that walking dogs is a valid service project and helping out at the Hope Gospel Mission is not. (Actually, helping at the Hope Gospel Mission might be. I'm still unclear on what exactly constitutes "proselytization," which seems to be the sticking point in much of what I've read on this. One student's mission trip to Mexico was not considered valid, but a big part of what they do on these trips is build houses and churches, so if Habitat for Humanity is okay, why isn't it okay to do the same thing in Mexico through a local church?)

The webpage for UW-EC's Center for Service Learning is here.

I leave it to the legal scholars to debate the constitutional law surrounding this issue. I'm on record stating that I think the service learning requirement should be removed anyway, but I'll keep looking around to see what else I can dig up.

I'm still no closer to figuring out whether volunteering at a faith-based community-service organization--a local food pantry, for example--would be a violation of the ban. And I'm not sure anyone at the university could state an answer with authority either. In the past it's been up to the student to convince the university that a project fills the requirement. So volunteering at some faith-based institution would be valid if the student could argue it fit within the definition of "service learning." But the ban changes that.

Addendum: Keep an eye on the website for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. (FIRE) I believe they've been contacted about this issue as well. Perhaps there will be a good summary there.

Addendum II: Somehow, while surfing all that news, I ended up downloading a PDF of a letter from the ACLJ on this topic. I have no idea where it came from, but there it was in my trash bin this morning. I'll look it over and see if there's anything enlightening in it.

Update here.


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