REPORTS FROM THE ACADEMY: Social Work Agonistes (Preview from Academic Questions)

David Stoesz

This is a version of an article to be published in the forthcoming edition of the NAS journal Academic Questions, vol. 21, no. 2. The article will also be available in a more finished form on once the journal edition is released.

David Stoesz is professor of social work at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexandria, VA 22312; [email protected]. He received the 2006 Pro Humanitate Literary Award for Quixote’s Ghost: The Right, the Liberati, and the Future of Social Policy (Oxford University Press, 2005). He is executive director of Policy America, whose purpose is to develop the next agenda in American social policy through an electronic network of current and retired administrators, scholars, and advocates who share that same goal.

On October 14, 2007, social work educators were vexed to find themselves the target of an editorial by George Will. “Code of Coercion” not only excoriated social work education for larding its professional curriculum with ideology, but also asked for a public accounting: “Why are such schools of indoctrination permitted in institutions of higher education?” Will demanded, “And why are people of all political persuasions taxed to finance this propaganda.1  Quickly, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which accredits social work programs nationwide, and its sister organization, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), orchestrated a letter-writing campaign attesting to the high quality of social work education. “The mission of CSWE is to provide quality assurance for social work education programs as they prepare professionals for social work practice based on the profession’s history, purposes, philosophy, and body of knowledge, values and skills,” wrote CSWE president Julia Watkins to the  Washington Post.

 Much to the chagrin of CSWE, Will’s editorial centered on a critical study of social work education conducted by the National Association of Scholars (NAS): “The Scandal of Social Work Education.” Based on a review of the websites of the schools of social work at the nation’s ten largest public universities, NAS concluded that “even within the ideologically colored environment of the contemporary university, social work education constituted an especially advanced case of politicization, in which dogma, tendentiousness, and coerced intellectual conformity were becoming integral to the definition of the field.”3  The NAS critique reflected a simmering dispute with CSWE about the abridgement of student free speech rights in social work education. On October 25, 2006, NAS president Stephen H. Balch had written to Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services John Agwunobi suggesting that “CSWE should either be required to modify its standards so they are no longer in conflict with First Amendment rights, or relinquish its gatekeeper role for work positions within the Public Health Services Commissioned Corps.”4  

Meanwhile, what might only have been a local brouhaha about value primacy in higher education vaulted into the nation’s debate about political correctness. Emily Brooker, a social work graduate student at Missouri State University, had refused to comply with a class assignment requiring her to petition a state lawmaker to alter state law to permit adoption by same-sex partners, an act that she said violated her religious beliefs. Stanley Fish chronicled the fallout from the Brooker incident in the New York Times:

A month later she was called before a faculty-student committee to respond to questions about her academic performance and her fitness for social work. Nine months later (Sept. 17, 2006), she filed her complaint, and on Nov. 8, 2006, the university settled out of court and agreed to pay Ms. Brooker a sum of $9,000, waive academic fees totaling another $12,000, clear her academic record and remove her professor from his administrative duties and the classroom.5

Brooker’s travail at a school of social work fully-accredited by CSWE would be reprised in the NAS critique, and provided graphic evidence that mischief in social work education was not limited to website pieties about social justice. The centrality of social justice in social work education notwithstanding, its affirmation had negative consequences for a real student.

 The NAS report nicely captured social work education’s public proclamations about social justice, but these obscured a more nefarious development: a spoils system within professional education maintained largely at public expense. CSWE, the nation’s only social work accreditation authority, has elevated identity politics above scholarship as the basis for selecting leaders in social work education, inverting the values of professional education within the university. Rather than appoint a diverse group of premier scholars as leaders, CSWE has overseen the institutionalization of a cabal of inferior academics through bylaws that stipulate that the appointment of positions be reserved for members of under-represented groups. Within American higher education, which is self-regulated, the result has been a network of mediocre CSWE officials, journal editors, and directors of schools of social work—an academic cocoon in which patronage regularly trumps merit. “When any field becomes a closed circle, the result,” observes Camille Paglia, “is groupthink and cant.”6

 Yet, the consequence of favoritism in professional education can’t be confined to the academy. Instead of exploiting empirical methods and established concepts to elaborate theory and validate methods of intervention, as the other modern helping professions have done, social work education indulges in intellectual excursions that celebrate postmodern epistemological methods, alternative ways of knowing, and narratives on behalf of the oppressed. The debasement of standard empirical techniques has been complemented by an infatuation with “liberatory” methods of helping, fads which, under the banner of identity politics, have been promoted as more authentic for the oppressed, minority poor. The consequences of identity politics in social programming are now being borne by low-income families receiving inferior services, if they are being served at all.

The Leisure of the Theory Class

 Like its sister semi-professions, teaching and nursing, social work blossomed during the industrial era. Accompanied by immigration and urbanization, industrialization generated unprecedented social and economic dislocations, conditions that  inspired Progressives to advocate social engineering to remedy social ills. Efficacy in modern society meant professional education—the hallmark of the Progressive Era being the rise of the university educated expert. Whether the rise of the professional expert represented real progress was much disputed at the time, revealing the antagonism with which early social workers had to contend. 

Thorstein Veblen, for example, voiced skepticism about admitting intellectual activities of a lower register into the academy, suggesting that their inclusion would involve little more than mimicry of the genuine canons of scholarship:

So far as they possess [the ritualistic features of the educational system], the lower and less reputable branches of the educational scheme have evidently borrowed these things from the higher grades; and their continued persistence among the practical schools, without the sanction of the continued example of the higher and classic grades, would be highly improbable, to say the least. With the lower and practical schools and scholars, the adoption and cultivation of these usages is a case of mimicry—due to a desire to conform as far as may be to the standards of scholastic reputability maintained by the upper grades and classes, who have come by these accessory features legitimately, by the right of lineal devolution.7

The professional project for social work thus involved establishing intellectual respectability while eschewing its association with gushing sentimentality. Social Darwinists gave little credence to the Progressive impulse. “The social worker, judging by her own pretensions, helps to preserve multitudes of person who would perish if left to themselves. Thus her work is clearly dysgenic and anti-social,” quipped H. L. Mencken, “For every victim of sheer misfortune that she restores to self-sustaining and social usefulness, she must keep alive scores of misfits and incompetents who can never, for all her help, pull their weight in the boat. Such persons can do nothing more valuable than dying.”8

 Adoption of evolving social research methods promised credibility to the nascent profession. Empiricism not only offered the pioneers of American social work refuge from accusations of insipid compassion but also the means with which to address social programs on a large scale. Elaboration of the 1898 summer program of the New York School to an eight-month curriculum at Columbia University followed the trajectory of graduate education vis-à-vis professional associations pioneered by Johns Hopkins University. Heroines like Jane Addams of Hull House and Mary Richmond of the Charity Organization Societies advocated this application of scientific methods to remedy social ills. Addams made dual contributions to social research. As director of the National Conference on Charities and Corrections, she appointed the survey researcher Paul Kellogg to develop data for its labor agenda, including the minimum wage, child labor, and social insurance.9  A social worker, Kellogg had overseen the Pittsburgh Survey conducted from 1907 to 1908, the first systematic analysis of social problems in the U.S. Subsequently published in a research periodical, the Survey incorporated data on an impressive array of factors: “wages, hours, conditions of labor, housing, schooling, health, taxation, fire and police protection, recreation [and] land values.”10  Data collection would become essential to Addams’s reform initiatives. Her close connection to the University of Chicago and their methods led her to systematize efforts to incorporate data in the famous Hull House Maps, which documented problems and services needed. 

The success of Progressive social engineering would lead early social workers to consider their work as professional by nature. Consequently, in 1915 the National Conference of Charities and Corrections invited Abraham Flexner to speak on social work’s professional status. A graduate of Johns Hopkins, Flexner had conducted a 1910 investigation on the quality of medical education for the American Medical Association. Educated in the German research tradition, Flexner advocated culling those medical schools which were vocational in focus.11  Almost a century after its appearance, Flexner’s synopsis of what constitutes a profession is remarkably relevant:

professions involve essentially intellectual operations with large individual responsibility; they derive their raw material from science and learning; this material they work up to a practical and definite end; they possess an educationally communicable technique; they tend to self-organization; they are becoming increasingly altruistic in motivation.12

To what extent did social work comply with these requirements? For Flexner, hardly. Much of social work was routine activity and derivative of other disciplines. Social work was not a profession in the same sense as medicine or engineering, but more akin to journalism. Flexner’s verdict on social work’s prospects was clear: to become truly professional, social work would have to redouble its efforts to develop distinct methods grounded in scientific research.

 Despite Flexner’s apprehensions about social work’s status, the new discipline gained momentum. Philosophical pragmatism wedded to the scientific method proved a powerful combination in charting the nation’s course through the latter part of America’s Industrial Revolution, and the professions benefited accordingly. In attracting altruistically motivated students, graduate education not only promised professional status and upward mobility, but also offered professionals the opportunity to contribute to social progress. “Pragmatists join action and thought,” proclaimed John Dewey with uncharacteristic brevity.13

 The evolution of social work education would be anything but unilinear, however. The preeminence of graduate social work education at private universities that followed the German model was challenged by public institutions that developed undergraduate programs to train students for service in state and local government, reflecting agency priorities in professional education that were more vocational by comparison. During the 1920s, the American Association of Schools of Social Work (AASSW) “moved aggressively toward limiting formal accreditation to two-year graduate professional education programs,”14  consolidating the German research tradition in social work education. In 1944, the undergraduate programs at public universities struck back by establishing the National Association of Schools of Social Administration (NASSA). The disparate orientations to social work education represented by these competing organizations were papered over when the Joint Committee for Education in Social Work recommended that graduate education should be the basis of social work education, but that the content be generalist in nature. Thus, when the CSWE was forged in 1952 by joining AASSW and NASSA, it inherited two contrary themes: “the academic social science model and the practitioner training model—that is, between social work education as an ‘academic discipline’ and as ‘professional training.’”15

In the decades following World War II, public social programs expanded rapidly. Complementing the Social Security Act of the New Deal, the anti-poverty programs of the Great Society introduced the second phase of the American welfare state, multiplying the demand for professionally trained social workers. At the same time a sequence of social movements advancing civil rights, opposing the Vietnam War, and promoting women’s equality injected philosophical Romanticism into American social work. During the last decades of the twentieth century these vectors converged to alter social work education profoundly: within social work education the profession was portrayed as the catalyst through which governmental social programs would expand until the American welfare state rivaled those of northern Europe. Social work education was thus politicized. 

Social work educators readily embraced social change; the ranks of professors who were veterans of the social movements of the 1960s were refreshed by colleagues who favored equality for the disabled as well as homosexuals. Critically, postmodernism provided philosophical respectability to an increasingly politicized social work by characterizing conventional practice and research methods as maintaining oppressive institutions, perforce subjugating minority populations. By denigrating empirical research while celebrating the voices of marginalized populations, social work education provided the rationale for elevating representatives of under-represented groups regardless of their scholarship. Social work educators thus pretended to have created the best of all postmodern worlds: a politicized profession, social work would employ social justice to leverage government social programs, thereby increasing the demand for social workers and expanding the number of accredited social work education programs.

CSWE Stewardship

 Following this logic, CSWE engineered a rapid increase in the number of accredited social work programs in the U.S. In 1985, there were 89 CSWE-accredited masters (MSW) programs, 351 baccalaureate (BSW) programs, and 19 programs in candidacy. By 2007, that number had exploded to 184 MSW and 461 BSW programs (in total, 645 CSWE-accredited social work programs), plus another 19 programs in various stages of candidacy. This represented a 47 percent growth rate.16  Growth in the number of accredited social work programs was presumed to create a virtuous circle in professional education. More social work programs increased the demand for faculty and program directors, expansion in the professional literature, and dues paid to CSWE, all associated with enhanced professional prestige.17  Defenders of the status quo cited the raw numbers of more social work educational programs to bolster their contention that social work education was thriving and should expand further.18

 Has CSWE been a good steward of social work education?

A convenient metric for measuring scholarship is the Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI), part of the “Web of Science” (, a compilation of about 8,700 of the most significant scientific and high-impact journals in the world. While the SSCI does not include books, chapters, or articles published in low-impact journals, it is widely considered as a valid benchmark of scholarship used by university promotion and tenure committees.
In 2007, members of the CSWE board averaged 2.31 refereed articles during their entire careers, but the vast majority had negligible records as scholars: 20 percent had not published a single article recorded by the SSCI, and 32 percent had published only one. If the 2007 members were up for promotion and tenure at a university requiring six SSCI articles, 80 percent of the CSWE board would have been terminated.19  CSWE’s standing committees performed somewhat better than the board with respect to the mean number of SSCI publications per member, but still reveal minimal scholarly achievement:

• Commission on Accreditation, 4.36
• Commission on Curriculum and Educational Innovation, 11.18
• Council on Field Education, 1.3320 
• Commission for Diversity and Social and Economic Justice, 5.62
• Council on Disability and Persons with Disabilities, 3.14
• Council on Sexual Orientation and Gender Expression, 4.57
• Council on Racial, Ethnic, and Cultural Diversity, 1.25
• Commission on Professional Development, 8.0
• Council on External Relations, 7.33
• Council on Publications, 5.0
• Commission on Global Social Work Education, 7.18
• Council on Leadership Development, 4.23
• Council on Conferences and Faculty Development, 3.82
• Council on the Role and Status of Women in Social Work Education, 7.0

In fact, the entirety of CSWE’s board and committees in 2007 contain a large number of participants with little or no scholarship: 23.6 percent had not published one SSCI article, and 18.1 percent had published only one. Using the six-article SSCI standard, 67.8 percent of CSWE committee and board members would not have been promoted to associate professor with tenure.21

CSWE publishes the flagship journal of social work educators, the Journal of Social Work Education (JSWE), the referees of which volunteer to serve as consulting editors. In 2006, the JSWE consulting editors averaged 9.3 SSCI articles (over the course of their academic career), but 32.7 percent had zero. If these editors served on the faculties of institutions that expected candidates for promotion and tenure to have published at least six SSCI articles, 61.8 percent would have completely washed out. In order to more adequately evaluate data-based articles, which were beyond the comprehension of consulting editors, JSWE appointed statistical reviewers, two of whom had no SSCI publications and one fewer than six. The average number of publications for these special reviewers was 4.8.

Competent colleagues could, of course, select one another for service as editors of social work journals, but this appears not to be the case. John T. Pardeck compared the scholarship of social work editors with those of psychology between 1992 and 2001. Editors of the five social work journals examined averaged 3.4 articles and 9.28 citations, compared to editors of five psychology journals who averaged 24.4 articles and 76.82 citations. The differences between the educational journals for each discipline were more striking. JSWE editors averaged 10 articles and 18.8 citations while Journal of Educational Psychology editors averaged 40 articles and 131.4 citations.22  The data suggested that psychology editors were more productive than their social work colleagues by a factor of four if not twice that.

Weak scholarship not only typifies CSWE but the leadership of the nation’s professional social work programs as well. More than one-fourth of deans and directors of masters programs in social work had no SSCI articles. Almost 52 percent had two articles or less; 70 percent had five or fewer articles. Fewer than 10 percent had sixteen or more articles. Although deans/directors of social work masters programs with a doctoral component scored somewhat better, their numbers were equally dismal: almost 18 percent had no SSCI publications; 38 percent had zero to two articles; 57 percent had fewer than six; and 81 percent had up to fifteen. Only 19 percent of deans/directors in social work programs offering a doctoral degree had sixteen or more refereed publications.

If tenure were based on a minimum of six SSCI articles, then almost 70 percent of all social work program deans/directors would not have achieved tenure at the associate level, let alone a promotion to tenured full professor. Although the number with six or fewer publications dropped to 57 percent for those in schools with a doctoral program, it remains strikingly high, especially since many administrative positions are in research-intensive universities where the minimum floor for tenure is significantly higher than six refereed publications. For example, if the minimum floor were raised to ten or more refereed publications, 78 percent of deans/directors of social work programs offering doctorates would not receive tenure. In inverse relationship to their scholarship, more than 71 percent of deans/directors hold the rank of full professor and 93 percent are tenured. 

That weak scholarship by the leadership in social work education compromises the profession’s stature is never openly discussed. Apologists for the inferior scholarship of social work academics often cited the exceptionalism of social work education. Since social work was aligned with the victims of oppression, social work education was qualitatively different from professional education in such other fields as medicine, engineering, and psychology. Due to its association with marginalized groups, social work education not only exempted academics from conventional standards of professional education, but celebrated its replacement by identity politics. To be sure, a handful of first-tier schools of social work as well as a cohort of social work scholars adhered to scholarship as the sine qua non of academic stature, but they were in the distinct minority, effectively demoted by the accreditation of increasing numbers of poorly resourced programs, the fees from which sustained CSWE.23  As social work education became more mediocre, accomplished scholars drifted away from social work education to work in research centers, policy institutes, or independently.

Identity Politics

 While social work education has given short shrift to conventional scholarship, it has taken identity politics seriously indeed. CSWE bylaws require representation by members of under-represented groups, among them “women; African Americans/other Blacks; Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Chicano/Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, other Latino(a)/Hispanics; Native Americans/American Indians; persons with disabilities; and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons.”24  Thus, the CSWE Affirmative Action Policy and Plan states: “The Council on Social Work Education shall not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, gender, ethnic or national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or age.”25  But the plan goes further, not only ensuring “inclusion of persons from under-represented groups,” but doing so in a manner that is anti-democratic:

The Nominating Committee shall develop and maintain specific procedures designed to ensure the election of persons from historically under-represented groups on slated and in elected bodies, including the Board of Directors and its Executive Committee, the Nominating Committee, and other elected positions.26  (emphasis added)

CSWE’s method for assuring participation of under-represented groups has been to
construct ballots disallowing open nominations for positions, assuring that leadership positions are reserved for people based on their ascribed characteristics: ballots feature two African Americans for an open position, two women for another, two Native Americans for a third, etc. While nominees may be added to the slate constructed by the National Nominating Committee, these are permitted only when they conform to the ascribed attributes required for an open position. In this manner CSWE has instituted a quota system of participation by members of under-represented groups.

Currently, one-third of CSWE committees are designed specifically to assure diversity in decision-making. Indeed, the organization’s bylaws “specify that a minimum of 50% of the board must be representative of these under-represented groups.”27  Yet, as noted with respect to the feeble scholarship of committee members, lack of comparable achievement juxtaposes identity with merit.

Percentage of Under-Represented Groups at CSWE 28

Membership 13.6 0.9 5.1 4.8 3.6 43.7 3.5 8.2 83.4
Board 25.8 3.2 6.5 9.7 -- 41.9 3.2 6.5 96.8
Staff 34.5 -- 13.8 3.5 6.9 27.6 3.5 6.9 96.7
Nom. Com. 33.3 -- -- 11.1 -- 33.3 -- -- 77.7
COA 20 -- 4.0 6.7 -- 24.0 -- 16.0 70.7
CCEI 6.7 -- 6.7 6.7 -- 46.7 6.7 -- 73.5
CPMS 23.1 -- -- -- -- 61.5 7.7 7.7 100
CFE 18.2 -- -- 9.1 -- 54.5 -- -- 81.8
CDSEJ 29.4 5.9 11/7 -- -- 11.8 5.9 17.6 82.3
CSOGE 18.8 -- -- 6.3 6.3 43.8 -- 81.3 156.5
CRECD 16.7 -- 16.7 16.7 16.7 -- -- 16.7 83.5
CRSW 15.4 -- 3.8 7.7 3.8 50 -- 30.0 110.7
CDPD 22.2 -- 11.1 -- -- 33.3 66.7 -- 133.3
CGSWE 17.6 -- 5.9 -- -- 17.6 5.9 -- 47.0
CPD 18.2 9.1 9.1 9.1 -- 18.2 -- -- 63.7
CCFD 25.0 -- 12.5 12.5 -- 12.5 -- -- 62.5
CL 7.1 -- -- 7.1 -- 42.9 -- 14.3 71.4
CP 33.3 -- -- -- -- 16.7 -- -- 50.0
Site Vis. 19.8 0.1 4.1 3.8 4.3 37.8 5.4 5.7 81.0
Vendors 20.0 -- 26.6 -- -- 46.7 -- -- 93.3

Native American includes American Indians.
Hispanic includes Chicano/Mexican Americans/Puerto Ricans/Other Latinos.
Disabled refers to persons with disabilities.
GLBT includes Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Persons.
COA is Council on Accreditation.
CCEI is Council on Curriculum and Educational Innovation.
CPMS is Council on Practice Methods and Specializations.
CFE is Council on Field Education.
CDSEJ is Commission for Diversity and Social and Economic Justice.
CSOGE is Council on Sexual Orientation and Gender Expression.
CRECD is Council on Race, Ethnic and Cultural Diversity.
CRSW is Council on the Role and Status of Women.
CDPD is Council on Disabilities and Persons with Disabilities.
DGSWE is Commission on Global Social Work Education.
CPD is Commission on Professional Development.
CCFD is Council on Conferences and Faculty Development.
CL is Council on Leadership.
CP is Council on Publications.

*Totals can exceed 100 percent since participants may claim more than one status.

CSWE’s commitment to identity politics is evident in its committee structure: one-third of the organization’s fifteen committees target under-represented groups. Institutionalizing identity politics in this manner has implications well beyond decision-making related to accreditation. Foremost, CSWE procedures put in place a network of academics who have subscribed to identity politics as opposed to traditional scholarship as a paradigm for professional education. Accreditation requirements thus explicate how courses must incorporate content on oppressed groups, yet social work programs do not even have to offer a research thesis as an option to meet accreditation requirements.

CSWE’s affirmation of identity politics also serves more pedestrian purposes. For junior faculty seeking promotion and tenure, such committee service addresses the national service expectation that many universities have as a condition of their promotion and tenure, increasing the likelihood that their members will be granted promotion and tenure. CSWE committees for under-represented groups function as an organizational set-aside, providing the basis not only for influence in educational policy, but also burnishing the academic credentials of their members. Implicit in this is an assumption that despite absence of scholarship, status is sufficient achievement to confer special knowledge and even wisdom.

It is a short distance between identity politics and professional patronage. Social work education’s preoccupation with under-represented groups influences what the CSWE Press elects to publish. Among CSWE Press “New Releases” are two books on identity politics. Women of Color as Social Work Educators, an edition of “20 women of color who are educators in predominantly White systems and institutions,” promises to raise the voices of those who have been subordinated: “Reading this text leaves one with a sense of awe and inspiration and calls one to work to change the unjust structure of higher education that overtly and subtly mute voices of the ‘other,’” noted one reviewer. Similarly, Nocona Pewewardy’s Challenging White Privilege takes a more strident tack: “Pewewardy believes that social work’s present response to racism is inadequate because it lacks sufficient effort directed at deconstructing White privilege. Challenging White Privilege provides information and strategies that can be used to envision and apply liberatory alternatives in social work education,” reads CSWE’s promo.29

Propaganda as Public Welfare

Social work education’s romance with identity politics could be dismissed as just another aberration within the academy had it not jumped the walls of the ivory tower and taken root in the field itself. Early works indicated that the grafting might not be particularly successful. Richard Cloward, a social work professor who coauthored Regulating the Poor with Frances Fox Piven, contended that historical expansions in welfare provision were contingent on civil unrest.30  Subsequent empirical analysis found the relationship between increases in welfare benefits and civil unrest to be spurious.31  Mimi Abramovitz replicated the Piven and Cloward thesis in Regulating the Lives of Women, in which “the feminization of poverty” was advanced as the consequence of a capitalist patriarchy.32  The feminization of poverty thesis was later disputed in works by Theda Skocpol and Linda Gordon, who pointed out that female progressives, not male capitalists, were responsible for mothers’ pensions that allowed poor mothers to stay home and care for their children.33  Undaunted, Abramovitz applied her thesis to welfare reform. In Under Attack, Fighting Back, she not only neglected to incorporate wages into her argument, but also benefits from the Earned Income Tax Credit, the inclusion of which would have essentially discredited her thesis.34  Blithely indifferent to the quality of scholarship, CSWE awarded Abramovitz its 2004 Award for Distinguished Recent Contributions in Social Work Education (she was nominated by the Women’s Commission). Most recently, Abramovitz has been instrumental in CSWE’s establishment of a Center for Diversity and Social and Economic Justice.35 

Inevitably, corrupted professional education compromises social service programs. Cataloging the abuses of identity politics in social welfare, Fred Siegel identified an iron triangle consisting of government agencies, private contractors, and elected officials in New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, which maintains “alternative economies” of social services that have a bottomless appetite for revenues while generating questionable public benefit. “Poverty programs that were created to bring minorities into the economic mainstream have over the years metastasized into an alternative economy,” Siegel argued, “The supposed means to aid the poor have become an end in themselves.”36  Central to the Tammany Hall-like network that evolved were schools of social work, which trained the personnel who diagnosed social disorders, provided treatment, and advocated for program expansion, all with little regard for program performance. Three decades after its inception, “‘Poverty Inc.’” had become “a lucrative business for those who directly benefit by peddling pathology,” wrote Siegel. “What was left when the heady wind promised by the growth of social services evaporated was the vinegar of liberal pity and condescension, sometimes dressed-up in the language of multiculturalism, toward sad people and sad places.”37

Undeterred, advocates of identity politics insisted that their unique experience and its conferred wisdom would overcome the structural obstacles and limitations of established authorities. That fantasy was exploded by an exposé of minority-run foster care agencies in New York City. Beginning in the 1980s, child welfare agencies managed by African Americans and Latinos received preferential treatment as well as contracts in the tens of millions of dollars to provide foster care to troubled youth. Under the pretext that traditional white agencies had been incapable of comprehending the cultural nuances related to family disorganization and child maltreatment, minority child welfare agencies avoided strict oversight as they expanded exponentially. Two decades later the de facto field experiment on minority foster children began to unravel. At St. Christopher’s, “city investigators found that workers at the agency had doctored case files for children in its care—forging signatures and inserting made-up notations about whether foster homes had been inspected for safety, or whether children were receiving things as basic as clothing.”38  At Miracle Makers, journalists reported that “there has never been a full public accounting at what went wrong…or how it spent millions of dollars in government funds and private donations before child welfare officials lost patience with its performance and canceled its foster care contract in 2005.”39 

By the end of 2007 the city’s child welfare commissioner had notified six of the eight minority-run child welfare contractors that they would be subjected to rigorous program and fiscal audits, and possibly closed. The decision was met with resistance by minority child welfare advocates, even though a formal evaluation “reflected problems across more than a dozen measures—from the levels of abuse in foster homes to adoption rates to how well the agencies kept track of whether children were being fed and clothed, attending school and receiving medical care.”40  Negative audits notwithstanding, minority social workers clung to their belief in the virtues of minority contracting even as the welfare of minority children, victims of abuse and neglect, received substandard care from the very agencies designed to help them.

Apologists for social work education’s contribution to child welfare typically cite inadequate professional preparation for problems such as those in New York. Initially, enhancing the “cultural competence” of child welfare professionals was proposed as a means to bridge the gulf between child welfare workers and the families designated for services.41  Over a decade of education designed to sensitize child welfare professionals to the various cultures they would serve failed to improve the performance of their agencies. Although there is no indication that any one group as parents is more likely than another to inflict harm, disproportionally large numbers of minority children continue to be removed from their homes due to abuse and neglect. African American children are four times, Native American children are three times, and Latino children are twice as likely to be placed in foster care as Caucasian children—rates that are not accounted for by poverty or family composition.42  In retrospect, social work’s interpretation of “cultural competence” was little more than anthropology-lite.

In search of an explanation for this phenomenon in foster care, child welfare experts coined the term “disproportionality.” Like cultural competence, disproportionality obfuscates structural problems in child welfare that are detrimental to minority families. Such terms reflect the intrusion of identity politics in social services, clouding not only the failure of social work educators to adequately prepare child welfare professionals, but disturbing features of child welfare programming as well. Despite profound problems in child welfare, the nation’s schools of social work have enjoyed extensive use of Title IV child welfare training funds; in 2002, over $243 million was expended for enhanced training of child welfare providers,43  funding which has never been given a public accounting. Traditionally, social work education has shouldered much of the burden of educating child welfare professionals, but it has failed to do much of the necessary preparation, including conducting field experiments to demonstrate the effectiveness of different interventions, accounting for more cost-effective ways of delivering services, surveying the experiences and perceptions of parents who require services, and addressing staff concerns about the adequacy of child welfare. Corrupted systems avoid inspection at any cost, of course, which makes it unlikely that social work educators will undertake rigorous examinations of the programs for which they educate professionals, and from which they benefit. Such research would likely reveal the inadequacy of professional preparation.

Needed Reforms

Had the degradation of social work education occurred at private universities credentialing practitioners of the ersatz arts in pursuit of commercial gain, this might have been excused simply as self-interest. But social work has been among the most public of professions, with social work students often educated at public universities to practice in government programs mandated by public policy and sustained by public revenue. Patronage in social work education contradicts these traditional public functions. To the extent that professional education is subsidized by federal student loans and those funds are not optimized, a public accounting is warranted. Consequently, three reforms are indicated:

1) CSWE’s election system should be examined to determine if it violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution.

2) A formal inquiry should be undertaken by a bipartisan panel designated by the Secretaries of Education and Health and Human Services to investigate misappropriation of federal revenues by CSWE, its affiliate organizations, and accredited schools of social work.

3)  Alternative accreditation should be developed independent of CSWE and formatted around discrete outcomes.

In retrospect, it is easy to imagine a different outcome than the reality in social work education. Like professions that have enjoyed greater public confidence—medicine, engineering, psychology—education in social work should be expected to join practice and education by elevating into leadership scholars of national repute. Doing so is not inconsistent with the diversity that typifies the American demos. It is undeniable that Americans are increasingly diverse—racially and ethnically—so there are compelling reasons for crafting professional education to serve such populations. While only capable scholars can generate the theory and methods that practitioners use to enhance service delivery; there is no reason why capable scholars and practitioners cannot reflect the diverse populations they serve. But if such capable scholars are to be brought forward, the corrupted system of professional education that now uses identity politics to benefit less accomplished academics and administrators must be reformed. Current arrangements are not only detrimental to those who need the care, but also an unacceptable uses of public funds.

Had CSWE, its affiliate organizations, and the professional schools it accredits proven good stewards of resources and recruited accomplished scholars for leadership in professional education, social work would be a powerful network of diverse practitioners applying the social sciences to advance social welfare in the twenty-first century. Instead, social work education reflects corruption under the guise of identity politics, reserving appointments at the highest levels of professional education for members of under-represented groups with little concern for their scholarly productivity. Holding a monopoly on accreditation of social work programs, CSWE operates a system of patronage largely at public expense. In maintaining a spoils system, social work educators have subordinated their ethical commitments to personal gain. In any discipline professional education corrupted by identity politics contradicts the public trust. But in social work education, the result is particularly perverse, and produces second-rate scholarship that justifies second-rate services for second-class citizens.


  1. George Will, “Code of Coercion,” Washington Post, October 14, 2007, B-7.

  2. Julia Watkins, “To the Editor, Washington Post,” retrieved October 16, 2007, from, “CSWE Response to the Washington Post.”

  3. National Association of Scholars, The Scandal of Social Work Education, study, released September 11, 2007, 4,

  4. Stephen H. Balch, letter to Dr. John Agwunobi, October 26, 2006, 7.

  5. Stanley Fish, “Advocacy and Teaching,” New York Times, March 24, 2007, A27.

  6. Camille Paglia, “Rigid Scholarship on Male Sexuality,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 21, 2007, B15.

  7. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Penguin Classics, 1994), 369–70.

  8. H. L. Mencken, Minority Report (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), 153. The public façade of social work would be replete with the regalia of professional education—graduate degrees, tenured faculty, professional meetings, endowed chairs, all orchestrated by an accrediting authority, CSWE—behind the scenes, however, performance was reedy, to say the least.

  9. Edward Berkowitz and Kim McQuaid, Creating the Welfare State: The Political Economy of Twentieth-Century Reform (New York: Praeger Publishers Inc., 1980), 28–29.

  10. June Axinn and Herman Levin, Social Welfare: A History of the American Response to Need (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 146–47.

  11. Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 118, 121.

  12. Abraham Flexner, “Is Social Work a Profession?” paper presented at the National Conference on Charities and Corrections, 1915, 581.

  13. C. Wright Mills, Sociology and Pragmatism: The Higher Learning in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), 206.

  14. David Austin, “The Institutional Development of Social Work: The First Hundred Years—and Beyond,” Journal of Social Work Education (Fall 1997): 600.

  15. Ibid.

  16. Alan Rubin, Statistics on Social Work Education in the United States: 1985 (Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education, 1986), available at  

  17. For a recent illustration of professional propaganda, see 55 Years of Educating Social Workers, Annual Report 2006-2007 (Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education, 2007), available at

  18. CSWE does not accredit doctoral programs, the numbers of which have expanded comparably to MSW and BSW programs.

  19. The number of scholarly publications required for promotion and tenure varies among disciplines and institutions, of course. My experience with various schools of social work -- all second tier -- has indicated that six refereed publications are often required for promotion to associate professor with tenure, so the number has some basis in practice. I have also consulted with three professors of social work, each of whom agreed that the six-article SSCI standard is useful within this context. I offer it here not as an established standard in the field, but as a useful rule of thumb.

  20. Ironically, the Council on Field Education evinced scholarly productivity inversely related to its share of professional education, with field education compromising the greatest portion of professional education.

  21. These figures were calculated during the winter of 2006-2007 using the Web of Science listings and constitute the total output of CSWE 2007 committee and board members during the entire course of their academic careers. The threshold of six articles is normative for mid-tier universities, although it might be expected to be complemented by publication of a book or securing a research grant.

  22. John T. Pardeck, “Scholarly Productivity of Editors of Social Work and Psychology Journals,” Psychological Reports 90 (June 2002): 1054.

  23. Howard Karger, David Stoesz, and Terry Carrilio, Curbside Academics: Reinventing Social Work Education (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

  24. Council on Social Work Education, Bylaws, amended 4 January 2005, 4, available at

  25. Council on Social Work Education, Affirmative Action Policy and Plan,2000, rev. 2006, 1, available at

  26. Ibid., 3.

  27. Council on Social Work Education, Three Year Comparison of Affirmative Action Data,  October 24, 2007, 1, available at

  28. Council on Social Work Education, Signs of Success: The Year in Review, Annual Report 2004–2005, 19, available at

  29. Council on Social Work Education, CSWE Press New Releases,

  30. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare (New York: Vintage, 1971).

  31. David Dodenhoff, “Is Welfare Really about Social Control?” Social Service Review 72 (September 1998).

  32. Mimi Abramovitz, Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1996).

  33. Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992); Linda Gordon, Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

  34. Mimi Abramovitz, Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the United States (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999).

  35. 55 Years of Educating Social Workers, 20–21.

  36. Fred Siegel, The Future Once Happened Here: New York, D.C., L.A., and the Fate of America’s Big Cities (New York: Encounter Books, 1997), 212.

  37. Ibid., 242.

  38. Leslie Kaufman, “Foster Children at Risk, and an Opportunity Lost,” New York Times, November 5, 2007, A20.

  39. Benjamin Weiser, “City Slow to Act as Hope for Foster Children Fails,” New York Times, November 6, 2007, A26.

  40. Leslie Kaufman and Benjamin Weiser, “In Foster Care Review, Vows of Help and Vigilance,” New York Times, November 7, 2007, A22.

  41. If social work education were serious about serving families from other cultures, it would require proficiency in a language other than English, but that has not been an accreditation requirement.

  42. See Casey Family Programs, Disproportionality, at

  43. House Ways and Means Committee, Overview of Entitlement Programs (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004), 11–24.

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