Coercing the Conscience: New Examples of the Reign of Intolerance in Schools of Social Work

Glenn Ricketts

Included in our study The Scandal of Social Work Education are three specific case histories—Emily Brooker, William Felkner, and Sandra Fuiten—which illustrate what happens to students unable to brook the “dogma, tendentiousness, and coerced intellectual conformity” which have  become defining features of many university-based social work degree programs. Two of the three instances (Brooker and Fuiten) centered on clashes between the students’ religious convictions and the public advocacy mandated by their programs.  

As they each learned, contentious issues such as abortion or homosexual adoptions were not were not left to the discretion of individual consciences. Their schools took a “company” line on these and other issues to which social work degree candidates were expected to conform if they wished to graduate. One of the students, Sandra Fuiten, was unable to continue and left her program at the University of Illinois at Springfield; the other, Emily Brooker, did graduate at Missouri State University, but was forced to endure humiliating disciplinary procedures and mandatory endorsement of policy positions fundamentally in conflict with her personal religious convictions. Justice ultimately prevailed when Brooker successfully sued the university for violation of her civil rights of free speech and religious freedom, several months after graduation.  

As noted in our report, we suspected that Brooker, Felkner, and Fuiten were the tips of a much larger iceberg: “One surely is entitled to wonder how many instances of coercion occur without protest, because the students fear openly to dissent. Given the highly ideological and activist nature of contemporary social work education programs, we suspect they are not rare.”

We haven’t had to wait long to strengthen this suspicion: two similar cases have come to light, once again involving evangelical Christians, who seem to be especially unwelcome in social work education programs. Last August in Florida, for example, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the suit by social work student John Watts against Florida International University, following an initial dismissal by the trial court. Watts had been pursuing a MSW degree at Florida International University. As he approached graduation, he enrolled in a required “field practicum” course at Fair Oaks, a local mental health facility affiliated with the university, where social work students were sent to gain clinical experience working with patients. After interviewing one of the clients assigned to him, Watts determined that bereavement support was appropriate, and accordingly recommended several possibilities. Since she had indicated that she was a Catholic by religious affiliation, Watts, himself an evangelical Christian, included a Catholic support group among others he had placed on the list. Although this did not apparently conflict with any of the guidelines of FIU’s program, Watts was immediately terminated by Fair Oaks, for “inappropriate behavior relating to patients, regarding religion.” Unable to complete the required “practicum” course, Watts was now prevented from graduating and receiving his MSW degree. He thereupon sued the university and Fair Oaks, citing violations of his First Amendment rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion. Although the trial court dismissed his entire case, the 11th Federal Appeals Circuit found that his claims of religious discrimination had merit, and instructed the lower court to allow him to seek relief on this basis.   As of this writing, the case continues in litigation.

Similar circumstances befell Christina Mize, an evangelical Christian studying for an MSW degree at the University of Southern Illinois. In September 2006, as a first-year student in the social work program, Mize enrolled in “Generalist Practice,” a mandatory course for all degree candidates.   Central to the course’s requirements was a major written project for which each student was to design an eight-week therapy program, focused on a topic or social problem of interest to the student.   Mize’s troubles began when she submitted her own proposal for the project, which would focus specifically on women who had experienced post-abortion syndrome, as a variant of post traumatic stress disorder. But when Mize indicated that her program would also include a religiously-based component, her professor abruptly rejected the proposal and informed Mize that the project would automatically be graded lower, irrespective of its merits, should she proceed with the original research design.

Mize decided to accept these conditions, and removed the religious component from her program.   Still puzzled, however, by her professor’s insistence on totally excluding religious criteria from her project, she also contacted the Washington-based American Center for Law and Justice to request information about the Constitutional criteria relevant to her case. In its reply, the ACLJ informed her that, as a legal or constitutional matter, it was entirely appropriate for a student to include religious themes or categories in academic assignments, if they were germane to the specific requirements of a particular project. At this point, Mize submitted her finished project without the religious-based therapy plan she had originally desired, but also provided her professor with a copy of the ACLJ letter in support of her belief that the original proposal should have been acceptable as well. To her surprise and dismay, her instructor refused to read the paper, and assigned an “incomplete” grade for the course instead. This bizarre and unexpected development was doubly distressing: first, because Mize had in fact submitted a project entirely consistent with her professor’s requirements and secondly because an “incomplete” grade, if unchanged, would prevent her graduation from the social work program. To no avail, Mize appealed repeatedly to her professor, then to the department chairman, the Director of the Ombudsman’s Office and the Associate Dean. Finally, she filed a formal grievance with SIU’s in accordance with the university’s official procedures. Her professor, however, remained adamant in refusing to grade the paper, and in early March, 2007, Mize sought assistance from the Arizona-based Alliance Legal Defense Fund, alleging that SIU had violated her First Amendment rights of religious freedom. 

In short order, the ADF’s Center for Academic Freedom wrote to Mize’s department chairman, informing him of SIU’s liability for violations of her religious rights, and that continued failure to redress her grievances would result in a federal lawsuit. The University of Southern Illinois then directed Mize’s professor to grade the project and assign a final mark for the course, which she did. In a final surreal twist, apropos of the entire episode, Mize received no formal notification that her paper had at last been graded. Instead, she learned during the course of a studio television interview about her travails that the grade had been posted at the SIU web page: she received a B, the only one to appear on her entire transcript. Mize has since graduated from the program, and passed the state qualifying exam, enabling her to seek employment as a practicing social worker.

It is difficult, of course, to guage the extent to which the cases recounted here illustrate a more general atmosphere of hostility to evangelical Christians in social work education programs. To their immense credit, the students in each case decided to mount public challenges to the rough handling they’d received. How many others choose to remain silent and smother their deepest convictions, or avoid the social work field altogether? A recent empirical survey of religious attitudes among college and university faculty suggests strongly a widespread pattern of hostility towards evangelicals by professors. In Religious Beliefs & Behavior of College Faculty (San Francisco: Institute for Jewish and Community Research, 2007), authors Gary Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg affirm unsurprisingly that academics, although certainly not monolithic, are generally less religiously inclined than the larger public. To their own evident astonishment, however, they also report that,

One of the surprises of the study is the level of negativity faculty showed for Christian fundamentalists and Evangelicals. If not outright prejudice, faculty sentiment about the largest religious group in the American public borders dangerously close. How one chooses to characterize negative feelings among faculty about Evangelical Christians may be in question, but these feelings are indisputably documented in our research. (p.15)

Thus, of 1200 college and university faculty comprising the study’s sample, fully 53% indicated that they held an unfavorable, negative view of evangelical Christians, as opposed to only 11% who viewed them from a “very warm,” positive perspective.   And given the exceptionally strong ideological coloration, tendentiousness and conformist pressures which our own survey reveals in social work education programs, it seems reasonable to conclude that some—perhaps a considerable number—of social work faculty members  harbor an even greater degree of hostility toward religiously observant students. 

Of course harboring hostility is not the same as acting on it, but in at least four cases—Brooker, Fuiten, Watts, and Mize—Christian social work students have seen that hostility translate into actions by their professors that have interrupted or ended their studies. As the NAS has shown though its systematic study, social work education in the United States is in the grip of an illiberal and intolerant ideology. Its treatment of these religiously observant students is one of the ways in which that ideology plays out. 

NAS is a secular organization that takes no position on the matters that moved these four students to dissent, but we do take a strong position on their right to dissent. We also view these cases as further evidence of social work education’s diminished capacity to conduct itself according to well-established principles of intellectual integrity. These instances show how at least some schools of social work (the University of Illinois at Springfield, Missouri State University, Florida International University, and the University of Southern Illinois) have countenanced the exclusion of views that fall slightly outside the narrow band of political correctness favored by the faculty members and the punishment of students who dare to express moral convictions or social views well within the mainstream of American life.   The field of social work has a problem. So far, in response to our report, The Scandal of Social Work Education, issued in September 2007, social work has done nothing to clean up its act. 

Perhaps it will take more lawsuits by innocent students who have been harmed by the field’s self-satisfied embrace of radical ideology for the message to penetrate. We have received enough mail from social workers and social work educators to know that the NAS is not alone in looking upon the current situation with alarm. We’d like to think that the profession, long devoted to remedying social conditions in society at large, has stored away some capacity to remedy itself. 

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