The "I-Revel-in-My-Biases" School of Social Work -- And What It Does to a Student Who Declines to Join the Revelry

Ashley Thorne

 "We hope that all social workers are liberal."
---- Mildred Bates, Rhode Island College Chair
of the Bachelor of Social Work program 

Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, "Every educational system has a moral goal that it tries to attain and that informs its curriculum. It wants to produce a certain kind of human being."

At the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College, that human being is politically liberal -- or perhaps more precisely, a committed political progressive who views American society as inherently oppressive and who upholds a vision of education as a means to advance "social justice."

But this persona is not produced by a mere leftward tilt in the curriculum or a faculty penchant for favoring liberal ideology. Rather, as Bill Felkner discovered through years of persecution and discrimination, the college's social work program is entirely informed by "progressive" political bias that allows no breathing room for dissenting views.

Readers of the NAS study, The Scandal of Social Work Education, may remember Mr. Felkner from the concluding section where we provide three accounts of students who had unhappy encounters with the ideological regime that rules the discipline. When the study was published, the end of his story was still up in the air. Now we know more.

Bill Felkner, a political libertarian, entered the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College in fall 2004. Having attained a bachelor's degree in psychology at the College, and encouraged by one of his professors, he began pursuing a master's degree in social work. During his first semester in the social work program, he took a required course called Policy and Organizing I. His professor, James Ryczek, assigned a semester project that was worth 20 percent of the final grade for the class. The project was to develop a platform for lobbying the Rhode Island General Assembly for social welfare programs. Students were required to write a paper as it would look in real life (i.e., a policy brief or an op-ed) and argue in a debate on their topic.

Professor Ryczek provided a list of issues from which the students could choose. While participating with his group in the project, Felkner realized that he disagreed with the bill he was supposed to advocate for. (Senate Bill 525 would have provided cash assistance to some low-income families participating in an education and training program. Felkner discovered a report that cast doubt on the study that had given rise to the bill.)

When he asked his professor if he could argue against the bill, Ryczek refused to let him change his position, saying that Rhode Island College "is a perspective school and we teach that perspective," adding that "if you're going to lobby on that bill, you're going to lobby in our perspective."

Because Felkner disagreed with the bill, he wrote his paper against it, believing that he would still be graded fairly. Professor Ryczek, however, gave him an "F" on the paper and added on the grading feedback form, "Regardless of the content, application of theory, and critical analysis, you did not write from the perspective you were required to use in this academic exercise. Therefore, the paper must receive a failing grade."

Felkner appealed the grade before a hearing of the Academic Standing Committee, but the Committee sustained Professor Ryczek's decision.

Also during his first semester, Felkner objected to the School of Social Work's promoting the film Fahrenheit 9/11, including showings in social work classes. In Felkner's view, the film was politically biased and should not have been treated as part of the curriculum. He argued that the War on Terror was outside the School of Social Work's expertise. Having failed to persuade the School about this, he then wrote an email to Professor Ryczek, asking if the SSW would be willing to sponsor a subsequent viewing of FahenHYPE 9/11, a film rebuttal to Fahrenheit 9/11. Ryczek's reply was that "as a profession we do take sides," and that social work is a "value-based profession that clearly articulates a socio-political ideology about how the world works and how the world should be." Ryczek closed his email saying:

I revel in my biases. So, I think that anyone who consistently holds antithetical views to those that are espoused by the profession might ask themselves whether social work is the profession for them…or similarly, if one finds the views in the curriculum at RIC SSW antithetical to those they hold closely, then this particular school might not be a good fit for them.

Felkner also met with the Chair of the Bachelor Social Work program, Professor Mildred Bates, who refused to countenance his request for SSW to show FahrenHYPE 9/11. "It's not going to happen," she said. "We hope that all social workers are liberal."

Felkner later heard that Professor Dan Weisman had eventually sponsored a showing of the film.

Soon after this, Felkner created a website called (since shut down) on which he posted Ryczek's remarks. He continued to post emails and transcripts of his conversations with members of the Rhode Island College faculty and staff. In this way, he sought to protest the college's ideological bias. But two of the professors quoted on the website were outraged when they learned of the website. (After an earlier dispute, Felkner had openly declared his intention to record his conversations with SSW faculty members.) These two, Pearlmutter and Ryczek, filed claims against Felkner, charging him with violating confidentiality requirements of the National Association of Social Worker's Code of Ethics.

These charges were brought before a hearing of the Academic Standing Committee, which ruled that, although Felkner had not violated ethical confidentiality standards, he must stop recording conversations with faculty members.

At the end of his first year in the social work program, Felkner met with his adviser, Professor Heather Rheaume, to discuss selecting a concentration, securing a field placement, and choosing an integrated project topic. These three requirements are the criteria for graduation from the School of Social Work at the College and must be completed during the second (which is the final) year of the program.

Felkner told his adviser that he wanted to select Social Work Organizing and Policy (SWOP) as his concentration, and to work on social welfare reform in the Governor's office, where he had recently secured an internship for that specific purpose. His internship would satisfy the requirement for a field placement. Felkner hoped that the college would approve his choice, as the SSW manual expresses a commitment to tailor its advising to the student's individual professional goals.

Upon his selection of the SWOP concentration, Felkner met with Heather Rheaume and James Ryczek, where Ryczek gave Felkner a list of eleven objectives that must be fulfilled in order to graduate. One of these was to advocate for "progressive social change," and five used the word progressive. Felkner asked if this meant that he would have to advocate for liberal, progressive politics, and Ryczek told him that this was correct.

Ryczek furthermore said that the SSW teaches from a "progressive social change perspective," and that he would not approve any field placement that would not "implement those objectives," including the placement with the Governor's office. (Governor Donald L. Carcieri is a Republican.) Felkner argued that this was unconstitutional, but Ryczek told him that short of a court decision to the contrary, SSW would maintain its posture. Twelve days later, Ryczek sent Felkner a memo saying that since Felkner would not lobby for a progressive political position, he would "not be able to meet the academic requirements necessary to obtain a degree."

Felkner persisted through the summer and into the semester of the next academic year, asking the college to approve his field placement. In October 2005, he met with Dean Bennett-Speight, who brought Professor Scott Mueller into the meeting as an "emissary" to take care of the problem. Professor Mueller got the field placement approved, but told Felkner that he could not study the topic of welfare reform for his integrated project, on the basis that it was a "toxic" subject. The project he had wanted to pair with the field placement was to measure the efficacy of welfare programs in each state.

For about a month, Felkner worked during the day on welfare reform at the Governor's office; and at night, he made up additional homework on various Medicaid programs, though this topic was not his internship's intended concentration. Halfway through the semester, he returned to Mueller and told him that this approach wasn't working. In not integrating the main topic from his internship (welfare reform) into his project, Felkner had to work twice as hard, while his classmates were free to use their field placements as part of their projects. Mueller once again denied his entreaty to work on welfare reform, saying that Felkner would not graduate if he tried to pursue that subject for his project.

May 2006 came, but without a completed project, Felkner couldn't graduate with his class even though he had completed his social work courses. Thus, the college had pinned him between two requirements: that he not work on his project, and that he finish the project to graduate.

Deadlocked in this predicament, Felkner sent emails to the president of the college, John Nazarian, and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dan King. On September 21, 2006, he was finally granted a meeting with King and Carol Bennett-Speight, the dean of the School of Social Work. At the meeting, King admitted that the actions of the College had been "absolutely unacceptable" and indicated that it would assign a professor to advise Felkner on the topic he selected for his project. King decided that the professor should be from outside the College, because of the history of Felkner's ideological differences with the Rhode Island College faculty.

Felkner then requested that the school hire a consultant to investigate his claims (he even suggested some possible consultants), and that it open a discussion to define terms like "social justice." King side-stepped Felkner's request for a conversation on the definition of social justice, though King later told him that the College's president, John Nazarian, had agreed to hire a consultant to investigate.

The promised investigation never occurred, and the school did not hire a consultant. When Felkner approached President Nazarian about it, the president merely said that he had been too busy to get around to it. President Nazarian has since resigned; Felkner sees his abdication as a sign that the investigation has been permanently eluded.

Four months later, on January 23, 2007, the school finally presented Felkner with an advisor, Professor Deborah Siegel, who was, however, selected from within the School of Social Work, not from outside the College as King had also promised. But by then, the gesture was too little, too late.

"At that time, I was out of school, had a third baby on the way, and was working in construction," said Felkner.

The project was designed to be completed in the context of a field placement, in which a student works closely with and is taught by an organization. In Felkner's case, his internship was tailor-made for the project he had selected. But now that his internship had ended, he lacked the resources, mentoring, and partnership needed for his project work.

He had tried without success since May 2006 to acquire a job as a policy researcher, but no policy organization would grant him an interview. Felkner attributed this to the controversy surrounding his name.

Felkner was not, however, about to sit still. In July 2007, he founded Ocean State Policy Research Institute (OSPRI), a public policy think tank dedicated to limited government. Since establishing the Institute, Felkner has been working with the Governor's office on welfare reform, the very project that the Rhode Island College School of Social Work had attempted to squelch. One of OSPRI's chief antagonists is the Poverty Institute, an organization that advocates expansion of the welfare state. Ironically, the Poverty Institute is based at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work; it was founded by the late Nancy Gewirtz, a professor at the School of Social Work; the dean of the School of Social Work, Carol Bennett-Speight, serves on its board; and its executive director, Kate Brewster, teaches social policy and case management in the School of Social Work.

Felkner objects to the apparent influence of the Poverty Institute over the academic program of the School of Social Work. The College is publicly funded and the School of Social Work is the only social work program in Rhode Island offering a master's degree. The College's mission statement promises "a caring community where education is informed by serious inquiry, civic engagement, and open discourse; and, its faculty continually strive to fulfill the promise of the liberal arts education: an open and inquiring mind." But in reality, the School of Social Work rejects "serious inquiry" that does not match the ideological concerns of the Poverty Institute; forecloses "civic engagement" outside a narrow political agenda; and eschews "open discourse" if it strays into opinions that run counter to, say, Michael Moore's. As for the basic principles of liberal education, the School of Social Work appears to treat them with contempt (e.g., Ryczek to Felkner, "I revel in my biases.")

What should a student in Rhode Island who seeks a master's degree in social work do if he or she holds political opinions at variance with those of the Poverty Institute or the School of Social Work? The only options that Rhode Island appears to provide is that the student abandon his or her views and conform with the School of Social Work party line; abandon the field of social work; or attend a more expensive out-of-state program.

The most recent development in Bill Felkner's story is that he is suing the College and individuals within its faculty and staff. On December 14, 2007, he filed a lawsuit against the School and also sent them a letter requesting an extension on his project for the amount of time they made him wait.

Felkner is still determined to obtain his degree, but so far, no reply has been made to his request for an extension of his project deadline.

Image: Day of Service by SJU undergraduate admissions // CC BY

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