Update on Bill Felkner: Rhode Island College Bias-Revelers Evacuate

Ashley Thorne

Bill Felkner was a graduate social work student at Rhode Island College who never received his diploma – not for flunking out or committing any criminal or inappropriate act, but for holding views contrary to those of RIC’s School of Social Work. NAS has written about Felkner in the report The Scandal of Social Work Education, as well as in an article detailing his story: “The ‘I Revel-in-my-Biases’ School of Social Work – And What It Does to a Student Who Declines to Join the Revelry.”

Since Felkner went public with the issues he dealt with at the College, most of the key faculty and staff members involved in his plight have resigned from their positions at RIC. First, Jim Ryczek quit after the 2004/2005 school year. He was Felkner’s first policy professor, who gave Felkner an “F” on a paper because he had written from a perspective other than that of the School of Social Work. Ryczek told Felkner 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 was also the professor who declared in an email to Felkner, “I revel in my biases.” Leaving his role as director of Field Education at the RIC School of Social Work, Ryczek became the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless.

Dan King, the College’s vice president of academic affairs, later resigned to take the same position at Queensborough Community College. (After Felkner was denied his diploma, King met with him and told Felkner that it was disappointing if what he said happened was true.) His resignation was followed by an announcement by Rhode Island College president John Nazarian, who is stepping down from the presidency in June. His promise to conduct an investigation of Felkner’s claims was never fulfilled.

And in April, Dean Carol Bennett-Speight left Rhode Island College. Bennett-Speight serves on the Board of Directors for the Poverty Institute, an organization that advocates expansion of the welfare state and is based at the RIC School of Social Work. The Poverty Institute is the ideological opposite of Ocean State Policy Research Institute, the public policy think tank that Felkner founded after the loss of his social work diploma.

Felkner’s lawsuit against Rhode Island College includes suits against six individuals: John Nazarian, Scott Kane, Carol Bennett-Speight, James Ryczek, Roberta Pearlmutter, and S. Scott Mueller. Three out of these six have left the College.

This is indeed a curious exodus, given the national attention to RIC’s School of Social Work by NAS and others. Perhaps these faculty and staff members, so confident in harrying Bill Felkner for his views, have grown scared. Or perhaps the time of their leaving is merely coincidental. Either way, RIC doesn’t show signs of changing its ways.

As a student at RIC, Felkner had chosen welfare reform as the topic for his integrated project, a requirement for graduation. But his professor prevented him from doing the project on that “toxic” subject, even though this same professor had approved Felkner’s field placement in the governor’s office doing concurrent work (The integrated project was designed to be completed in conjunction with a corresponding field placement). For this reason, he was unable to graduate with his classmates in May 2006. Felkner requested an extension on his project for the amount of time the college made him wait.

The school responded to his request, but when he saw that the time it gave was not sufficient for him, he asked for a longer extension. The School denied his appeal. Since Carol Bennett-Speight stepped down, Roberta Pearlmutter, Felkner’s policy professor for three of his four semesters, is now the interim dean. She recently wrote to Felkner telling him that because he did not accept the first extension offer, he is “no longer considered to be enrolled in the Masters of Social Work program.” He does not yet know whether his expulsion is permanent.

Mr. Felkner's lawsuit is still in motion, and he is considering a settlement offer that will require RIC to request reforms from CSWE, the gatekeeper social work accreditor. NAS has also written to the Department of Health and Human Services to request that CSWE correct its procedures.

Felkner said that if Rhode Island College were ever to give him a sufficient extension for his project, he would still like to do work on welfare reform, the banned topic that had originally cost him his degree.

Perhaps soon, there will be no one left at RIC who was involved with Bill Felkner’s case. But if this school of social work institutionally revels in its biases—and we believe it does—then the revelry will go on, regardless of which individuals are present.



Image: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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