‘Binghamton Review’ Blasts Binghamton Social Work Department in Activism Case

By December 22, 2008

Binghamton University’s Department of Social Work still has a lot to answer for in the case of social work master’s student Andre Massena, whom the chair tried to expel after he placed posters on campus criticizing the department for what he thought was its social injustice.

In the December issue of the Binghamton Review, student Adam Shamah has written a 1,000-word piece on the case under the title, "Lighting a F.I.R.E. Under the Social Work Department."

Shamah’s strong article chronicles this outlandish case to the utter shame of the department. The story is so compelling that I include most of it below. The documentation of the case is here.

Political dissent. Our founders built a country around it. It’s supposed to be protected, right? Wrong. Not at Binghamton University, or at least, not in Binghamton University’s Master in Social Work (MSW) program.

Just ask Andre Massena, a social work masters student who was nearly suspended and, if it were up to certain members of the department, could have been expelled for denouncing the department’s hiring of David Tanenhaus, the Executive Director of the Binghamton Housing Authority.

Andre was an intern at Opportunities for Broome. In August, one of his clients was evicted from public housing by the BHA, headed by David Tanenhaus. Later that month, Massena began posting flyers on campus and in the community under the pseudonym "Justicespeaks." The poster displayed photos of the evicted family, explained the situation, and asked people to "call the Social Work department at the university to let them know what you think."

One week after putting up the posters, Andre received a document called the "Written Plan for Andre Massena" (could they think of a more Soviet sounding title?), which outlined a series of actions the department demanded Andre take. One, he would have to immediately withdraw from all of his courses with no guarantee of reinstatement….

In addition to being suspended, Andre would be required to do several other things in accordance with the "written plan." The plan demanded that he write a formal apology to all parties concerned. Who would decide who these parties are? "Dr. Bronstein [the chair of the department] and Dr. Wiener [the author of the written plan] will discuss this ‘list’ with Mr. Massena to be sure it is comprehensive." He would also be forced to write a written retraction and "will acknowledge verbally to Dr. Bronstein and Dr. Wiener that he understands that he is entitled to his opinions, and that taking responsibility for the harm that his actions have and may have caused is not the same as having these opinions." In plain English, as FIRE so eloquently put, "While we can’t actually force you to think the way we want, we can certainly force you to pretend that you do and to act accordingly."

The plan also mandated that Andre make "every effort possible and will inform Profs. Bronstein and Wiener of his efforts to end the process whereby students, service providers and community members approach the Dept. of Social Work in an effort to alleviate ‘wrong’ they may see as occurring at the Binghamton Housing Authority." Not only would did the department try to squash Andre’s resistance, they tried to use him to squash the voices of the people Andre was allied with. Freedom of conscience is just as important a right as freedom of speech. Being compelled to act against your political beliefs by a university department is deplorable, and a violation of Andre’s constitutional rights.

The plan contained no specific charges. Though the department claimed that Andre was being prosecuted because he failed to identify himself as the author of the poster to both UPD and Bronstein, the punishments outlined in the written plan revolved around the content of the flyers, not Andre’s actions. As FIRE reported, "According to Massena, the Advancement Committee had focused on Massena’s placing of the flyer inside one building in particular, the University Downtown Center. According to Massena, it was alleged that he entered the building under false pretenses and lied to University Police officer Matthew Rossie and others about having posted the flyer. Even after the evidence showed that Massena was not guilty of these alleged offenses, Massena was alleged to be guilty of ‘lying by omission’ for not spontaneously revealing to the police that he had posted the flyer in the building." Anonymous speech is in no way outlawed, in fact, it is a fundamental right.

Andre appealed, and on September 23rd was informed that the suspension had been upheld. He appealed once more, this time in a grievance against Laura Bronstein, the chair of the Social Work department. Bronstein responded with a 50 page memorandum detailing a new set of allegations against Andre, many of which dealt specifically with Andre’s political opposition to the Binghamton Housing Authority of which Professor Tanenhaus directs, and recommending his expulsion from the program.

On November 13th, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) made the case public by issuing a detailed press release. This is over two weeks after they wrote President DeFleur to express their dismay with the department’s behavior. The very next day, the case was dropped. "Due to procedural misunderstandings, the case pertaining to you is no longer being pursued," read the one sentence email sent to Andre by Laura Bronstein. No elaboration, no nothing.

Many thanks to the Review for featuring Massena’s case.

Schools: Binghamton University, State University of New York