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Course Requirement or Loyalty Test?

December 16, 2005

James Ryczek, an adjunct professor of social work, thought he was only setting the record straight last fall when he suggested that a student at Rhode Island College might consider leaving the college — and the field of social work altogether — if he disagreed with his professors.

“Social work is a value-based profession that clearly articulates a sociopolitical ideology about how the world works,” Mr. Ryczek, who is director of field education for the social-work program, wrote in an e-mail message to the student, Bill Felkner. “By and large as a profession, we do take sides.” Mr. Ryczek went on to write that if students disagreed with “what is being taught and espoused in the curriculum … then their fit with the profession will not get any more comfortable.”

The e-mail message set off a storm of protest, from the student and from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has charged the public university with establishing a “political loyalty test” for students.

“As bad as it is for universities to tell students what they can’t say,” Greg Lukianoff, director of legal and public advocacy for the foundation, wrote on its Web site, “it is even more threatening to liberty when they tell students what they must believe.”

A self-described conservative, Mr. Felkner clashed with Mr. Ryczek over an assignment related to lobbying the Rhode Island legislature. The student believed he was being asked to lobby on liberal causes he did not agree with — including gay marriage. After Mr. Ryczek sent him the e-mail message, the two also had a run-in last spring over what kind of internship Mr. Felkner could pursue. According to guidelines for the master’s in social work program, Mr. Felkner was required to hold an internship in which he worked for “progressive social change.” When he refused in principle to guide his choice of internship by that criterion, the college at first told him he could not continue his studies. But it later allowed him to do an internship with the state’s Republican governor, where he is working now.

Mr. Felkner is trying to finish his master’s degree this year and doesn’t want to talk publicly about the problems he has had. But his experience has caused the National Association of Scholars to ask the U.S. Education Department to investigate the organization that accredits social-work programs. That group, the Council on Social Work Education, says schools should prepare social workers to advocate for social and economic justice and encourage an “understanding of distributive justice, human and civil rights, and the global interconnections of oppression.”

Those guidelines, the NAS said in its letter to the Education Department last month, represent a “threat to freedom of speech” that could “deter some students from considering careers in social work.”

‘Fairness and Democracy’

Dean Pierce, director of accreditation for the council, says that while it does ask programs to educate students to pursue social justice, that does not mean the field has any sociopolitical ideology. “We see social justice as fairness and democracy,” he says. Mr. Pierce also says that the accreditor instructs schools of social work to “guarantee students’ rights to speak and participate freely in the program.” If students have complaints about a school, says Mr. Pierce, they can ask the council to investigate. He declined to say, however, whether CSWE was investigating Rhode Island College.

Elizabeth J. Clark, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers, believes critics are giving “social justice” political connotations the field never intended. “To us, it means fairness and quality of life for all,” she says. Gary Bailey, a past president of the association and an assistant professor of social work at Simmons College, agrees. “I don’t know many people who don’t believe those are values we should not be teaching,” he says. “They are the tenets of what this country is about, what our Constitution is based on.”

But David A. French, president of FIRE, says it is not that simple. “You and I may both be well-meaning people,” he says, “but you might think my vision of social justice is unjust.”

Rhode Island College says Mr. Felkner was never penalized for his views. “The school of social work has made every effort to resolve this, to work with him,” says Jane Fusco, a spokeswoman for the college.

As for Mr. Ryczek, he stands by his original e-mail message. “We are social workers, and as a profession we get to define who we are,” he said in an interview. “We can teach what we believe. It is up to the students to decide whether to go through the program or not. There are alternatives out there.”

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Schools: Rhode Island College Cases: Rhode Island College: Violation of Student’s Freedom of Conscience