Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Yes, Virginia, there is left-wing bias in the classroom

In response to my post about right and wrong ways to fight left-wing political correctness on college campuses, in which I took David Horowitz to task for peddling what turned out to be an unsubstantiated anecdote about a Fall 2004 classroom airing of Fahrenheit 9/11 at Penn State, Robert Shibley of FIRE writes:

I don’t know about Penn State, but we did learn that at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work, they were definitely showing Fahrenheit 9/11 in class in fall 2004. Here’s an e-mail from a professor acknowledging that from our case: (the full case is at and is, frankly, a real scandal). Actually, the professor admits that several professors were showing the movie to their graduate and undergraduate social work classes. He also goes on to say that social work is basically only open to liberals, which is the crux of what our case there is about (FIRE believes that there should not be a political litmus test for the study of any subject at a public university).

Read the linked pages. This is indeed an outrageous (and fully documented) story, and the Fahrenheit 9/11 showing is only the tip of the iceberg.

On October 14, 2004, student Bill Felkner emailed professor James Ryczek to note that Fahreneit 9/11 had been shown in several classes at the school and asking if there was any possibility of airing the anti-Michael Moore film, Fahrenhype 9/11, for balance.

Ryczek's reply, dated October 15:

Actually no school money was used for the showing of the film, per se. Dan Weisman (BSW Program Faculty) bought the film on his own and offered to organize and show the film at the times he arranged, although he and some other BSW faculty are showing it in class. The announcements were made in MSW classes just to let students know that they can go if they wish.

I don’t believe there would be an objection to showing the other film if you or someone else were to organize it…the space here is definitely a community space to be used by members of the community (especially students).

But, there may be a broader issue here that I’d be happy to discuss more with you (based on your comment about having a problem with the school, if it did promote and sponsor the film).

As I have mentioned in class, and I assume you’ve heard in other classes, 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. In fact NASW, the professional organization, puts out position papers on just about everything in the realm of public discourse and debate. We also have a PAC specifically organized to promote certain candidates with whom we share the same political agenda and outlook…and as you may have guessed, is working actively to defeat Bush. So, as a social worker, I don’t find it at all unusual that a film like 9/11 might officially be sponsored by the school, and that the alternate view film might not be sponsored. In short, by and large as a profession we do take sides…and indeed in this school, we have a mission devoted to the value of social and economic justice.

Now that being said, I don’t think anyone here would want to quash alternative views. Again, as I have said in class…I want us to have an open discussion and debate about issues. In fact, questioning is an extremely important social work skill, and I know that I am doing a great deal of questioning with students about how they have traditionally thought about certain issues ….and that is challenging for both me and the student.

Yet, if a student finds that they are consistently and regularly experiencing opposite views from what is being taught and espoused in the curriculum, or the professional “norms” that keep coming up in class and in field, then their fit with the profession will not get any more comfortable, and in fact will most likely become increasingly uncomfortable.

... So, I think 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.

Never mind that the issues addressed in Fahrenheit 9/11 have very little to do with any of the issues and values relevant to social work. Unless, of course, one believes that any attacks on Bush are relevant to the issues and values relevant to social work.

Later, the school told Felkner that he was required to publicly advocate for liberal policies if he wanted to pursue his degree.

Social work may be a more "values-specific" field than most, though I'm sure there are many social workers who would disagree with Ryczek's blanket statement that politically liberal values are inherent to the profession. But in fact, similar claims about the inherent "fit" of politically liberal values to the field have been made about the academy in general (on the grounds that free inquiry, dissent, and a rejection of various orthodoxies are inherently "liberal" values).

The problem is there, and it needs to be fought with facts.

Professors holding left-of-center views -- which is the principal crime imputed to them by those conservative UCLA alumni whose now-rescinded "cash for class notes" offer recently made such a stir -- is not a problem. (Though I do think that a serious ideological imbalance in any field, particularly in the humanities, is a bad thing for the academy: diversity of ideas is its lifeblood.) Professors pushing their beliefs on students and punishing or marginalizing dissenters, on the other hand, is something that should not be tolerated. And there is far too much indoctrination and intellectual intolerance in the academy, particularly in certain fields (be it social work or women's studies and ethnic studies) where many professors sincerely believe that a particular ideology is the foundation of the field itself.


Anonymous said...

First of all, much of this is just as bad for (say) a socialist trying to get an econ degree in many US econ programs. You simply can't get passing grades on exams or papers in many Econ courses if you don't to a great extent accept (or at least parrot) a free market boosterism ideology.

But I think we all know that FIRE would no more object to that then they ever objected to legislation intended to institute government oversight over professors who criticize Israel, last year. FIRE has one or two token cases of protecting left-wing speech, but on the whole they're a solidly right-wing organization.

If this case is exactly as FIRE describes it, then of course it's appalling. But I'm not sure if it is or not. Some essential parts of the case against the MSW program are the student's word against the program's; but this is a student who publishes private emails in an attempt to embarass professors, and who secretly tapes conversations. Since he hasn't behaved honorably up until now, on what grounds (other than his and their shared right-wing ideology) does FIRE assume that he's the one who must be telling the truth?

(I don't assume he's lying. I don't know which party is lying. But neither does FIRE, is my point).

Later, the school told Felkner that he was required to publicly advocate for liberal policies if he wanted to pursue his degree.

This isn't true. What the school told Felkner is that the concentration he chose within the MSW program did have certain core beliefs; but that if he didn't think he could in good conscience fufill the requirements of that elective concentration, then he could one of the other available concentrations instead, and get a Masters in MSW that way.

Let's return to the econ example. Suppose an econ graduate program has several different concentrations, and you must fufill any one of those concentrations to get the degree. One of those concentrations involves writing position papers advocating free market practices to help the developing world; there are a couple of required courses for that concentration (but not for the degree) which have textbooks, readings and lesson plans incorporating as a foundational assumption that free market development in the developing world is desirable.

Faculty advisors, aware that I'm a mixed-market socialist who believes that free market change has done a great deal of harm in the developing world, advise me to choose one of the other concentrations. I refuse. Then, once I'm in the new concentration, I complain that I can't incorporate my own beliefs into the requirements of this concentration, and therefore my free speech rights are being infringed upon.

FIRE then in effect demands that the entire concentration be either shut down or completely reworked to no longer contain its foundational assumptions about the efficiacy of free market policies in the developing world, so that socialists like me are not treated unequally.

I think that may be essentially what happened in Rhode Island. Certainly, the documents that are on FIRE's site make it clear that this student was never told he had to advocate for progressive policies to get a degree.

He was told that the particular concentration he insisted on joining, against faculty advice, incorporated the assumption that progressive policies are central to social work. He had other concentrations available to him, which he refused.

Instead, he deliberately chose an elective concentration he knew that he didn't agree with, and is now collaborating with FIRE to get the elective shut down for all students. But does free speech mean that every single elective program on campus has to avoid having any foundational assumptions whatsoever - apart from foundational assumptions right-wingers agree with? Do we have to play a game where the foundational assumptions about policy held by virtually all intellectual leaders in Social Work, are not allowed to be included in even an elective University program? In the name of free speech, the actual effect of FIRE's act might well be to censor left-wing views. Which is, I suspect, just fine with FIRE.

I doubt that any students - socialist or right-wing - have a first amendment right to prevent courses from incorporating the foundational beliefs of their field. And certainly not when the courses in question are elective. But that's the right that FIRE is claiming this student has.

Cathy Young said...

Barry: first of all, I think that an academic discipline has no business having a concentration that requires a student to espouse a certain point of view.

Secondly, you're making up a hypothetical case that has not taken place, and then speculating about what FIRE would or would not do in such a case. With all due respect, that strikes me as amusingly similar to right-wingers' declarations along the line of, "Of course, the ACLU would never intervene in such-and-such case."

And by the way, since we're bandying about hypotheticals: would you have deemed it inappropriate for a student to publicize a professor's email or tape a conversation if said email or conversation contained evidence of racism, anti-gay slurs, or sexual harassment?

Your comments about Felker's and FIRE's allegedly shared right-wing ideology seem, frankly, like an ad hominem cheap shot. Is Harvey Silverglate (FIRE's co-founder and a noted civil liberties attorney) a right-winger? Or Wendy Kaminer and Nat Hentoff, who are on the board of FIRE?

I can certainly think of more than a few "token" cases in which FIRE took on cases of censorship or speech suppression directed at leftists. Just in recent months, they have taken on two cases that I can think of students penalized for anti-war protests, and have spoken up on behalf of the Warren Community College professor forced to resign over a nasty email to a conservative student.

I'm not sure what legislation to institute government oversight over critics of Israel you're talking about, but FIRE has objected to attempts at Columbia University to accuse professors in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department of "harassment" and "intimidation" toward pro-Israeli students. FIRE took the position that most of the instances cited as harassment in fact constitute legitimate free speech.

Yes, a majority of FIRE's cases deal with speech suppression by the left (though I think the balance has shifted somewhat since the start of the "War on Terror"), but I think that has a lot more to do with the academy's biases than with FIRE's.

thecobrasnose said...

The profession of "social work" in this country is so nightmarish that if they want to be wholly claimed by the liberal establishment every conservative ideologue should breathe a sigh of relief. But as human beings and Americans we might wish for the diversity of thought that might possibly bring reform to the profession (which I realize might be nigh unto impossible considering its big government ties and what is required of it).

Ampersand said...

Cathy, first of all, point well taken regarding my ad homs and cheap shots. I shouldn't have included them at all; even if FIRE does have a right-wing bias (and from what you say, I'm mistaken and they don't), that doesn't indicate if they're right or wrong about this particular case.

So I apologize for all that.

Nonetheless, it remains true that there's no particular reason to implicitly assume that in a conflict of word between the student and the school, the school is lying.

And by the way, since we're bandying about hypotheticals: would you have deemed it inappropriate for a student to publicize a professor's email or tape a conversation if said email or conversation contained evidence of racism, anti-gay slurs, or sexual harassment?

Fair question. I don't know; I've never been faced with the position you describe. I think it should depend on how extreme the harm being opposed was. If it were an email saying, "when I have a ______ student, I usually flunk them regardless of the merit of their work," (fill in the blank with either "right-wing," "black," "gay" or whatever), then I'd think the evil of publishing the email would be the lesser evil, compared to letting the email go unpublicized.

Short of that - and the emails I've seen in this case fall well short of that - I think it's wrong to publish private correspondance without permission, especially when the purpose is to make the letter-writer look bad. It's unfair (few people write as carefully and defensively in private notes as they do when writing for public consumption, and they shouldn't have to), and it's acting in bad faith.

Barry: first of all, I think that an academic discipline has no business having a concentration that requires a student to espouse a certain point of view.

I'm not as clear on this as you are.

If the effect of your policy is that universities are not allowed to teach the foundational views of their fields, that seems to me more like suppression of speech than like protection of speech.

At an undergraduate level, it's possible to run every course in a "these are the foundational beliefs, but let's not assume they're correct or have any validity" way. But after a certain point, some advanced courses will need to be released from the "let's not assume the foundational material our field is built on has validity" teather. Maintaining the breadth of not assuming foundational principles, in some cases requires sacrificing intellectual depth.

Of course, I'm not saying that anyone should be required to sign vows of belief to graduate. But if a student doesn't demonstrate the ability to operate at a high intellectual level within foundational assumptions of their field - regardless of if they agree with those assumptions - then they may not deserve a high-level degree.

Take biology, for example. I don't think that anyone should be required to believe in evolution as a requirement of getting a high-level degree in biology. But I do think that students of biology have to be willing to write essays, do projects and pass exams that incorporate the foundational assumption that Darwinistic evolution is true and is good science. If they won't do that, then they haven't demostrated the understanding of their field required to earn a degree.

If a creationist is unwilling to accept evolution as fact - not even in a provisional way required to get through a course - then I don't think they have a first amendment right to pass the course, nor to have the course altered to accomidate them.

And if an elective unit requires working with established professionals to develop professional material, I don't think the school should be required to accomidate creationist views in that elective, nor to drop the elective.

Do you think it's unreasonable for a high-level elective course to accept (or at least pretend to accept, as a demonstration of intellectual understanding) the foundational assumptions of professionals and intellectuals in their fields? It's not clear to me that this is unreasonable - especially in an elective course, which students can easily choose to avoid.

In the name of free speech, you seem to be saying that we must have less speech available, and we have to limit what kinds of classes can be taught. That seems problematic to me.

Cathy Young said...

Barry, I greatly appreciate your apology. :) (Drat, and I didn't even get to point out that FIRE has backed Sami Al-Arian and has strongly taken the position that Ward Churchill should not be dismissed from his job because of his radical beliefs.)

More later -- deadline beckons.

W.B. Reeves said...

At last, a clear, substantive discussion of the issues. I look forward to Cathy's response.

Cathy Young said...

Barry, still don't have time for a detailed reply, but a quick comment here.

I fear that by citing evolution as your example, you are falling into the anti-evolutionists' trap (almost typed "crap," which would have been appropriate as well *G*) of treating evolution as a "belief" or "ideology." The evidence for evolution consists of scientific facts, and someone who does not recognize them does not, in fact, belong in the profession.

Likewise, I would say that it would be entirely appropriate for a history department to refuse to grant a Ph.D. to a student who made the argument that the Holocaust never happened, because the historical evidence is that it did.

These are basic standards of scholarship, not political and ideological beliefs.

Now, there is the issue of "foundational beliefs" in departments that focus on professional training and not just academic study. For instance, if you're training to be a lawyer, you are presumably expected to at least subscribe to the belief in the rule of law (though I would say that critical legal theory, critical race theory, a lot of feminist legal theory, etc. constitute pretty significant departures from what should be the foundational beliefs of the legal profession). But surely there are a lot of interpretations of the rule of law, and the profession is open to those.

I think it was rather bizarre for the professor to cite the position papers of the National Association of Social Workers as some kind of mandate for what beliefs are appropriate for students in social work. The American Bar Association takes a lot of positions too, including a stance favoring abortion rights. Does that mean there's no place in law schools for students who do not believe abortion should be legal?

Bill Felkner said...

Hello Cathy et al.,

My name is Bill Felkner, I was recently notified of this blog and am compelled to respond as there are some important details missing.

Ampersand said, “; but this is a student who publishes private emails in an attempt to embarrass professors, and who secretly tapes conversations.”

I am a student who had a problem with the school’s activities and first went to my professor. You know the response I got. Then I went to the chair of the masters department (who was accompanied by the chair of the bachelors dept). After a long discussion, and my continued insistence that a balanced view be presented to the F9/11 film (I even offered to donate the response film Farhenhype 9/11). I was told “it’s not going to happen.”

So I went to the VP for academic affairs and the school president (we were without a dean at that time). Both said the same thing, (paraphrased) ‘it’s the school’s job to decide curriculum, we are staying out of it.’

It was not until I had exhausted these avenues that I decided to start the website and make the info public.

I have also contacted the new dean and the local and national American Association of University Professors, again no help. An interesting note – the local AAUP president told me his job was to negotiate union issues, not student affairs.

Ampersand also said, “Certainly, the documents that are on FIRE's site make it clear that this student was never told he had to advocate for progressive policies to get a degree.”
While FIRE may not make it clear what I was told, I do have recordings of the field placement coordinator saying the following, (I asked if I had to advocate for “progressive politics and policies in order to get a degree”). He responded, “yes, for the policy and organizing concentration, just like we teach.” This was followed with a letter from the chair saying that since I refused to do the work prescribed, I would not be allowed into the program. This caused a 6-month delay in getting my intern placement but they eventually came to their senses, at least in not refusing my admission.

However, the Academic Standing Committee sent me a letter stating that it would recommend for my expulsion unless I refrain from making these recordings public. Nuff said.

As for the other concentrations being offered to me – this is true. I could choose to enroll in the “clinical therapy” concentration. My concentration if “policy and organizing.” Two different careers. I do not feel they have the right to make that decision for me. So yes I did refuse.

Two more quick points. The analogy of economics studies – not quite the same. America does operate in a capitalist economy. Our social services do not operate in a socialist economy (much to their dismay). Big difference.

And yes I did go to the ACLU. I explained what was going on and said "Does the ACLU have a problem with that?" ACLU - 'No we don't. I am afraid we can't help you.'

The school has not changed much but now they have initiated a “confidentiality clause” stating that no discussions in class may be shared with anyone outside of class. Add this to the ‘no recording’ law and needless to say I have not been very vocal. But they have done more and it will be made public in due time.

Thanks for the opportunity to set the record straight.

Bill Felkner

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