On November 13 of last year, I reported on the favorable settlement in the Alliance Defense Fund’s lawsuit on behalf of Emily Brooker, a senior social work student at Missouri State University. We filed the case after Emily was required to write the state legislature in support of homosexual adoption and then brought up on charges (among those charges, violations of “diversity” standards) when she refused. As part of its public announcement of the settlement in the case, the university pledged to retain outside investigators who would examine the social work department itself.
Well, the university just announced the results of that investigation, and — to the administration’s infinite credit — the report is not a whitewash. In fact, I’ve never read a more stinging indictment of an academic department. In their report, professors Karen Sowers of the University of Tennessee and Michael Patchner of Indiana University (the outside investigators retained by the university) offer a stinging indictment of the Missouri State social work department:
Does the academic environment of the School of Social Work promote learning and stimulate an honest and open dialogue in which intellectual differences are shared and respected among students, faculty and staff?
Many students and faculty stated a fear of voicing differing opinions from the instructor or colleague. This was particularly true regarding spiritual and religious matters however, students voiced fears about questioning faculty regarding assignments or expectations. In fact “bullying” was used by both students and faculty to characterize specific faculty. It appears that faculty have no history of intellectual discussion/debate. Rather, differing opinions are taken personally and often result in inappropriate discourse.
Do the faculty and staff of the School of Social Work model and communicate the CSWE Code of Ethics for students in the program?
There is an atmosphere where the Code of Ethics is used in order to coerce students into certain belief systems regarding social work practice and the social work profession. This represents a distorted use of the Social Work Code of Ethics in that the Code of Ethics articulates that social workers should respect the values and beliefs of others.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the report was the authors’ call for accountability and consequences. Here are their first two recommendations for fixing the problem:
Close down the School; disband the faculty and restart the School after a short period (start from scratch). This option ensures ridding of all toxic faculty but will require careful hiring for the restart. Also, the community response will be negative and the university may be viewed as non-responsive to community needs. Also, during the hiatus, another School of Social Work may move in to fill the void. Eliminate those faculty who are identified as major contributors of the problem and find ways to remove them from the faculty. This may be accomplished through buyouts, not awarding tenure, eliminating annual raises, and refusing accommodations. At the very least, eliminate offices and have them work from home in order to keep them away from the School as much as possible. Also, they should be discouraged from committee work. No new faculty should be hired until the problem faculty are removed from the environment. We recommend that Etta Madden continue as acting program director for a minimum of one more year and that she be given significant release time to adequately administer the School of Social Work.
Emily Brooker’s case could represent a watershed moment in higher education in Missouri. For the first time in a long time, an administration has the courage to step up and acknowledge mistakes. For the first time in a long time, an internal academic investigation has resulted in a call for real reform. Emily’s case has already led to the ACTA-inspired “Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act,” and now it seems to be leading to genuine institutional self-examination.
Students take note: there is hope, and a bit of courage can go a long, long way.