Left Control of Academia?

The issue of the influence of the left in the U.S. has come under sharp scrutiny by the right again.  It is the same infamous battle that gripped the U.S. during the infamous days of Joseph McCarthy. Higher education has borne much of the brunt in the culture wars from the right for nearly three decades.  The right’s thinking goes something like this: many of the generation who became professors and came of age during the 1960s are ensconced in universities and colleges throughout the U.S., poisoning the minds of college students. The case of a graduate student at Rhode Island College’s School of Social Work (RIC), William Felkner, typifies the right’s arguments.  That controversy has ended up in the courts of Rhode Island. “As a newly enrolled student in 2004, Felkner, a free-market conservative, says it became clear that he would have to transform himself into a left-wing ideologue before he could get a master’s degree.” (The Providence Journal, “Graduate student sues RIC over liberal views,” December 14, 2008).

The article continued, “Felkner has filed a lawsuit against Rhode Island College that revives arguments from conservatives who have assailed the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) code of ethics, the profession of social work and the structure of academic programs in schools of social work across the country.”

Felkner went as far as surreptitiously taping a conversation with a professor to document his belief that social work professors at the college hold left-wing views.  He posted an e-mail message from another professor with whom he differed on a Web site. One professor of social work at RIC defended his progressive views in one e-mail.  It is interesting that professors have been put in a position of having to defend both their professional training and personal beliefs by a disgruntled student!

“Felkner’s lawsuit says the RIC School of Social Work discriminated against him by penalizing his grades, filing ethics charges against him, delaying his graduation, and denying him the opportunity to work on welfare reform in the governor’s office — all in retaliation for his conservative views,” according to the article in The Providence Journal.

“RIC argues that Felkner equates his right to free speech with ‘a claim to be able to create his own curriculum, something which is not constitutionally guaranteed,’” according to the same article.
Despite an appeal by RIC, a superior court judge in Rhode Island has refused to dismiss the lawsuit.

I interviewed a student in the graduate program in social work at Rhode Island College for this article.  She wished to remain anonymous. She reported, “The faculty of my program goes out of their way to assure student success.  They constantly offer extra help, extensions, personalized attention, and encouragement to students.  And in my policy class this semester, on the first day our professor gave a little talk about how you can be pro-life and be a social worker, you just can’t let your ideas interfere with client interactions, meaning you can’t deny your clients access to information on account of your own beliefs.  I think they are, the faculty, all suffering from a mild case of PTSD because of this guy Felkner.  Also, he is not that unusual of a student.  The goal mentioned in the article (in The Providence Journal), to become a therapist, is pretty common.  The profession is not what it used to be.  Lots of right-wingers have discovered the MSW (Master of Social Work) is the fastest route to private practice as a therapist.  There is an argument in the profession about this, whether or not it is social work at all and should we be training people of this persuasion.”

People For The American Way (PFTAW) lists the objectives of the right-wing “watch group” Accuracy In Academia (AIA) that claims to monitor colleges and universities throughout the U.S.  According to PFTAW, AIA’s issues are: “Combating Title IX, multicultural education, and abortion, and fighting “liberal” ideas that are offensive to right-wing students. [The AIA] [a]sserts that many colleges and universities are openly dedicated to ‘indoctrinating’ students with liberal or communist philosophy. AIA seeks to expose ‘the exploitation of the classroom or university resources to indoctrinate students; discrimination against students, faculty or administrators based on political or academic beliefs; and campus violations of free speech.’”

“Spokeswomen for the NASW say that social justice can mean many things, but a major component of social work is assisting those who have trouble fending for themselves because of psychological problems. Both the code and the RIC curriculum emphasize the role of social workers in pursuing “social justice” for the “vulnerable and oppressed” members of society,” according to the article in The Providence Journal.

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2006) defines social work as, “Organized work directed toward the betterment of social condition in the community, as by seeking to improve the condition of the poor, to promote the welfare of children, etc.” How a so-called “free-market conservative,” “libertarian” philosophy fits into the profession of social work is a mystery.

The major attack against the right of the poor to live with dignity in the U.S. came from the federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 that ended the government’s mandate to help the poor conceived during the New Deal. Though a product of the Clinton Administration, its champion was the Republican and ultraconservative compact known as the Contract With America, a successful right-wing attempt to roll back gains made in social welfare during the Great Depression and beyond.

Rhode Island leads the nation along with Michigan according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics with an unemployment rate of 9.3 percent (October 2008).  That kind of economic environment seems like the least likely place to support initiatives that attack the right of the poor to survive in a depressed economy!

For about six years I taught at a conservative private college in Rhode Island as an adjunct professor.  I instructed students who were teachers, or were training to become teachers, in how to teach literacy skills in content subjects.  Teachers had to take the course I taught in order to teach in the secondary schools of the state.  Since much of the textbook material I used was dry, I included readings from other sources that would illustrate how to use textbook techniques and strategies introduced in the course.  Two of the readings I supplemented the course with were Professor Howard Zinn’s Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology (1991), and A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (1980).

None of these materials seemed to be a problem until I used one of my own articles from the Humanist, “Chance Encounters With The Moral Majority,” (November-December 1994), to teach a particular learning strategy.  During class instruction a student began screaming from her seat, accusing me of being a “monster” for using an article that discussed abortion.  Within a year of the incident in the classroom, I was informed by the school’s administration that I would not be rehired to teach this course that I had taught for six years, and for which I had consistently earned “above average” ratings from students.  The reason given was that regular, full-time staff was being given the responsibility of teaching the course and I would no longer be needed.

If elections can be used as a sort of rough gauge of the thinking of at least those who  vote in the U.S., then the 2008 election is instructive.  According to the Indeypendent, not “even one percent of approximately 123 million votes cast on Tuesday” went to third-party candidates. (November 7, 2008).  Hardly a landslide of those bent on destroying the minds of young and impressionable students in the U.S. with left-wing and progressive thought.

The idea that the left has some sort of lock on academia is an utter lie, slander, and libel by the right in the U.S.  It is rather the right, both in and out of the public domain, that has shaped this country’s policies for more than six decades. What will happen to social policy with a new administration in Washington, D.C., and in the larger society, now remains to be seen.  I doubt very much that schools of social work will soon preach the belief that theories of social Darwinism become enshrined in social work curriculum after so many have been left on the streets by the policies of the right!

HOWARD LISNOFF teaches writing and is a freelance writer.  He can be reached at howielisnoff@gmail.com.





Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).