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"I can't have you participate in class anymore."
I was on my way out of class when my social welfare and policy professor casually called me over to tell me this. The friendliness of her tone did not match her words, and I attempted a shocked, confused apology. It was my first semester at the Hunter College School of Social Work, and I was as yet unfamiliar with the consistent, underlying threat that characterized much of the school's policy and atmosphere. This professor was simply more open and direct than most.
I asked if I had said or done anything inappropriate or disrespectful, and she was quick to assure me that it was not my behavior that was the problem. No: It was my opinions. Or, as she put it, "I have to give over this information as is."
I spent the rest of that semester mostly quiet, frustrated, and missing my undergraduate days, when my professors encouraged intellectual diversity and give-and-take. I attempted to take my case to a higher-up at school, an extremely nice, fair professor who insisted that it was in my own best interest not to rock the boat. I was doing well in his class, and I believed him when he told me he wanted me to continue doing well. He explained to me that people who were viewed as too conservative had had problems graduating in the past, and he didn't want that to happen to me. I thought he was joking . . . until I realized he wasn't.
It was laughable in its own way, though. My school was ostensibly all about freedom of expression. In our mandatory 5-hour diversity awareness training, we were each asked what pronouns we prefer to use when describing ourselves. We could dress and identify sexually virtually any way we wanted, though some fashion choices and sexual identities were more celebrated than others. We talked about how to approach clients whose gender identities were difficult to pinpoint. There was a special gender-neutral bathroom on the fourth floor that seemed rarely used. We were allowed to differ; we could not disagree.
That was the great and strange paradox about Hunter College. Our identities and opinions existed in two separate, unequal planes. Identities were required—the more unconventional and downtrodden the better. During diversity training, we were told to stand up whenever a category that applied to us was read by our presiding teacher. (I stood when the category "working class" was called out, naïvely not realizing that there were nonworking classes in America. I realized my mistake when most people stood up for the "middle class" category. I was impressed by the few "upper classers.") The categories included a seemingly endless variety of religions, ethnicities, races, nationalities, and educational backgrounds. In that same training, we were also asked to indicate how things like weight, skin color, and a host of other criteria affected our lives by moving to one side or another of a circle (I mostly stayed in the center).
Another professor asked my class to separate by race, with one concentric circle composed of self-identifying white people and another of self-identifying "people of color." After briefly considering declaring that I "felt black inside," I politely refused to participate. I asked the teacher why she felt it necessary to reinstitute a practice of racial sorting that had been abolished decades ago. She gave no concrete answer, though she dropped the idea when other students protested as well.
These and other "identity exercises" were run-of-the-mill at school, the reasons behind them always vague and flavored with sugary social justice. But in a separate class given by the "circles" professor, two women engaged in a respectful discussion were abruptly stopped. One, whom I shall call Tanya, objected to the idea that as a successful 22-year-old graduate student, she should be viewed as "oppressed" simply for being African American. The other woman insisted that, far from being demeaning, identifying as an oppressed minority was part of receiving one's due for injustices done. The teacher, rather than fostering the discussion, interrupted to point out that, though we had just begun talking about race, we were "already having trouble understanding each other."
Sadly, my teachers all seemed to take their cues from the same playbook; they were very nice people with frightening messages. In my teacher's mind, two adults could not hold two different opinions. Any dissent was simply due to a lack of comprehension on one or both of their parts.
That was why my social welfare and policy teacher felt entirely justified in asking me to stop sharing my opinions in class. She was not allowed to discriminate against me—it would have been wrong to ask me to stop speaking for being gay or a woman or black. She was discriminating against my thoughts, which were not an intrinsic part of who I was. Not important. Identities, with the exception of straight, white, religious male, could not be banned. Beliefs could.
This approach is not unique to Hunter: Two hundred thirty-five master's programs in the United States are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which requires schools to "advocate for human rights and social and economic justice" and to "engage in practices that advance social and economic justice" as part of their curricula. As Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), points out, the CSWE standards act as "an invitation for schools to discriminate against students with dissenting views."
Lukianoff discovered the abusive culture fostered by CSWE after several students complained about their treatment in social work programs. Emily Brooker, a Christian student at Missouri State University's School of Social Work in 2006, was asked by her professor to sign a letter to the Missouri legislature in favor of homosexual adoption. When she explained that doing so would violate her religious beliefs and requested a different assignment, she was subjected to a two-and-a-half-hour interrogation by an ethics committee and charged with a "Level Three Grievance" (the most severe kind). Brooker was not permitted to have an advocate or a tape recorder with her at the ethics meeting, during which she was told to sign a contract promising that she would "close the gap" between her religious beliefs and the values of the social work profession. At the risk of having her degree withheld, Brooker acquiesced.
Bill Felkner, a student at Rhode Island College's School of Social Work, was instructed to lobby the Rhode Island legislature for several policies he did not support. In addition, RIC's policy internship requirements for graduate students included forcing students to advance policies that would further "progressive social change." When Felkner accepted an internship in the policy department of Republican Rhode Island governor Don Carcieri's office, he received a letter from Lenore Olsen, chair of the Social Work Department, informing him that he had violated their requirements and could no longer pursue a master's degree in social work policy.
Brooker's story arguably ends on a happier note than Felkner's: After sitting through weekly "consultations" that served as a follow-up to her review by the ethics committee, she graduated and sued the school. In response, Missouri State University launched an outside investigation of the social work school, dismissed several of her professors, and awarded her a settlement. Felkner, on the other hand, never graduated, despite multiple attempts to negotiate with his professors. They never forgave him for, as one of his professors wrote in an email to Felkner, opposing the "socio-political ideology about how the world works and how the world should be" that defined social work for them.
In response to these and similarly outrageous cases of abuse at social work schools, FIRE approached the federal Department of Health and Human Services for help. In a 2006 letter, FIRE, along with the National Association of Scholars (NAS) and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, asked HHS to reconsider its policy of only hiring social workers from CSWE-accredited schools, arguing that "CSWE's Educational Policy . . . effectively requires social work programs to impose ideological litmus tests on their students as a condition of accreditation." A 2007 FIRE letter would go on to say that "HHS' exclusive relationship with CSWE" poses a "threat to freedom of conscience" and serves to encourage the highly politicized standards set by CSWE for the social work field.
While nothing seems to have come of FIRE's letter to HHS, it demonstrates the power that CSWE has in influencing the way social work is taught and practiced all over the country, including the federal government. Doubtless, Brooker, Felkner, and my own teachers thought they were acting in good faith on CSWE-inspired principles. While CSWE is not an official government agency, it might as well be, since virtually all U.S. social work schools must receive its accreditation to be considered legitimate and to give their students a chance of being hired. Since its inception in 1952, it has worked, largely successfully, to transform a profession into a belief system.
I was not familiar with CSWE's policies or publications (including such gems as Conservative Christian Beliefs and Sexual Orientation in Social Work: Privilege, Oppression, and the Pursuit of Human Rights) during my time in school. I also had not yet read Milton Friedman's warning about the dangers of overly restrictive licensing organizations in his book Free to Choose, in which he says that "altruistic concern for . . . customers" is rarely the primary motive behind "determined efforts to get legal power to decide who may" join any given profession.
And so I sat, zombie-like, through the strange and sad reality that is groupthink for two long years. In a publicly funded school in America's greatest city, I was censored, threatened, and despised by my teachers. I left school after graduation feeling that something had been stolen from me. I wanted to go back and argue with my teachers some more, ask them, for example, whether a description of Reagan's economic policies as "nightmarish" in a textbook could be considered unbiased in any context. I wished I had stood up more often for my white male friends in class, asked people if they really believed that Band-Aids that were not exactly fair and not exactly dark in color were racist. Realizing that I had been awarded a diploma in part because I kept my opinions to myself was deeply unsatisfying.
I never practiced social work after school, but I still wanted my school to change. But that is the problem—accredited social work schools are remarkably averse to actual change, and embrace only those aspects of their students they view as immutable. As long as what makes you different is something you have no control over—your heritage, skin color, or economic background—it is acceptable to CSWE and its dependents. Celebrating a lack of control is celebrating a lack of freedom, and is extraordinarily infantilizing. My friends at school were protected from my opinions, but not from the insidious idea that some opinions do not deserve to be aired. Our training suffered for it. Along with being taught to tolerate everything but disagreement, we were told that people, including our clients, could not make meaningful choices in life. That is bad for social work, bad for education, and, as a reflection of modern liberalism, dangerous for society.
Devorah Goldman is senior health care analyst at Capital Policy Analytics, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C.