The future of the School of Social Work at Missouri State University is in doubt after an external review of the program found a “dysfunctional and hostile” environment where faculty colleagues are disrespectful to one another and students fear voicing their opinions. The six-page report could influence a simmering debate in the General Assembly about academic freedom at Missouri universities. The report is being touted by the sponsor of House Bill 213, which would require all public institutions of higher education to report how they are safeguarding the free exchange of ideas on campus.
Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, said the bullying, browbeating and hostile learning environment described in the report mean the timing is right for the bill, which was passed out of a House committee last month.
If passed, the bill would:
- Require annual reports describing public higher education institutions’ steps to ensure intellectual diversity.
- Require notification of students that measures to promote diversity exist. Supporters of the bill say students feel they must support their professors’ perspectives to earn a good grade. Opponents say some students can’t differentiate between being exposed to an idea and advocacy of an idea.
“The report’s going to be in my speech as soon as the bill comes to the floor,” Cunningham said. “I don’t think it’s going to solve all the problems, but it’s sure a step in the right direction.”
The report lambastes the School of Social Work for a variety of issues, including poor organizational structure and a lack of respect among faculty and toward students, particularly those with strong religious and spiritual views.
Missouri State President Michael Nietzel has given the school 18 months to address the problems raised in the report. If the problems remain, he will consider closing the school. In the meantime, the school is postponing its internal accreditation review, holding any tenure decisions for faculty in the program and putting a freeze on all hiring in the social work program.
“Many students and faculty stated a fear of voicing differing opinions from the instructor or colleague,” the report states. “This was particularly true regarding spiritual and religious matters, however, students voiced fears about questioning faculty regarding assignments or expectations.”
Nietzel ordered the independent review in November, after the university settled a lawsuit filed by a former student in social work. The student, Emily Brooker, alleged that her grade in a course had been lowered because she refused to write a letter to Congress advocating the right of gay couples to adopt children.
House Bill 213 has been titled the “Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act.”
But the findings of the report spurred by Brooker’s allegations don’t necessarily support the passing of the bill named in her honor, said Etta Madden, the interim director of the School of Social Work.
“There are a lot of different issues in the report. The academic freedom issue is just one of them,” she said.
The report was prepared by Karen Sowers, dean of the College of Social Work at the University of Tennessee, and Michael Patchner, dean of the School of Social Work at Indiana University.
Both declined to comment, saying the report “is as it stands.”
Frank Schmidt, a biochemistry professor at MU, read the report and agrees that the School of Social Work needs to change its ways. “From the sounds of things, this place was one step removed from Baghdad,” he said.
Schmidt said the problems at MSU would never take place in Columbia. MU has procedures and policies in place that promote academic diversity of ideas, Schmidt said, and students have ample recourse if they think they have been discriminated against.
If House Bill 213 passes as a result of the report, he said, MU would be unfairly punished for a problem that has been nonexistent on its campus.
“Mizzou is the most prominent public university,” he said, “and sometimes we wind up paying for other people’s sins.”
Cunningham, the sponsor of the bill, said Schmidt has “blinders on.” She says the kind of problems revealed at MSU have been taking place at MU for years.
“I’ve been hearing from Mizzou students for seven years,” she said. “If it can happen at Missouri State, it can happen anywhere. And we need to recognize that these are problems going on in our own backyard.”
Mike Hayslip, who holds two degrees in social work from MSU, said the big egos, long grudges and selfish behavior described in the report fall in line with his experience as a student. Those problems are so bad, he said, that some faculty members should resign as soon as possible.
During his four years in the School of Social Work, the silencing of intellectual diversity never seemed like one of the school’s many problems, he said.
“I always felt comfortable saying whatever I felt like. We had discussions that were open and educational,” he said. “I never saw what Emily Brooker was talking about. Faculty saying your thoughts, and your points of view, and your ideas are wrong, I just never really saw it.”