MSU student’s stance brings about change

Tuesday, April 17, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:59 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

When Emily Brooker decided to sue Missouri State University over a grade she received, it set in motion a series of actions that still reverberate. Brooker was a student in the undergraduate social work program and by all accounts highly motivated to engage in a career as a professional social worker. Her particular interests were in the area of child welfare. There are several lessons to be learned from examining Brooker’s experience at MSU.

While enrolled in a required social policy course, Brooker and her classmates were asked by the instructor to sign a letter to be sent to the General Assembly advocating that homosexuals be permitted to adopt children. She participated in class activities in order to learn about this population. However, at the point the instructor wanted students to sign the letter she refused. As a conservative Christian, she told the instructor that she could not endorse the letter’s intent because it would be in violation of her religious beliefs. Brooker maintained that the final grade she received in the course was lowered because of her action and did not objectively reflect her overall performance in the course. Because of the refusal to sign the letter, the faculty questioned whether she possessed the essential values and character for professional social work. She was subjected to a series of intimidating and humiliating reviews about her character, personal and religious values and was on the brink of removal from the program. However, the university did permit her to graduate.

With the support of her family and others, Brooker then decided to sue the university asking that her grade in the course be elevated and references about her character be expunged from her record. Before the case could be heard in federal court, the university settled. Her grade was elevated; the record expunged; her legal expenses were paid; and she was awarded graduate school expenses which also included a living stipend for two years. Mike Nietzel, the president of MSU, determined that Brooker’s free speech and religious freedom rights had been trampled on to the extent that he commissioned an external review of the social work program. The first lesson to be learned from this case is that when the free speech and religious rights of students are violated by faculty, there must be a mechanism available to seek redress. Even though students are at the lower end of the faculty-student power equation, their religious beliefs must not be stifled.

The external review of the social work program by outside experts has been widely reported in the print media. It was conducted by deans of two respected schools of social work and upon completion proved to be a bombshell. Social work faculty were described as bullies and the program’s academic environment as toxic. Many students were fearful of voicing opinions in class particularly about religious issues. The report was a scathing excoriation of the program and its faculty. To Nietzel’s credit, he made the report public rather than turning loose the spin doctors, attorneys and public relations hacks. His transparency is the second lesson from this case. One wonders if the same openness would be present at MU if this situation had occurred there.

As a result of the Brooker case, an intellectual diversity bill was submitted to the Missouri House. It passed by a wide margin and has been sent to the Senate. The bill requires all public universities to annually report to the General Assembly efforts they have undertaken to insure that an academic environment is present whereby students are exposed to a variety of political, ideological, religious and other perspectives when appropriate to the subject being taught. It also provides a mechanism for students to report incidents when their free speech and religious rights have been stifled.

If the bill is voted on in the Senate, it is likely to pass which illustrates the third lesson. Throughout our lives, all of us have been encouraged to take stands on controversial issues and told that action by one person can bring about change. However, most of us don’t really believe we can make a difference by acting as our conscience tells us. Brooker had the courage to take on a major institution and not only brought about a change that affected her grade and academic record but caused the university to re-examine an entire program. She also motivated the legislature to consider a bill that will impact the intellectual environment of all the public institutions of higher education and insure academic freedom for students as well as faculty. These are the changes that Emily wrought.

Roland Meinert is a retired academic and former Director of Schools of Social Work at Michigan State University and the University of Missouri-Columbia.

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