February 9, 2005

RIC v Felkner: A New Voice

Marc Comtois

We have written of the educational travesty being committed against Bill Felkner by the Rhode Island College School of Social Work before. Now, similarly outraged, Brian Bishop of The Foundation for Intellectual Diversity at Brown University has produced a well-reasoned explanation as to why so many of us find the actions of those who run RIC's School of Social Work intellectually wrongheaded and discriminatory.

The extent to which various paradigms of benefit provision lead toward independence is the fundamental measure of welfare's effectiveness, according to both social workers and "wascally Wepublicans." As would be expected, the greatest debate in substantive welfare reform is how to characterize the results of different approaches.

In Rhode Island, such debate is expected to take place at the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. But recent public scrutiny indicates that the school views itself as an advocate for a single outlook, rather than as an academic institution considering, with openness, the merits of diverse methods.

The School of Social Work -- joined at the hip to RIC's Poverty Institute -- operates on the premise that government benefits confer personal dignity, especially as opposed to dogged self-reliance or private charity.

The school's charter appears to suggest that it is a failing of the rest of society that folks lie in mean estate, and thus the responsibility of society to provide for them in a nonjudgmental way. It teaches that a panoply of benefits are virtual rights for potential recipients. If any of the assistance available under the ironic rubric of promoting family "independence" is not used, the program is condemned as inflexible.

Thus, the latest marching orders for School of Social Work students is to lobby, as part of a required course, for extending educational benefits to those on welfare beyond the first two years of eligibility. The reasoning behind extending benefits is that a new mother either has little choice about spending these early years with her child or might prefer to do so.

Bishop explained Felkner's case and contrasted the attitude of the RIC SSW with the students at Brown University who "recognized what their faculty did not: that a refusal to permit certain ideas to be expressed based on presupposition about their merits is an embarrassment to the tradition of liberal education." While I'm heartened to see such "activism" by Brown's students, I'm not surprised that there seems to be little faculty support. (Though the fact that Bishop's foundation is at Brown is cause for hope). Nonetheless, Bishop properly asked the Rhode Island government to put the heat on the state funded schools to insist on academic diversity.
It is not the business of the state to tell private institutions what constitutes a proper academic environment, but these are state institutions. Thus, it is not only proper but paramount for the legislature to adopt a similar academic bill of rights for the state's university and its colleges, as these schools seem disinclined to confront their failings on their own.
We shall see.

ADDENDUM: A "source" tells us that, thanks in large part to the efforts of Brian Bishop, RI State Senator Kevin Breene will be submitting a bill that will allow the RI Board of Governors for Higher Education to implement an Academic Bill of Rights. Presumably, this will be applicable to all of the schools under the purview of the board: URI, RIC, and CCRI. When the bill becomes available online, we will post it here.

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I am privileged to be paid attention to in this venue. The bill in question should have a bill number tomorrow. In the meantime its text is brief and as follows:

16-5-4 of the General Laws in Chapter 16-59 entitled "Board of Governor for Higher Education" [the section laying out the powers and duties of the the board] is hereby amended to read as follows:
[snip- I'm leaving out the 13 existing duties]

to add:
(14)To adopt an academic bill of rights designed to ensure the academic freedom of students and faculty at the state's institutions of higher learning, such that grading and hiring will not be tainted by consideration of the political, reiligious, or nonreligious beliefs of studes or faculty, and designed to ensure that the state's educational campuses are an evnironment of open discourse lacking any qulity of indoctrination.


Since most of the charges to the Board of Higher Ed are vaguely directional rather than containing highly specific and regimented operating language it seemed the least controversial and most non-loaded way or essentially directing them to take up this issue, so the bill is not an explicit recitation of a particular bill of rights, either that adopted at Brown which is a variant of the model bill of rights from the Students for Academic Freedom site.

By way of clarifying, I do not believe that the Brown faculty spoke in opposition to the 'Academic Bill of Rights' when it was introduced at the Undergraduate Council of Students last year, but I infer from the outspoken support of many faculty members for the students who worked to prevent David Horowitz from appearing on campus that the faculty does not really hue to the principles of academic freedom.

BTW the way ,just to keep the message clear, the Foundation for Intellectual Diversity was formed at Brown University but is not a project under the umbrella of the university itself. I am campus brat, not a campus bigwig, but the idea and participating muscle are current underclassmen and recent graduates.

As was noted on this blog in a recent post, the embarrassing reputation of Brown nationally as the icon of one-sided academic thought as well as the on campus agitating of this small classically liberal corps of students I think helped propel President Simmons remarkable remarks (sorry about that) to open this term.

With the crush of news and opinion on this issue and the introduction of this legislation I will be devoting an hour of Rule Free Radio on AM 1320 to the issue next Tuesday. The show currently airs from 11-noon.

Brian (Bishop)

BTW- great article supporting Larry Summers outlier behavior at Harvard (And regretting his retreat) from the Christian Science Monitor of all supposedly neutral but unabashedly leftist publications:

I know decorum suggest posting links but this is the text of the article since I never know how long the link will be good:

Summers and the arrogant bandwagon
By Jonathan Zimmerman
NEW YORK Earlier this month, Harvard University president Lawrence Summers suggested that male-female differences in math and science achievement might have biological causes. Angry professors in his audience walked out, alumni threatened to withhold donations, and Mr. Summers was forced to issue several solemn apologies.
So let's suppose that he had proposed a biological basis for sexual orientation, not for math and science ability. Would anyone have objected?
Of course not. Watching this episode unfold, you can understand why so many people hold university professors in contempt these days. They think we're smug, arrogant, and intellectually dishonest.
And here's a little secret: They're right.
Most professors - myself included - are zealous proponents of equal rights for homosexuals. Some Christian conservatives claim that gays can be converted into straights through a combination of religion and therapy. So good-hearted academics often embrace the possibility of a so-called gay gene, if only to rebut this right-wing attack.
When it comes to gender, however, biological explanations are taboo among my academic colleagues. For many centuries, men have justified the lowly status of women by arguing that the female intellect is inherently inferior. Lest professors stand accused of promoting discrimination, then, we must assert that every observable gender difference comes from our environment rather than from our selves.
But this dogma - indeed, every dogma - runs counter to the true spirit of a university. To advance knowledge, we need to examine the fullest range of evidence and explanation. And we must acknowledge that people of equal intellect and good will can reason from the same facts to different conclusions.
That's precisely the spirit that Summers's critics seem to have lost. He simply asked them to consider the possibility that biology caused some male-female achievement differences. Clearly, though, their minds are closed to any theory that differs from their own.
One can only imagine how the professors who condemned Summers would react if one of their own students made a similar suggestion in class. Actually, you don't have to imagine it. You can just read about this season's other big academic controversy, involving professors of Middle East studies at Columbia University.
According to a student-made documentary film, several of the professors have "intimidated" Jewish students by making anti-Israel comments. Most other faculty members have leapt to the professors' defense, claiming that the charges threaten "academic freedom."
Never mind that few of these folks rallied to defend the academic freedom of Lawrence Summers, or of people who might agree with him. The real issue is not whether the Columbia professors should be free to voice their opinions - of course they should be - but whether their students feel free to disagree with them.
Clearly, many students at Columbia don't. One student who had served in the Israeli army says that a professor asked him how many Palestinians he had killed, a charge that the professor vehemently denies. Others complain that faculty members routinely denounce Israel as "racist," which makes Jewish students particularly uncomfortable.
Of course, education should make students feel "uncomfortable." It should challenge their most basic beliefs, opinions, and assumptions. The problem arises when professors insist that students change their beliefs, especially as a condition for success in a class. Professors have every right to call Israel racist, in other words, but absolutely no right to judge students based on whether they agree.
That's what some students say has happened at Columbia, and they're hardly alone. According to a recent survey commissioned by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 3 out of 10 students at the nation's 50 top colleges believe they must conform to their professors' political opinions in order to get a good grade.
How can we arrest this troubling trend? A good first step might be a frank admission of professorial fallibility. We know more than our students, most of the time, but we don't have all of the answers. Do different male-female achievement levels in science and math have a biological component, as Lawrence Summers suggested?
I rather doubt it, myself, but I'm really not sure. Shame on us for pretending that we are.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of 'Whose America: Culture Wars in the Public Schools.'

Posted by: Brian at February 9, 2005 2:40 PM

Thank you very much for clarification, input and good work. Keep it up!

Posted by: Marc Comtois at February 9, 2005 2:51 PM