Fear and loathing at Smith
Is racism infecting the operations of the graduate social work program at Smith College, or has the leafy campus in left-leaning Northampton become the latest flash point for overblown charges that are chilling free speech at institutions that are supposed to be havens of healthy debate and exchanges of views?
The controversy brewing at Smith centers on two letters from faculty members to the school’s administration, which were recently leaked, that students say betray racist messages. One letter was written by social work professor Dennis Miehls, the other was from an anonymous group of adjunct faculty.
Miehls, whose letter went to the dean of the social work program, Marianne Yoshioka, criticized the school’s attempts to diversify its student body by admitting students “who do not have a reasonable chance of success in our program.” Miehls goes on, however, to suggest that the program’s admissions policies are accepting too many unqualified students of all backgrounds. “Why do you, as administrators, continue to offer differential outcomes to students of color, in spite of overwhelming data that demonstrates that many of our students, including white-identified students, cannot offer clients a social work intervention that is based upon competence, skills, and ethics,” he writes.
The letter from adjunct faculty, which was sent to the college’s president, Kathleen McCartney, conveyed a similar message. “What many people are thinking but afraid to say is that when students are admitted who do not have the academic qualifications to do well enough in a rigorous, demanding, stressful program … these students are being set up for failure particularly when we do not provide adequate support of all types as they pass through the program,” it read. “There is clearly something terribly faulty with the admission policy when scores of students develop, from the very start, serious problems in both their academic performance and their field experience.”
In a story earlier this month in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, some students suggested they were being penalized for their political views. One student, Susana Gomez, complained that her work had been criticized for trying to work with clients in an “anti-oppressive.” way, and that the school did not support her wish to approach social work in a way that isn’t “oppressive and redactive.”
Miehls, in his letter, seems to hint at frustration with just that sort of thinking. “We are supposed to be training students to be clinicians who are serving the needs of clients — in contrast to serving their own needs,” he says.
The Globe weighs in today with an editorial on the dispute over the school’s approach to social work training. “Not every dispute warrants a social-justice crusade,” the paper says. The paper says there are lots of legitimate and important conversations on race taking place across the country. “In some instances, though, students caught up in the fervor of campus activism are reading oppression into innocuous situations, such as a Yale residential administrator’s suggestion that students not take boorish Halloween costumes too seriously. The letters at Smith raise the latter possibility.”
“When every disagreement turns ideological, and when people with even slightly dissenting opinions are wary of speaking up, universities don’t just suffer intellectually,” the paper continues.”They also stop functioning as institutions, because disagreements and problems can only get worse when people don’t talk about them.”
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