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Professor, Is There Room On The Right? By: Linda Borg
Projo.com | Monday, November 15, 2004


Bill Felkner, 41, is a husband, a father and a student of social work.

He is also a political libertarian who says he has liberal views on social issues and conversative views on economics.

Felkner, of Hopkinton, says his political beliefs have put him in conflict with the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College, where he is pursuing a master's degree.

The department, he says, has a liberal bias with little tolerance for ideas that deviate from the progressive "norm."

Further, Felkner sees himself in the middle of a much larger debate over free expression at college campuses across the country.

Last fall, the president of Roger Williams University temporarily froze funds for a student newsletter after a group of conservative students published several antigay articles and images that the college deemed offensive.

Three years ago, Brown University made national headlines when a band of students stole 4,000 copies of the student newspaper after it ran an ad by conservative author David Horowitz opposing slavery reparations.

At Rhode Island College, the controversy began with a movie, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, a documentary deeply critical of the Bush administration. A professor in the School of Social Work showed the film to his students. Felkner, who was not in a class where the movie was showed, rented it.

Afterward, Felkner asked one of his professors, Jim Ryczek, to show a movie called FahrenHYPE 9/11, which challenges Moore's point of view.

Ryczek, in an e-mail to Felkner, declined to show the movie in his class, but said Felkner was welcome to show it on campus. (FahrenHYPE 9/11 was later shown in several classes taught by another professor.)

Then Ryczek sent an e-mail to Felkner telling him:

"I will be the first to admit a bias toward a certain point of view. . . . In the words of a colleague, I revel in my biases.

"So I think anyone who consistently holds antithetical views to those espoused by the profession might ask themselves whether social work is the profession for them. . . . "

Ryczek concluded by saying, "I don't want you to think that I am suggesting that you are such a person. But then again, you may be. Only you can make that determination."

Felkner says the e-mail made him very angry:

"Knowing Jim, I doubt he meant it as a threat. I think he was saying, 'This is a world of liberals. You won't feel comfortable here.' "

Ryczek says he never meant to imply that Felkner wouldn't make a good social worker.

"My message was, 'Let's talk about your point of view.' I wasn't saying he should leave the profession," he says.

According to Ryczek, social workers are committed to helping poor and oppressed communities become empowered to make positive changes. That theory, he says, "is not consistent with the most conservative views."

Ryczek believes, for example, that a comprehensive welfare state is the optimal form of government.

"I talk about my views," he says. "The students need to decide whether they agree with them and whether they belong in social work."

Meanwhile, Felkner e-mailed the chairs of the graduate and undergraduate schools of social work and contacted the president of the college, John Nazarian.

Late last month, he met with the two chairs, Lenore Olsen and Mildred Bates, to discuss what he called the "liberal agenda exhibited by the faculty and how these implicit pressures from authority figures can be oppressive."

"I would say that the department has a liberal core of values," says Olsen, who chairs the master's of social work program. "It comes down to whether someone is able to balance their beliefs with the values of the profession."

According to the National Association of Social Workers code of ethics, social workers should "pursue social change, particularly on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people."

Bates, who chairs the bachelor's program, says, for example, that the profession supports abortion rights because it believes that every person has the right to make choices about his or her life. A student could feel differently as long as she didn't impose her personal values on her clients.

Dan Weisman, the professor who showed Fahrenheit 9/11, says most social workers believe that government plays an important role in securing the well-being of all its citizens -- a position that conservatives might oppose.

"We never tell students, 'This is what you must think,' " Weisman says. "No one is penalized for embracing a view I disagree with. But if you embrace certain values, you will be challenged when you enter this profession because they oppose what the profession dictates."

According to a poll of 1,000 adults by The Chronicle of Higher Education, half of those surveyed agree that colleges improperly introduce a liberal bias into what they teach.

In another survey by UCLA, faculty members described themselves as "far left" or "liberal" more than 2 1/2 times as often as "far right" or "conservative."

Marc Genest, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island, says liberal orthodoxy is the standard at most colleges and universities in the Northeast.

"I am the only conservative in my department," he says. "And I can only name three or four moderate to conservative faculty in the liberal arts."

A colleague once asked Genest to speak to her graduate class because none of her students could understand why anyone would be a conservative. Whenever a student presents a conservative view, Genest says, "the labels come out," and he or she is called a racist or a sexist.

A fellow political scientist, Howard Zinn of Boston University, counters that most universities are stolid places that are resistant to change.

"Conservatives," he says, "seem to get really irritated if they find any sign of liberal thought."

Zinn says academic freedom doesn't mean that a professor has to present both sides of an argument, but that the university as a whole serves up opinions that span the political spectrum.

"I always presented my views openly," he says. "But I never shut up a student who disagreed with me, or gave him a poor grade."

At Brown University, dean of the college Paul Armstrong says it would be a shame if students felt they couldn't express a contrarian point of view.

"We're not doing our job as educators if we do not promote intellectual diversity," he says. "We benefit as intellectuals by learning how to engage in productive conflict."

That said, Armstrong wants faculty members to have strong and reasoned opinions; otherwise, he says, "they wouldn't be the dynamic teachers we expect them to be."

Meanwhile, at Rhode Island College, faculty members have been trying to make Felkner feel more comfortable. Olsen and Bates offered to set up a meeting between Felkner and Ryczek. Nazarian, the college president, invited Felkner to speak with him about his concerns.

Felkner turned them down.

"In my experience," Weisman says, "he's looking for fights and he's finding them."

Felkner, however, says there is no point in having more conversation unless the School of Social Work does one of two things: say "Yes, we are liberals and that's what we teach," or open up the department to other points of view.

Felkner says: "The National Association of Social Work is clearly liberal. The problem is, not everyone is. There is no reason why any profession should have a mandated political point of view."




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