Experiences of Discrimination in Indiana University’s School of Social Work

This is one in a series of posts describing what happened when I filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education (DoE) against Indiana University (IU), and particularly against the School of Social Work (SSW) on IU’s Indianapolis campus (IUPUI). The preceding post is the introduction, the first post in this series. That one links up with a separate series discussing my remarkable experiences at IU in more detail. That series includes a post that discusses the justice-related aspects of those experiences, in terms of legal and quasi-legal resources available at or below the state level. The present series focuses on the federal level — specifically, on the complaint that I filed with DoE’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in June 2009.

The complaint that I sent to OCR was long. I wrote it up as a memo designed to address a variety of issues. As noted in the preceding post, I sent copies to accreditors and others who had responsibility for overseeing IU in relevant regards. I hoped they would respond to the complaint’s presentation of issues for which they had responsibility. They did not. OCR proved to be the only agency that paid any significant attention to the complaint. Hence, this post provides a revised statement of the original complaint’s discrimination-oriented materials falling within OCR’s particular area of concern. The next post in this series takes up some additional matters from the original complaint.

When I say that this post provides a revised statement of certain aspects of the original complaint, I mean that what I have presented here is rewritten to be more focused on discrimination, and to include information that came to light subsequently. As such, what this post provides is not a historical snapshot of the document that I filed in 2009, but rather an updated and more refined statement of discrimination issues identified in that document. In that sense, this post is not definitive. It is more of a work in progress.

The original complaint presented a number of facts about my experience at IU. As noted above, I have already prepared a separate series of posts discussing such facts. This post does not attempt another detailed presentation of those underlying facts. The focus here is on principles — on some of the many ways in which IU faculty and administrators violated relevant laws, rules, ethical principles, and other guidelines. It did seem that a nation’s Department of Education would be concerned about that sort of thing. In the original complaint, citations to such guidelines appeared in footnotes. Since footnotes are a challenge in a blog post, I have presented footnote material in bracketed, italicized, indented text.

* * * * *

COMPLAINT

From: Ray Woodcock, PhD Student

Original Date: June 1, 2009

Subject: My Experience in the PhD Program in the School of Social Work (SSW) at Indiana University – Purdue University – Indianapolis (IUPUI), October 2008 through May 2009

This memorandum, and the issues it identifies, have grown from what should have been a minor problem – what could, indeed, have been a positive learning opportunity. Small problems do not usually grow into large ones, in an organizational setting, when the organization manages them appropriately and proactively. IU failed to exercise such management in this case.

The problems identified in this memo can be characterized in several ways – educational, for example, and ethical, and legal. Each has multiple aspects. In the legal sphere, for instance, there are issues of free speech, defamation, educational malpractice, and discrimination, among others; and those have their sub-issues. Within discrimination alone, for example, there are age, gender, race, sexual preference, and disability aspects.

Again, there were many, many things wrong at IU. There are more than 1,000 pages of documentation pertaining to this case, and that documentation is far from complete. It will not be possible to provide a comprehensive analysis of the scope of those problems. This memo can only introduce them.

[This document cites a number of official codes and other documents by shorthand references. Those materials include the Ethical Standards (ES) found in the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics (referred to here as the NASW Code) (2008); IUPUI’s Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities, and Conduct (the Student Code); the GADE Guidelines for Quality in Social Work Doctoral Programs (2003); the IU Academic Handbook; the IUPUI SSW Ph.D. Student Handbook; the IU Code of Academic Ethics ; IU’s Statement of Values; and the Higher Learning Commission’s (HLC) Handbook of Accreditation (3rd ed., 2003) (the HLC Handbook), containing the Criteria for Accreditation (the HLC Criteria). (HLC accredits IUPUI. The Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) does not accredit social work Ph.D. programs. See D. Stoesz & H. J. Karger (2009), “Reinventing Social Work Accreditation,” Research on Social Work Practice, 19(1), p. 104.)]

Driving Out the Heterosexual White Males

In an era when men have been moving away from traditionally male areas of employment (e.g., construction, manufacturing) and into service employment, one might expect that social work would have become more diverse in terms of gender. This has not happened. To the contrary, the proportion of men in social work has been cut in half during the past several decades. The profession has become one of the last strongholds of an outmoded, anti-male second-wave feminism. This appears to be a key reason why, at present, fewer than 15% of social workers are male.

[IUPUI’s Statement of Values says, “IUPUI is committed to the personal and professional development of a diverse campus community of students, faculty, and staff; to continuous improvement of its programs and services; and to building a strong, welcoming campus community for all.” NASW Code ES 4.02 says, “Social workers should not practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of . . . gender identity or expression . . . .”]

The first point at which male PhD students are driven out is simply that many who could have been candidates never start in the first place. The second point is that many who could make valuable contributions to social work through their training in related fields (ranging from sociology and psychology to law and business) are not eligible for social work PhD programs, in particular, because many such programs parochially require MSW degrees as a condition of entry, and the experience of completing an MSW is sufficient to teach many men how they will be treated if they continue in this profession. The third point is that those who do enter a social work PhD program are very likely to encounter indications that they are not welcome, or worse. In net terms, they can experience frightening levels of attrition. According to an August 5, 2008 document distributed to IUSSW PhD students titled “2008-2009 Pre-Doc & PhD Students & Graduates,” male PhD graduates accounted for less than 5% of the people who had entered the social work PhD program at IUPUI.

Some men do persevere at the doctoral level, and are able to hunt for a job on a social work faculty. Their sex can be an issue at this level as well. For example, as of May 6, 2009, the list of IUPUI faculty and staff indicated that the SSW employed 9 men and 22 women in non-emeritus instructional capacities. The men were all fiftyish or older. All junior faculty were female. In other words, it had been many years since the school had hired even one young male PhD. This pattern did not change until after I filed my original complaint with the Department of Education, stating these facts. Even now, the only substantial change has been that the SSW has absorbed the formerly separate Labor Studies department, which had a number of male professors. Generally, those people do not teach social work classes.

[The GADE Guidelines require doctoral faculty to be “diverse enough in gender, race/ethnicity, philosophical perspectives, methodological expertise, areas of substantive knowledge and other characteristics to meet students’ learning and professional development needs” (p. 6).]

Finally, if the male PhD graduate is able to obtain a position on a social work faculty, he may encounter a highly oppressive environment. It was reported that male professors at IUSSW could not so much as sit down for a cup of coffee with one another without drawing sex-based remarks from female colleagues.

My classmates and I witnessed a telling example of what it could be like to be a male faculty member in IUSSW when, in one of our doctoral seminars, Dr. Bob Vernon led the obligatory session on feminism. It was interesting, first of all, that he did consider that topic obligatory. I had previously audited a course on sociological theory, taught by a well-known sociology professor at IU, who began a similar unit by asking his students whether they even considered feminism relevant anymore. For Bob, that sort of question was impossible. He had to teach a unit on that subject. Moreover, he felt that he had to teach it in the most defensive manner possible: by reading to us from a journal article written by a prominent feminist scholar. Bob evidently felt that he dared not venture his own opinions. As he told me on another occasion, his 30 years of teaching in social work had persuaded him that gender was a “third rail” issue — referring, there, to the electric rail that powers subway lines. Basically, do not touch. That certainly had been my experience, too, in the 1970s, but it was dismaying that social work education was still in that time warp.

Bob readily admitted that his male students tended to be very quiet when he taught his unit on feminism. That was true in our class. Discussion was dominated by Gladys, who had been a women’s studies undergraduate. Bruce, the gay white male student, ventured several comments, but his body was turned more toward Gladys than toward Bob, and in his last comment he seemed to be uncertain of whether he was using words that Gladys would approve. There were a few remarks by dark-skinned international students. The two heterosexual white males in that class were completely silent for the entire three hours. It did not appear that this kind of education would be at all effective in teaching the next generation of American male social work professors to understand, care about, or otherwise develop competence in the subject matter.

[IUPUI’s Student Code section I.B. gives students the right to study, work, and interact in an environment that is free from discrimination in violation of law or university policy. Student Code I.C. defines discriminatory harassment as “conduct that targets an individual based upon . . . sex or gender . . . and that adversely affects” his/her participation in university activities or unreasonably creates “an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.”]

Lest I generate too much sympathy for Bob, I should add that male professors in schools of social work were not mere victims. Such professors were perfectly capable of turning right around and inflicting comparable oppression on male students and junior male faculty members. It was as if they were acting out some primeval male inclination to drive away potential challengers. I encountered some issues of that nature with Bob. Bob’s example seemed to indicate — as a social scientist might expect — that an otherwise innocuous male professor, put into that anti-male environment, would encounter strong peer pressure to harm male students. One could even encounter white male social work professors who would carry on as though they, themselves, were not white males.

[As an example of this sort of stereotyping in social work literature, consider W. L. Neuman & L. W. Kreuger (2003), Social Work Research Methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (Boston: Pearson, p. 429): “The Euro-male viewpoint reflects the role of capitalism in Western civilization with its emphasis on products, competition, performance, and achievement, whereas the non-Euro-male viewpoint looks more to process, cooperation, and extended family obligations that include benevolence and sharing.” The authors themselves are so-called Euro males.*]

All of my semester grades, in my years of social work graduate education, were either A or A–. There were two exceptions in which the professors gave me grades of B+. Both of those grades were unfair; both of the professors in question were senior white males. Dr. Jim Daley was the only such professor at IUSSW. Daley was the most overtly hostile professor I have ever had. His hostility seems to have been present before he even met me. It certainly appeared that he had a prejudgment toward me that did not originate from any ethical decision process.

This is not to say that those male professors were the only ones guilty of unfair grading. During my three years of master’s and PhD-level study prior to my arrival at IU’s SSW, with the exception of grades from one other senior white male professor, my GPA was 4.0 (not counting one grade of A+). By a show of hands in a class populated by 16 doctoral-level students, I was the only one who had published articles in peer-reviewed social work journals. And yet, at the SSW, every female professor gave me an A–. At the same time, several of those professors gave A grades to female students who were doing inferior work. One classmate rather brazenly acknowledged, for example, that she “never” did the assigned reading and still got straight A grades.

[IU Code of Academic Ethics A.I. says, “Respecting students as individuals, the teacher seeks to establish a relationship of mutual trust …. The teacher makes every effort … to assure that the evaluation of students’ scholastic performance reflects their true achievement.” NASW Code ES 3.03 says, “Social workers who have responsibility for evaluating the performance of others should fulfill such responsibility in a fair and considerate manner and on the basis of clearly stated criteria.”]

In the foregoing remarks, I have distinguished heterosexual white male (HWM) students from heterosexual white females and from white male professors, in terms of the treatment doled out to the HWM students. I have noted that there were two HWM students in Bob Vernon’s class. That other fellow and I were the only HWMs in my cohort. It is no coincidence that he and I were the only students in my cohort whose funding was either curtailed prematurely or not extended to a third year despite eminent academic potential.

[The GADE Guidelines say, “[A]n adequate level and duration of financial support is required in order for students to undertake doctoral study. This is particularly true in social work, where individuals often commence the doctorate in mid-career” (p. 11).]

I should also distinguish us (i.e., these two HWMs) from the international students. At IUSSW, “international” invariably meant Asian and/or dark-skinned (i.e., not whites from abroad), consistent with IUSSW’s palpable eagerness to demonstrate that its own considerable whiteness was openminded. IUSSW had a habit of favoring international students over domestic ones — granting them better financing, for instance, and making significant efforts to help them overcome barriers and to proceed on to graduation. In other words, IUSSW spent a substantial amount of time and effort to give PhDs to students who did not plan to remain in Indiana — who might not even plan to remain in the U.S. — while curtailing the careers of these two HWMs who were Indiana-born and -raised.

These remarks sketch out some of the ways in which my identity as a HWM formed the basis for discriminatory treatment at IUSSW. The next post goes into some specific instances. This post now turns to a second cluster of discriminatory behaviors in my IUSSW experience.

Stigmatizing Intelligence and Experience
as Indicia of Mental Disorder

Generally speaking, universities are supposed to look favorably upon intelligence. Universities are less clearly linked with experience: people who have expertise often get a better reception out in the real world. If they do enter or return to the university, they usually aren’t even given academic credit for what they have learned. In weak departments, intelligent and experienced people can run into trouble if they dare to advance arguments inconsistent with their professors’ opinions, especially if their arguments are solid enough to cast doubt upon professors who paint themselves in colors too omniscient.

In my case, having helped me to obtain a prestigious University Fellowship, IUSSW was not in a position to deny my intellectual suitability for doctoral work. Indeed, in a statement provided to OCR on December 4, 2009, IUSSW admitted, “Mr. Woodcock is capable of the intellectual demands of a Ph.D. program in Social Work.” And yet, a year later, they failed my qualifying paper without providing the required explanations, and they rejected my attempts to communicate with them about that. If I was smart enough to do the work, why were they so determined to flunk my paper and keep it flunked, and so unwilling to have an ordinary discussion about it?

[The IUSSW Ph.D. Handbook (p. 13) calls for an annual review of student progress in which the student’s primary academic advisor tells the student what has been said about him/her at faculty review meetings, discusses “any obstacle that may be inhibiting the student’s progress,” and “sets forth a specific educational plan for the following academic year.” Further, “It is the responsibility of the primary advisor to schedule [this] meeting.” I have had no such meetings during my years in that program.]

That statement to OCR, regarding my intellectual suitability for doctoral work, was part of a larger paragraph provided by IUSSW in response to my original complaint. The full paragraph read as follows:

It is the School’s position that any difficulties Mr. Woodcock encountered in the Ph.D. program were due primarily to his inability to get along well with others and to his behavioral propensity to assail his fellow students, the faculty and administrators in a relentless, adversarial manner. In sum, although Mr. Woodcock is capable of the intellectual demands of a Ph.D. program in Social Work, he has not demonstrated the behavioral competence to interact successfully with students and faculty and blames others for his own failures.

Perhaps some people will take a statement like that at face value. Accusations of mental illness have often been used by dictatorial regimes (e.g., Joseph Stalin’s USSR) to eliminate people who express inconvenient views.

In this case, however, a critical reader may notice some problems. For one thing, behavioral issues were not cited as any part of the reason for the flunking of my qualifying paper. In other words, even if there had been a behavioral issue at the time of my complaint, it apparently played no role at the qualifying stage. The termination of my progress toward the PhD arose from unspecified reasons that were neither intellectual nor behavioral. In other words, the problem was on their side, not on mine.

But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that there had been a behavioral problem on my part at the time of my complaint. Why would that be relevant? The world has seen many brilliant people, making important contributions, who were irascible, bipolar, or otherwise mentally wretched. That is generally not what we would prefer. But there are things worth being irritated about, in life, and people have a lot to cope with. You have to cut them some slack. This seems especially obvious when the professors complaining about irritability are often the very ones who are making life appropriately or inappropriately difficult for their irritable students.

Higher education is not charm school. The SSW itself is testimony to this: there are some wretched people on its own faculty and staff. Ultimately, in the university, for better or worse, students are expected to show up, do the work, and get themselves through somehow. Dropout rates are already bad enough, without inventing a duty to smile.

In my case, at any rate, the accusation was completely false. I am a friendly guy. I do believe in smiling. I won competitive elections to the student senate every year in law school. I have written (and in some cases published) a fair amount of stuff that people have found entertaining. This is not the profile of a curmudgeon. Moreover, as demonstrated elsewhere, my PhD classmates and I (including even two of the three who would file complaints about me) were having good times, and developing some real camaraderie, on the PhD student listserv, right there in the SSW — until Michael Patchner and Margaret Adamek decided to kill that opportunity for interaction and, more broadly, to exclude me. How else can one explain an order prohibiting me from even talking to my own classmates?

Dean Patchner admitted that he was acquainted with our listserv posts. That is, he knew, and admitted, that what I wrote appeared to be harmless. Indeed, much of it was humorous. And yet he, or someone acting with his approval, submitted the false report shown above, in a formal document filed with the U.S. Department of Education.

What actually happened was that I fought back when Drs. Patchner et al. began to attack me. They didn’t like that. Graduate students are traditionally among the most disempowered people in the university. IUSSW was not comfortable with one who hesitated to lie down and be walked upon. So they told OCR (and have told others) that I had behavioral problems.

In a sense, they were right. I had the problem of behaving like a middle-aged person. In an email I obtained via Freedom of Information Act request, Dean Patchner said, “I wish we did discriminate on age. If so, we would never have admitted [Ray], and thus, never have all of these issues.” That was true. If he had engaged in age discrimination at the admissions stage, he would have seen no need to engage in it later. That is, if I had been a young person like most of my classmates, I would not have had the life experience that taught me that it can be dangerous to give power to abusive individuals. In other words, I might have behaved as they expected. Instead, I had the confidence and determination of prior education and experience. The comments provided by IUSSW to OCR (above) indicate that middle-aged behavior was not welcome and could be falsely characterized as a drawback when, in fact, it was the fruit of hard-won personal growth.

This raises another question. Among the ethical failings that pervade the SSW’s treatment of me and other students, the foregoing quote plainly disparages the behavioral difficulties that some students do experience. In other words, Dean Patchner’s school is presenting, to DoE, the impression that it was not willing and able to work with a person who would have a behavioral disability. That was decidedly inappropriate in social work. In this profession, we welcome and encourage people who have various sorts of disabilities or other imperfections. As noted in a number of social work journal articles (e.g., Watkinson & Chalmers, 2008; GlenMaye & Bolin, 2007; Stromwall, 2002), the determination of whether an established mental disability poses a barrier to social work training, or may instead be compatible with (or even enhance) such training, can be a difficult and nuanced one. It is a sign of sheer ignorance for the dean of a school of social work to toss out disability-based insinuations as if he were a middle-schooler, or to countenance such behavior by others speaking in the name of his school.

Social work ethics and educational principles aside, discrimination is illegal, including specifically discrimination on grounds of disability. In fact, it is illegal to discriminate on grounds of disability even when the person in question does not have an actual disability: unequal treatment arising from the act of regarding someone as disabled is prohibited in itself. In this, the SSW is clear: I encountered disparate treatment because I was regarded as having a behavioral disability. Whether real or imagined, that alleged difficulty made me a target, and that was against the law. And so you get a sense of the separate federal complaint mentioned above.

I don’t mean to suggest that the foregoing quote was the only instance in which SSW faculty and administrators made disparaging remarks of this nature. Although I have not attempted to fully catalog the facts of my case in these posts, another post does offer a second example. There, as here, a seat-of-the-pants diagnosis was offered, not for the therapeutic purposes for which such diagnoses are intended, but rather as a put-down — as a way of conveying that I was not one of “us” but, rather, one of “them” — the clients, the conservatives, the others out there who are to be pigeonholed as undesirable for one reason or another.

Again, this revised summary of the original complaint leaves out a substantial amount of other factual material, such as the ostracism and abuse that I experienced from faculty and fellow students, once Dean Patchner and Dr. Adamek made it known that I was being excommunicated. Other posts cited in this document flesh out the remarkable scope of the discriminatory behaviors I encountered.

Conclusion

There is a nasty dichotomy between social work ethics and business as usual in some SSWs; and as this complain demonstrates, IUSSW is particularly bad in that regard. I encountered discrimination in IUSSW based upon my race, sex, and sexual preference; and I also encountered discrimination in the SSW based upon age and perceived disability. This post clarifies those latter regards: I was targeted for disparate treatment because I behaved in an age-appropriate manner, rather than accept abusive treatment as I might have done at a younger age; and in response for doing so, I received unequal treatment based upon a perception of mental disability. I stood up in the first place, and was targeted for failing to back down, because I was questioning discrimination, by social workers, based on race, sex, and sexual preference — which is to say, I drew retaliation for being intelligent and inquisitive, in an attempt (mandated with social work ethics) to square these behaviors with our profession’s clear stand against such discrimination.

This is the gist of the arguments that I presented to OCR in the area of discrimination. As noted above, the next post contains additional materials developed from the original complaint.

___________

* Recent research rejects Kreuger’s postulate of a “non-Euro-male viewpoint.”

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