Published December 16, 2008
A former student at the Rhode Island College School of Social Work is suing the school and several of his professors for discrimination, saying he was persecuted by the school's "liberal political machine" for being a conservative.
William Felkner, 45, says the New England college and six professors wouldn't approve his final project on welfare reform because he was on the "wrong" side of political issues and countered the school's "progressive" liberal agenda.
Felkner said his problems with his professors began in his first semester, in the fall of 2004, when he objected in an e-mail to one of his professors that the school was showing and promoting Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" on campus. He said he objected because no opposing point of view was presented.
He said Professor James Ryczek wrote to him on Oct. 15, 2004, saying he was proud of his bias and questioning Felkner's ability to "fit with the profession."
"I think the biases and predilections I hold toward how I see the world and how it should be are why I am a social worker. In the words of a colleague, I revel in my biases," he wrote.
Felkner's complaint, filed two years ago, alleges that Ryczek discriminated against him for his conservative viewpoint and gave him bad grades because of it in several classes. It also alleges discrimination by other professors and administrators.
Felkner said he received failing grades in Ryczek's class for holding viewpoints opposed to the progressive direction of the class.
Felkner says he was also discriminated against by Professor Roberta Pearlmutter, who he says refused to allow him to participate in a group project lobbying for a conservative issue because the assignment was to lobby for a liberal issue. He alleges that Perlmutter spent a 50-minute class "assailing" his views and allowed students to openly ridicule his conservative positions, and that she reduced his grade because he was not "progressive."
The Rhode Island College School of Social Work did not respond to a request for comment.
Felkner, a self-proclaimed free-market conservative, told FOXNews.com that during his final year, he wanted to do a project on "work first" welfare, which requires that recipients get jobs before they can get benefits. He said the school advocated an "education first" system, in which recipients get job training and don't have to work for benefits.
"Basically it was a system that resulted in 2 percent of [Rhode Island's] recipients being on welfare for over 10 years. It was just not working," Felkner said. While at the college he had an internship with the governor's office on public policy to work on welfare reform.
The social work organizing and policy degree program requires a student to complete a project that works for "progressive social change." He was scheduled to complete his project in January, but he said the defendants' actions kept him from finishing and graduating.
"There were two years worth of discrimination really, there's no better way to put it, because I had different views than the school does," Felkner said. "It's kind of insane to think that someone studying how to help the poor can't research welfare reform."
Felkner also alleges in his complaint that the school's treatment of him restricted his ability to express his opinions and that his bad grades damaged his professional reputation and would make it difficult for him to get a job as a social worker.
Kim Strom-Gottfried, professor of social work at U.N.C. Chapel Hill, said that faculty members should not impose their politics on students.
"My bottom line is I think clearly as faculty we have to appraise our students based on required competencies and demonstrations of that, whether critical thinking or whatever, but there shouldn't be a belief litmus test for joining the profession or for an assignment," Strom-Gottfried said.
"The questions I have in cases such as his — why would someone choose to affiliate with a profession that's so at odds with his beliefs and his value-base? That's always a question for me," she said.
Bruce Thyer, professor of social work and former dean at the College of Social Work at Florida State University, has written about discrimination against conservatives and against evangelical Christians in social work. He said discrimination hurts the profession.
"I have seen students actively discouraged from perusing social work because of their politically conservative views. I've also seen it happen with students who have held strong religious views," he said. "I think that the profession is a great and noble discipline and there are occasional episodes like this that cast a black eye, and it's really unnecessary."
Thyer said liberal and conservative social workers have the same goal — to help people — and that the school overstepped its bounds in Felkner's case.
"I think it's an overzealous faculty wishing to impose their own political views upon those of their students, and that's unfortunate because there are many areas in which liberal and conservative thinkers within the discipline of social work have so much to agree upon," he said. "Nobody's advocating, certainly not Bill Felkner, that people not be helped."
The college filed a motion for summary judgment this summer, but it was recently denied by the court. Felkner said the school is now seeking a settlement.
He said he would still like to receive his masters in social work, and he is still working on government policy on social welfare programs in Rhode Island through the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, which he founded after leaving the school.
"You can say what you want about the war on poverty and how it's going, but I think that it hasn't gone well and I think there are better alternatives, and I think it was a shame I wasn't even allowed to research and pursue those interests," Felkner said. "It's indoctrination."