Leaked Faculty Letters Expose Racial Fault Lines at Smith’s Social-Work School

Steve Kolowich, Chronicle of Higher Education, August 18, 2016

A controversial pair of letters written by faculty members at Smith College’s School for Social Work and addressed to administrators there have inspired a protest and charges of racism by students. The letters, which were leaked to students by an unidentified source, revealed that some professors in the program are frustrated both by the admission of students they view as academically unprepared and by an administration they see as too willing to cave to student complaints.

“We must acknowledge that social work–like every other kind of work–is not for everyone,” says one of the letters, which is signed by “concerned adjuncts” at the graduate school.

Another letter, written by Dennis Miehls, a professor and department chair at the school, alludes to a “tainted” admissions process that let in students who were not well-equipped to succeed. Mr. Miehls did not respond to an email requesting comment.

In a note to students, the person who leaked the letters said that the language of the faculty complaints gave credence to a “climate of fear experienced by students of color at Smith,” and that exposing the letters would “facilitate transparency and accountability,” according to a report from Inside Higher Ed.

The rift between students and faculty members at the Smith graduate program is the latest example of tension between students who are not shy about asking for accommodations and professors who worry about indulging them to a fault. In the letters, the Smith professors complained that administrators were taking student grievances too seriously. Students shot back that the letters were racially insensitive.

The charges of racism are especially notable since they are aimed at a graduate program that has defined itself by an explicit commitment to fight racial bias.

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Over the last 30 years, Smith has been trying to gradually make the social-work program more diverse. In 1986 the school had 286 students; only three of them were not white. Spurred by a group of nonwhite alumni, the school began to focus on recruiting and enrolling more students of color, and in 1994 it created an Anti-Racism Task Force to keep the school focused on issues of race on campus and in the field of social work. In 2003 Smith hired Carolyn Jacobs to serve as the school’s first permanent African-American dean. (Ms. Jacobs, who retired two years ago, did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.)

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Between 1995 and 2014, the percentage of nonwhite students graduating from Smith with a master’s in social work rose to 32 percent from 13 percent, according to U.S. Education Department data. The percentage of black graduates, however, has fluctuated wildly, reaching a high of 14 percent in 2009 before falling to 2 percent in 2012 and climbing back to 9 percent in 2014.

The faculty letters paint a picture of a program beset by personal recriminations. “There has been a sense on campus that the School for Social Work administration is allowing the school to sink into chaos and to self-destruct,” write the adjunct professors. “It is now beginning to feel as if, by its own ineptitude, it is now facilitating that descent.”

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The letter writers argue at several points that the school’s administration has hurt faculty by acquiescing to student complaints. “I understand that many students of color are expressing concerns and outrage at how they perceive they have been treated at the School and in the field agencies,” writes Mr. Miehls, who has played a role in the school’s antiracism efforts. “Do any of you understand that student narratives may be exaggerated at this point and that the lack of direction from you is only fueling these concerns?”

Meanwhile the writers express concern about students who might not be qualified to graduate. The letter from Mr. Miehls suggests that Smith’s current social-work students lack talent regardless of race.

“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,” Mr. Miehls wrote.

The letter from the adjunct instructors also reflects a lack of faith in the abilities of the current crop of students, saying that they are being “set up for failure.”

The person who leaked the letters, along with students who staged a protest after the notes were circulated on campus, inferred racial bias in the language of the letters. Brianna Suslovic, a student at the school, singled out Mr. Miehls’s mention of a “tainted” admissions process when she posted the letters on her website, referring to the professor’s language as “a so-called objective observation about the racially-‘tainted’ nature of an admissions process that judges students with measures beyond the standardized, white-centric testing system.”

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