A Department Skewered

Missouri State asks outside experts to analyze controversial social work program -- and the results aren't pretty.
April 9, 2007

Complaints about the social work program at Missouri State University have led to the release of a report that is unusually harsh for a public critique of a department, saying that many professors engage in bullying and are unproductive. The report, released Friday, is the fallout from a dispute last year in which a student said that a class assignment forced her to adopt views inconsistent with her religious beliefs.

Michael T. Nietzel, president of the university, issued a statement Friday in which he called the report "as negative a review of an academic program as I have ever seen," noting that he has been involved in accreditation reviews for 20 years and so has seen plenty of critical reports.

Among the findings of the report on the department, which was conducted by social work deans from Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville:

  • Both students and faculty members express fears of "voicing differing opinions from the instructor or colleague," especially but not limited to "spiritual and religious matters."
  • The term "bullying" was used "by both students and faculty to characterize specific faculty" and "it appears that faculty have no history of intellectual discussion/debate. Rather, differing opinions are taken personally and often result in inappropriate discourse."
  • Tenure and promotion criteria are "too vague," without "clear teaching, research and service markers for tenure or promotion." As a result, "personal feelings" rather than "objective criteria" are used in these decisions.
  • "The faculty are incredibly underproductive particularly in the areas of research, scholarship and service. Given the small class size and small advising load that they carry (compared to other schools of their size) the faculty should be much more productive. It seems that their time is spent in meetings and endless processing rather than productive activities which could move the school forward."

Etta Madden, acting chair of the department, said that the professors in social work were taking the report seriously and had already started informal discussions and planning meetings to figure out how to make improvements in the program. Madden said that faculty members were surprised by "the pervasiveness" of the problems outlined in the report.

Madden is a tenured professor of English who was brought in last year as an interim leader, a position that she has agreed to hold for another year. She said professors didn't want to comment on specific criticisms in the report. It's "pretty obvious," she said, that people are not happy about the report. But Madden also said that the outside reviewers were well respected in the field.

On the issue of whether there is a party line (and an anti-religious one at that), Madden said that there "is a diversity of views." She said that the department members "don't talk about how we are voting" in political elections, but she said that based on discussions she has had, "there is a mixture of faith perspectives" in the department, including professors for whom religion is important.

In his statement, Nietzel said that he hoped the department could fix the problems, but that it would only have a "short timeframe" to do so. He said some steps under consideration include a freeze on tenure decisions and on hiring.

Nietzel said he was particularly concerned about how students were being treated. "I also believe that these events and the results of the evaluation that they required must return us to one of the first principles of education: Students must be treated fairly and with respect; it is the bare minimum for being a teacher," he said.


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