Professors at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. are being denounced as white supremacists after private messages were leaked in which they claim affirmative action sets up students for academic failure at the school.
The controversy in question concerns two letters sent by faculty in Smith’s School for Social Work to school administrators. Although the letters were initially private, they were leaked to students at the school by an unknown person, who said they wished to reveal the “violent, racist rhetoric directed toward students of color on the Smith campus.”
The first letter, sent by professor Dennis Miehls, warns that the school was failing in its “gatekeeper” function by admitting too many academically unprepared applicants.
“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,” Miehls said in his letter. Miehls went so far as to call the admissions process “tainted” because of how willing it was to admit unprepared non-white students.
A separate letter, signed only “Concerned Adjuncts,” isn’t as explicit about race, but voices similar concerns that lowered standards for certain groups were setting them up for failure.
“There is clearly something terribly faulty with the admission policy when scores of students develop, from the very start, serious problems in both their academic performance and their field experience,” the letter said. “What many people are thinking but afraid to say is that when students are admitted who do not have the academic qualifications to do well enough in a rigorous, demanding, stressful program … these students are being set up for failure.
“This is unethical and immoral,” the letter adds. “But beyond that, we must acknowledge that social work — like every other kind of work — is not for everyone, and we have to stop pretending that it can be.”
The claims in the letters reflect prior research that suggests affirmative action may hurt beneficiaries by sending them to schools they are underqualified for, where they are then outclassed by other students.
Both letters appear to have been well-intentioned, but since being leaked, they have caused a firestorm at Smith. The unknown person who leaked them said the letters demonstrated the existence of “white supremacist systems” at the school.
Hundreds of students held a public protest Tuesday, denouncing the alleged racism within the School for Social Work.
“We bear witness to the violence of racialized, differential treatment of students of color,” student Katherine Roubos said at the protest, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
Ironically, though, the protesters seem to share many facts with the complaining letters. Christopher Watkins, a protest leader, complained that a “disproportionate amount” of black and Hispanic students at the school have been placed under academic review, which seems to reflect the situation the letters complained about. The protesting students, though, believe their poorer performance reflects systemic racism in the school, rather than lower overall readiness.
Smith, for its part, has tried to stymie the controversy by releasing a statement affirming the school’s commitment to anti-racism and social justice.
“The Smith College School for Social Work is one of the most selective social work programs in the country,” Dean Marianne Yoshioka told InsideHigherEd. “Our standards are exceptionally high for those we admit, and we take pride in each of our highly intelligent, capable and compassionate students, particularly throughout the recent campus involvement they have encouraged. For the past year, prompted by these students, we as a community have been engaged in important, productive and collaborative work to continually evolve as an antiracism organization … We are clinical professionals specifically committed to social justice and systemic change.”
Yoshioka didn’t say whether the school will be pursuing disciplinary action against Miehls or anybody else at the school.
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