September 22, 2017

Social Workers Fight For Department’s Survival

Social Work/Sociology professors at departmental event. Courtesy of Jenna Good.

This is one article in a series explaining changes at Gordon College, called Define: Gordon

By: Liam Adams ‘17

Staff Writer

The Social Work Department has undergone several difficulties in the past year, especially with the departure of James Trent and Judith Oleson in the summer of 2015.  

An Introduction to Trent and Oleson

Before July 2014, the Social Work Department experienced relative stability. There were four full-time Social Work professors and two full-time Sociology professors that taught Social Work students.  

Trent was at Gordon for 13 years and Oleson for 10 years. Trent was a professor and the Director of the Social Work Program, and Oleson was an Associate Professor and the Field Program Coordinator for students participating in their practicums. Both professors held tenured positions.  

James Trent. Courtesy of James Trent.

Trent taught a variety of classes including “Power, Prestige and Poverty,” “Research Methods” and “Theory and Practice: Groups and Organizations.” In addition to teaching, Trent wrote: Mental Retardation in America: A Historical Reader (edited with Steven Noll), 2004, and The Manliest Man: Samuel G. Howe and the Contours of Nineteenth-Century American Reform, 2012.  

Trent, commenting on his experience as a professor, said, “Wonderful students, my departmental colleagues were wonderful, the Social Work/Sociology Department was pretty stable.”

He continued, “Gordon students were earnest, they cared. In the Social Work program, the agencies all over the North Shore want Gordon students. DCF [Department of Children and Families], which is a public agency, adores Gordon students.”

Moira Tescher ‘16 stated in an email that Trent “was extremely open to discussion and encouraged our critical thinking and original thought. Trent was a fantastic model for social work. He embodied the values of the social work profession and always gave credit and respect to the history of social work.”

Juwan Campbell ’15 stated in an email, “Ultimately, the man was a genius. He would walk into class, exclaim that he forgot his notes, and then proceed to give a two hour lecture on the history of disability within the United States and Europe, without ever coming up for air… One could argue that he actually knew too much on the topic (if there were ever such a thing). Gordon definitely had a gem in their midst.”

Oleson taught “The Theory and Practice of Groups and Organizations” and “Field Seminars.” She was also the Field Program Coordinator, a job which involved partnering Social Work students with agencies throughout the greater Boston and San Francisco areas for their senior full time social work practice.

Judith Oleson. Courtesy of Judith Oleson.

An advocate for experiential learning, Oleson said, “I have a very strong bias towards the integration of theory and practice, so our community partners were essential to the social work program.”

Drawing from her experience studying and researching reconciliation processes, Oleson co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Minor alongside Daniel Johnson.

Oleson demonstrated her prioritization of the integration of theory and practice when she led multiple trips to Canada to study reconciliation between First Nations people and other Canadian citizens, which was funded by the Institute for the Study and Practice of Peace.

The Peace and Conflict Studies Minor was created as an interdisciplinary program that included faculty from the Philosophy, Sociology, Communication Arts, and Political Science departments.

In addition to developing and teaching courses in Peacemaking and Reconciliation, Oleson oversaw the internship program with both local and international partners, providing opportunities for applied learning in mediation and conflict transformation. Furthermore, she assisted James and Petra Taylor in launching their semester abroad in the Study of War and Peace in the Balkans, which contributed to the minor.

Oleson, commenting on the Peace and Conflict Studies Minor, said, “I feel very positive about the contribution and was very blessed to have an opportunity to develop it as a minor so that any student, regardless of their major, would be able to understand the transformative aspects of conflict.  As Christians, I believe we were called to be peacemakers, but rarely do we provide both theory and skill to equip students in this work.”

Jessica Hunkler ‘14, commenting on her experience as a student of Oleson, stated in an email, “Dr. Oleson continuously encouraged me as a student and individual to seek deeper and more holistic understanding of myself, my communities, and the greater world.”

Hunkler added, “Dr. Oleson encouraged me to pursue international opportunities for my peace and conflict internship and was incredibly dedicated and intentional about staying in touch with me while I was abroad. She organized opportunities for me to share my experience on a larger platform once back at Gordon.”

Jenna Good ‘14, who is the current Resident Advisor for students in the Gordon in Orvietto program, commenting on the Social Work Department as a whole, stated in an email, “the guidance I received from the professors in the social work department was fundamental and life-altering to my undergraduate experience. Upon taking the Introduction to Social Work course, I found myself surrounded by students intrigued by the continual discovery of their own voice in learning how to best advocate for the voices of others.

The July 1 Letter and the Social Work Department’s Accreditation

After President Lindsay signed the July 1 letter to President Obama to request exemption from ENDA, there was concern among Gordon Social Work professors that the Department would lose its accreditation. The Social Work Department at Gordon is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which is a nationally recognized non-profit association. The CSWE is the sole accrediting agency for all undergraduate and graduate social work programs.  

In the CSWE Code of Ethics, certain standards mandate accredited collegiate Social Work programs to not discriminate on the basis of “gender, gender identity and expression… sex, sexual orientation,” according to the CSWE’s Educational Policies and Accreditation Standards. The CSWE Code of Ethics is determined by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), which “is the largest membership organization of professional social workers in the world,” according to the NASW’s website.

On July 11, 2014, Jennifer Shaw, a Masters Social Work (MSW) and Licensed Social Worker (LICSW) based in Cambridge, notified Trent in an email exchange that she filed a complaint with the CSWE and the NASW that Gordon College discriminates against LGBTQ+ people. Shaw complained to the CSWE and NASW because she felt that Gordon’s Social Work program was hosted at an institution that violates the NASW’s code of ethics. Shaw explained in the email that she hoped that this complaint would cause President Lindsay to “rethink his stance.”

Trent said that a social work department can lose its CSWE accreditation when an institution chooses to not change its policies after being charged as being discriminatory by the CSWE. Shaw’s complaint to the CSWE and NASW was not an official charge against Gordon, but the complaint was sufficient to cause alarm among the Social Work faculty.  

Social Work/Sociology professors at departmental event. Courtesy of Jenna Good.

In a letter written to Lindsay regarding CSWE accreditation provided to the Tartan by Oleson, Trent, Oleson and other faculty members within the Social Work/Sociology Departments wrote,

“When asking the federal government to be excluded from anti-discrimination laws against gay and lesbian hiring, you have put the program at risk in terms of future reaccreditation, and compromised our integrity as professional social work educators… we ask you to publicly reverse your decision, ask for your name to be removed from the letter, and lead the college in a renewed discussion on our approach to this issue.”

Trouble for Trent and Oleson

In an effort to resolve some of the tension surrounding LGBTQ+ issues at the college, the administration and the Board of Trustees created a working group, composed of Board members, faculty and students.  The working group evaluated Gordon’s policies within the Student Life and Conduct Statement toward LGBTQ+ members of the Gordon community.  

The clause in the Student Life and Conduct Statement that the working group sought to address was, “Those acts which are expressly forbidden in Scripture, including but not limited to blasphemy, profanity, dishonesty, theft, drunkenness, sexual relations outside marriage, and homosexual practice, will not be tolerated in the lives of Gordon community members, either on or off campus,” according to the Gordon College Student Handbook 2014-2015.

Oleson was asked to be a part of the working group, along with other faculty.  Although she acknowledged the educational value of the group for members, she was disappointed that “there was minimal time to discuss the Gordon policy itself: the lack of consideration of diverse theological views, the sociological or psychological impact of our policy on both our LGBTQ+ community and our general population of students. Although the facilitator did try and accommodate the needs of the group as they occurred, the very controlled structure of the group had been set, thus little “work” on the issue was accomplished,” Oleson said in an interview.

 Oleson continued, “I agreed with the many faculty and staff interested in writing an entire new conduct statement based on who we want to be, and not who we are against.   Our statement is over 40 years old.  It needs to be a living document that is reviewed every ten years, not to adhere to the waves of secular culture, but to ensure that our statement prepares our students to be followers of Jesus in the world that they will move into post graduation.”

Oleson was not the only one disappointed with the working group. Jesse Steele ‘15, an openly gay student who was chosen to participate in the working group, resigned “because of the lack of representation of sexual minorities, as well as unreasonable tactics set forth in the structure of the working group,” according to Steele’s “My Formal Resignation from the Gordon College Working Group,” which he posted on his website.

Trent was also dissatisfied with how certain members of the administration were treating those who identify as LGBTQ+ at Gordon and thus, he took action to express his discontentment.

In an email exchange between Trent and Provost Janel Curry, Curry cited several actions that Trent took that, according to Curry, “undermined the College.”

One of these incidences cited in the email was about Trent not attending the Matriculation Service in the fall of 2014. Trent said that a number of professors decided not to attend the service “as a symbol of their rejection of the GC [Gordon College] administration’s LGBTQ policy and recent activity.”   

In Curry’s email to Trent, Curry requested that Trent conclude his protests. Curry said, “We hope that you do not take other actions that we would consider to undermine the College, but if you were to do so, we would need to consider the matter and determine whether to take action based on it.”

The conflict between Trent and certain members of the administration persisted when Trent allowed some of his “Research Methods” students to conduct a study about “the attitudes of the larger student population towards LGBTQ+ students,” said Tescher.  

Tescher said in regards to Trent’s “Research Methods” study, “Most importantly, he stood by us, and continued to encourage us when we were met with resistance from the administration.”

The Leave of Trent and Oleson

The academic year of 2014-2015 concluded with both Trent and Oleson leaving in summer of 2015. When the financial re-set occurred in summer 2015, a number of Gordon professors were offered the opportunity to leave in exchange for a year’s worth of sabbatical pay, according to Oleson. The offer of leave for a year’s worth of sabbatical pay informally became known as the “buyouts.”

Another stipulation in Oleson and Trent’s negotiations was that they would only be given a year’s worth sabbatical pay if they signed a Non-Disparagement Agreement (NDA).  According to Trent’s “Resignation Agreement,” the faculty and staff members who signed the NDA had to agree to “not to make any disparaging comments at any time concerning the college, its Board of Trustees, or any of its current or former trustees, officers, or employees. Your further represent that during the period since the offer of this Agreement, you have not made any such disparaging statements.”

Trent said of the NDA guidelines, “I affirm Gordon College, and I affirm the potential of Gordon College. It seems to me that affirming necessary changes in Gordon College, if that’s disparagement, so be it. I don’t want to gratuitously disparage anyone. And I think that some of our administrators have been victims themselves, so I am not out to hurt anyone. At the same time, silence is destructive too.”

Oleson, commenting on the reasons she accepted the buyout, said, “When the administration started publicly advocating to discriminate against hiring persons identifying as LGBT+, it put me in conflict with my professional code of ethics, and my capacity to represent Gordon College in the community, which was a significant part of my position.  The policy itself, and its public advocacy around it, not only had damaging effects on LGBT+ Christians, but also on all students who must learn how to engage in the  world and love their neighbor.  After prayer and reflection, I came to believe that I was no longer an appropriate fit for Gordon College.”

One of the reasons Trent decided to accept the buyout offer was because of his disagreement with certain members of the administration. He said, “It had become so unpleasant that it was time to go.”

Before agreeing to taking a buyout, however, Trent was assured by Curry that the administration would replace his vacant position with two full-time faculty positions who had Masters of Social Work (MSW) degrees.   

Trent said that, when he was negotiating his buyout deal with Curry, he would not “even consider it [the buyout deal]” as long as “the Social Work program would not be hurt as a result of my loss.”  

Since their departure, the College has yet to restore the Social Work Department to four full-time MSW faculty members.

The administration declined to comment on this issue.  

Trent said, “It’s been very disappointing to me that a full-time tenured track position has not been opened for at least one of us who left. ”

The Social Work Department Today

The Social Work Department currently relies on two full-time and three part-time professors.  

Amy Foye ‘18 finds the low number of full-time faculty in the Department problematic. Foye stated in an email, “The professors that are in this Department are compassionate and smart but overworked and undervalued. I feel as though they are under-appreciated by administration and given little leeway in their own positions to make the decisions that would improve our department. I believe we need at least one more strong, core professor who has ideas to bring to the table.”

SWSAC professor appreciation event. Courtesy of Jenna Good.

Although the Social Work Department has undergone major losses, Josh Ahearn ‘18 stated in an email, “I’d say the Department is doing pretty well considering what it’s been through in the past year and a half.  After losing two tenured professors, some classes couldn’t be offered as often and emergency replacement professors had to be found for others. One strong point is a sufficient number of enthusiastic adjuncts who work in the area who were willing and able to fill needed roles.”

Candace Botterbusch ‘17, commenting on the change in professors, stated in an email, “I have made adjustments as different professors have taken over different courses… it can be a change of getting to know their teaching style and what to expect from the class.”

Corinne Previte ‘17 contributed to this article.

Administration’s Response to “Define: Gordon”

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