CSWE Calls for Academic Freedom in Higher Education

Published on : March 30, 2023

Legislative proposals threaten to stifle higher education institutions’ ability to address fundamental values in social work education programs

Social work is a public service field founded on core values of justice, dignity and worth of a person, human relations, integrity, and competence; as a profession, social work is committed to anti-racist and anti-oppressive practices in serving diverse groups of people. Social work has at its core a charge to dismantle systemic barriers to equality and equity, as defined by accreditation standards required for educational programs in social work. Social work education prepares social workers for this through developing their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, and developing knowledge through research, practice, and scientific inquiry.

Accreditation is a systematic and rigorous process of operationalizing this vision of social work and ensuring consumer protection and the public good through quality social work education programs. CSWE-accredited programs are held to higher standards of responsibility for educating students to be respectful and responsible social workers for diverse cultures and communities. Graduates from social work education programs are positioned to advocate for justice, equity, inclusion, and diversity.

CSWE accreditation standards are grounded in these core values and engage competent and qualified educators and community partners to ensure student competency in research, policy, theory, and practice of social work. These standards apply to all social work programs, regardless of whether they are at the undergraduate or graduate level or whether the course content is offered online or in a classroom. Graduation from a CSWE-accredited social work program provides assurance that the program in which a student enrolls is committed to quality education of students on social work competencies necessary to enter practice. This offers the opportunity of practice and/or licensure through the completion of a CSWE-accredited degree.

CSWE’s Commission on Accreditation is recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). CHEA recognition assures the public that CSWE’s Commission on Accreditation is competent to engage in quality reviews of social work programs based on the CHEA recognition standards, which require accrediting organizations to “demonstrate a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

In 2021, CSWE joined with the Association of American Colleges & Universities and dozens of other associations to denounce a growing number of state legislations that seek to dictate how the construct of racism can be taught in colleges and universities. The American Association of University Professors raised concerns that such legislation violates the First Amendment and principles of academic freedom through state censorship of teaching, research, and public speech.

Since this time, states have advanced legislation that infringes upon freedom in higher education. For example, Florida legislation, as proposed, requires that universities terminate programs which use “pedagogical methodology associated with critical theory,” including “critical race studies, critical ethnic studies, radical feminist theory, radical gender theory, queer theory, critical social justice or intersectionality.” This is a direct, broadside attack on academic freedom.

Academic freedom is the underpinning of higher education. Legislation that limits course content and curriculum decisions impinges on academic freedom. Topics that are off-limits are described in terms such as “divisive,” which is difficult to define and inherently subjective. Educators, not politicians, should make decisions about educational curriculum, pedagogy, and associated research. Decades of research by social work and other scholars document the continuing existence and significant consequences of racism, oppression, and inequality in our country. These words describe a painful and well-documented reality in our society, not an ideology. Legislative efforts to deny what makes us uncomfortable reflect a rejection of principles of free speech and commitment to opportunity and equality for all people.

In addition to this attack on academic freedom, the proposed legislation threatens the accreditation status and, in fact, the very existence of social work education programs and social workers serving communities across the nation. Across the United States and its territories, there are more than 125,000 social work students. Without social work education, the resulting depletion of human capital in human services and the health profession workforce will have profound impacts on economic outcomes of state institutions of higher education, health systems, and communities, including the most vulnerable members of society.

We remain steadfast in our commitment to engage in anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion in the preparation of social work students. Therefore, CSWE calls upon social work educators, students, community partners, and allies to protect academic freedom and preserve the capacity of education as a tenet of democracy.