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Students push for structural change in McGill’s School of Social Work

School was “accredited with conditions” last fall

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The McGill School of Social Work seeks to have “a focus on social justice on issues facing vulnerable and disadvantaged people,” as their website states. However, after a human rights complaint was filed by a student of the School, reports written by several groups of students urging structural change at the School have been obtained by The Daily.

Schools of social work across Canada are reaccredited every seven or eight years, unless they receive an “accreditation with conditions.” “By having the program accredited, a social work degree in one part of Canada is the same in another part of Canada,” said Ross Klein, Canadian Association for Social Work Education (CASWE) Anglophone Co-Chair of the Commission on Accreditation (COA).

McGill’s School of Social Work received an accreditation with conditions in 2012 due to concerns raised by students to representatives from CASWE. This means that the School will have to go through the reaccreditation process again in 2016. The School has operated under accreditation with conditions since 2005. Before that, it was accredited for the full seven-year term for at least four terms.

The three conditions outlined by the COA include developing mechanisms for clear channels of meaningful participation from community members and students, providing support for students in their field placements, and ensuring that “concepts of social justice and anti-oppressive practice are clearly and effectively taught in both the [Bachelor] and [Masters] curricula.”

“We need to make [our criticisms] public because we are not being heard.”

Four reports compiled by various students at the School were submitted to CASWE during their site visit in the 2012 fall semester. The site visit from CASWE was a follow-up to a self-study report that the School is required to write and send to the Association. “The reason [for the site visit] is to see if what [the School] wrote in their self-study is actually implemented on the ground,” Klein explained.

According to a letter from Klein addressed to then-Principal and Vice-Chancellor Heather Munroe-Blum, which was received on March 11, 2013, “While students spoke favourably of their contacts with faculty members and provided high ratings in evaluations and surveys, they were strongly critical of communications within the School, particularly about their ability to have input and influence.”

The letter also urged for the “incorporation of concepts of social justice and anti-oppression into the curriculum.”

“A lot of schools struggle with issues of teaching anti-oppressive practice, a lot of schools struggle with issues of diversity,” said Klein.
According to Klein, “as part of the self-study, the School is expected to consult with students.” Wendy Thomson, Director of the McGill School of Social Work told The Daily that there were difficulties assembling with faculty and students when preparing the self-study during the student strike, but still claimed that all identified stakeholders in the School were consulted during the process of writing the self-study.

A member of the Racialized Students Network (RSN) – a group that was identified as a major stakeholder by the School in its self-study – argued the contrary. “The RSN has never been included on a systemic or structural level in the School’s decision making. It has not been invited to any administrative bodies [or] any student council bodies. It [was] not consulted during the creation of the self-study report.”

“It’s almost laughable how intensely skin colour is felt by students of colour. There is a very large group of racialized students in the School of Social Work and I would go as far as to say that all of us feel racism in the School in some way.”

The RSN submitted one of the four reports to the CASWE accreditation site visitors in response to what they called “a deeply felt need for change around race relations in the School.” The report was compiled by two or three students, and contained the work of many more contributors, in January 2012.

Megann Ayotte, a contributor to McGill Social Work Students Strike Report, one of the four reports, also said, “The problem that people had with the self-study was that no one was consulted.”

“It’s almost laughable how intensely skin colour is felt by students of colour. There is a very large group of racialized students in the School of Social Work and I would go as far as to say that all of us feel racism in the School in some way. That may not be intentional on [the]part of the faculty but it is certainly tangible in the classroom experiences [and] the field experiences,” said the member of the RSN.

The RSN report sought to make recommendations to the School on how it could implement certain equity policies to “foster dialogue” at the School, “develop and advocate for policies and programs that support the retention and successful graduation of racialized students,” and so forth.
A similar report was submitted to CASWE at the time of the site visit as well. Called “Towards a More Social Justice and Human Rights Oriented School of Social Work,” it was written as a “response to the McGill Self-Study Report for the CASWE-ACTFS Accreditation Standards,” as indicated on the report.

Three of the nine recommendations made by this report call for the School to integrate anti-oppressive practice more clearly in the School. A contributor to the report and undergraduate student in the School at the time the report was written said it was prompted by a “group of students who wanted to see an ideological shift in the School.”

Presented by a collective of former and present McGill School of Social Work students, and written by around 15 to 20 students, this report was endorsed – though not created – by the undergraduate Social Work Students’ Association (SWSA) and the Social Work Association of Graduate Students (SWAGS). In total, over 60 students and alumni endorsed the contents of the Social Justice report, according to a presentation on November 7 organized by SWAGS.

No palpable policy change has been made in the School since these reports were submitted last year, according to the RSN member who spoke to The Daily. The School is required to submit a progress report no later than November 1, 2015 to the COA, showing how the conditions, mentioned earlier in the article, were met.

Lucyna Lach, Associate Professor in the McGill School of Social Work and Associate Dean (Student Affairs), told The Daily, “We’ve been working on an ongoing basis on infusing those principles throughout the curriculum. They’re not labelled as [anti-oppressive practices]. I think they aren’t as visible because they perhaps are not called [anti-oppressive practices]. But they are there, I can assure you that.”

“We did get a lot of good things from the students who talked to us,” Thomson added. “Some students, for reasons they can tell you better than me, felt they would prefer to deal with a third party than talk with us. That’s disappointing for us. We like to talk to the students directly.”
However, Ayotte said, “There are these empty opportunities for communication to happen but there’s no effort to really involve people.”

In the Social Justice report, a contributor echoed this sentiment, stating, “We need to make [our criticisms] public because we are not being heard.”