VCU School of Social Work
VCU School of Social Work
Why this petition matters
This petition was drafted to express an overwhelming concern from VCU Social Work Students, both Graduate and Undergraduate. It is understood that those who go into Social Work, do so with social justice, service, and integrity in mind, the core social work values as described by the National Association of Social Workers. An important value that we feel the current state of the school is leading us to forsake is competence. Our hope is that with this petition, our concerns will be heard and addressed in hopes of working together to maintain national leadership in social work education with comprehensive programs that prepare influential scholars, practitioners, and professional leaders in Social Work.
Our concerns fall into three overarching categories: concerns with the quality and consistency of faculty and staff, and the impacts that has on student success; concerns with the program structure, its lack of inclusiveness or accessibility for many students; and an overall concern with the quality of education we are receiving and how well it models and aligns with the principles of ethics and values of the Social Work profession. The bullet points below outline some of the specific concerns shared by students:
Concerns with the Quality and Consistency of Faculty and Staff in the Program
- Faculty and staff attrition in the program: One of our most critical concerns is a sense of instability in our faculty and staff. In recent years, the turnover of both professor and advisors has been enormous, and it has created a vacuum of support and continuity. Many students, for instance, have had semesters without advisors, and have rarely had the chance to work with a faculty member for more than one semester — making it impossible to develop strong relationships, find mentors, or even know where to turn for help.
- Reliance on short-term faculty: A second concern relates to the staffing practices in the program, which relies heavily on short-term and adjunct faculty. Moreover, even long-time term contract faculty members are not being kept, which exacerbates the lack of continuity and support for students. One recent example is the non-renewal of Dr. O’Neal’s contract, a faculty member many students have come to rely on.
- Faculty Preparation: Perhaps due to the reliance on short-term and adjunct faculty, many required courses are taught by faculty who seem new to the curriculum and course plans, and ill-prepared to provide the education students hope for and expect. This also leads to an inconsistency in the student preparation and education, leading to a need for instructors in higher level courses to backtrack and reteach prerequisite course material.
Concerns with the Accessibility and Inclusivity with the Program Structure
- Lack of communication and knowledge of program structure: Most students feel as though the course of the program was never adequately discussed or outlined for us, perhaps due to the continued inconsistencies in advising.
- Scheduling: Although each course in the program offers many sections, each section is offered at the exact same time, and most of the time instructors are not listed at the time of registration. This leads to inaccessibility of scheduling, as well as students having an inability to have a say in their instructors.
- Accessibility: The inflexibility of expectations for physical attendance restricts access to the program and fails to live out the principles of social work as a profession: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. There is no need for a rigid attendance policy, with no exemptions or consideration to accessibility. Courses can maintain expectations of academic rigor while making use of technology to provide access to students with various challenges to in-person attendance. This includes offering alternative course modalities.
Quality of Education and its Alignment with Social Work Principles
- Not getting the scope of education promised: Many students decided to attend VCU and its School of Social Work because of its high standing and reputation. However, with a revolving door of faculty, resulting in many who are unfamiliar with the syllabi they are teaching, students are concerned that they aren’t achieving the level of education this program had come to be known for. Notably, in both Spring and Fall terms the 2021- 2022 academic year, professors have left mid course, leaving students with last minute “fill-ins” ill prepared to teach at all.
- Field Education: A key component of the School of Social Work curriculum is field education. However, the communication around this component of the curriculum is lacking. Students are given no preparatory knowledge of the program structure, or assistance in the application process. In field placements, instructors and task supervisors are not held accountable for their lack of cultural competency, despite having to sign an agreement stating otherwise. Many students are facing harassment and discrimination, and have no way of receiving support or assistance. If they are able to reach out for help, they are repeatedly told that finding a new placement is either too difficult, or will negatively impact their educational standing. Additionally, there is a lack of stability in field liaisons.
- Misalignment with Social Work values: Campus policies need to align with Social Work values. VCU claims to bring students together with a shared passion for community causes and issues around equity and social justice, however their actions aren’t aligned with this. A school with such a large commitment to racial and social justice should be taking a stance on racial and social justice issues happening in the world. Additionally, the lack of response and acknowledgement in recent bills surrounding transgender rights, and reproductive rights is unacceptable.
Communication: There needs to be mechanisms for students to regularly express concerns, provide suggestions, and ask questions about the program. Course evaluation forms should include opportunities to provide feedback on program structure and course content, not solely professor performance. Student representatives should be involved in program planning, perhaps through the formation of a student advisory board.
Reconsidering Course Scheduling and Registration Practices: Course schedules should be finalized prior to publication, and course listings must include instructor names. Additionally, if courses have multiple sections they should be offered at different times to allow for increased accessibility.
Field Placement: Field agencies and instructors need to be vetted. Students should not be discriminated against in Field Placement. All agencies and field instructors need to have mandated cultural competency training to ensure the safety of students. If students ask to be replaced due to facing harassment or discrimination, this cannot be held against the student.
Faculty Retention: The school must create an equitable faculty retention plan. Students demand to see progress moving away from the current reliance on adjunct, interim, and temporary instructors.
Advisor Retention: There should be improved continuity and quality in the VCU School of Social Work advising. Students demand to have reliable advising while pursuing their Academic goals.
Reintroduction of the Peer Mentoring Program: The peer mentoring program should be reestablished into the VCU School of Social Work. This program should provide a way for students to find additional support and mentorship connecting all levels within the School of Social Work.
Social Justice: The VCU School of Social Work should be working towards achieving racial, economic, LGBTQ+, and disability justice. Having conversations in classes is not enough. VCU School of Social work administration needs to be considering impacts on students of marginalized groups when creating school policies. Additionally, there should be classes offered in restorative justice, cultural competencies, and holistic approaches. This program needs to model the social justice principles it teaches.
Certifications and Licensure: Students should be provided training opportunities for specialized certifications. Students should be made aware of Licensure preparatory classes, testing dates and requirements for BSW and MSW graduates.
Everyone involved in this program, both faculty, students, and alumni choose social work because it is their passion. We want and expect VCU to offer a high tier program where students are taught the ethics and values of Social Work in a manner in which they can reach excellence in both understanding and practice. However our experiences have led us to question whether the VCU School of Social work has lost its way or misplaced its priorities. Our hope is for the program to succeed and that leadership and administration hear our concerns and work to address them so that we can succeed and work towards a stronger VCU School of Social Work.
Thank you for the consideration,