Anti-DEI Laws Threaten College Social Work Programs

The rise in anti-DEI laws may impact the future of social work education at colleges and universities.
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Published on August 8, 2023
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  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a core tenet in social work.
  • New anti-DEI laws in Republican-run states may impact social work programs emphasizing DEI principles.
  • Florida has led the way in curtailing DEI initiatives in higher education.
  • Laws forbidding critical race theory (CRT) may also impact social work research and studies.

A lynchpin of social work philosophy has been under attack in recent years, leaving many worried about the state of the field.

Social workers must adhere to a code of ethics that lists social justice as one of its six ethical principles. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) considers it important when you're helping vulnerable communities such as people with mental health conditions, people experiencing homelessness, and children in foster care.

Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people, reads the NASW code of ethics. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity.

In recent years, state laws barring diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives have threatened to upend college social work programs.

These laws may chill free speech in classroom race and sexual orientation discussions intended to produce social workers with a more holistic view of their cases. But in a worst-case scenario, social work programs may lose their accreditation if programs don't teach their students with the core principle of social justice at the forefront.

Students in unaccredited programs won't qualify for licensure, meaning they won't be able to get jobs as clinical social workers.

A far-reaching anti-DEI law in Florida may be just the first domino to fall.

Florida is the test case, Arabella Perez, vice president of DEI at NASW, told BestColleges. I'm worried; I don't think it's a one-off.

A Wave of Anti-DEI Laws Impact Higher Education

A recently passed anti-DEI law in Florida is the culmination of years of ire directed at DEI initiatives. It's a reaction to the growing sentiment among Republicans that colleges and universities are indoctrinating students to support liberal ideologies.

This bill says the whole experiment with DEI is coming to an end in the state of Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis said in mid-May. We are eliminating the DEI programs.

Legislation that bars DEI initiatives isn't uncommon in Republican-leaning states. However, Florida's law is unique — it takes that anti-DEI agenda one step further by banning certain classroom discussions about DEI and race in general.

General education core courses may not distort significant historical events or include a curriculum that teaches identity politics, violates or is based on theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the U.S. and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities, the law states.

Perez said Florida's law worries her because it may serve as a model for other states.

She said Missouri, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana are on her watchlist of states that may follow suit.

Proposed Laws Conflict With Social Work Principles

Florida's statute banning courses based on theories of systemic racism conflicts with modern social work thinking.

Brianna Harvey, associate director of the Bruin Resource Center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and current Ph.D. candidate, told BestColleges that these theories have increasingly been baked into the general social work curriculum. A theory class at UCLA, for example, includes discussions on queer theory, feminist theory, and critical race theory (CRT).

The idea, Harvey said, is that for social workers to adequately serve the populations they work with, they need first to understand how systems oppress different groups of people. CRT operates on the idea that race is a social construct, and that systems use it to oppress people of color.

Wendy Ashley is the department chair for the Department of Social Work at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH). This social work program was the first in the nation to base its entire master's in social work (MSW) program in CRT, so its courses center on a deeper understanding of systemic issues.

In [CRT] programs, there's the idea that there are individual problems, but they are impacted by systemic and structural oppression and racial dynamics that are ... impacting people on an individual level and larger systemic level, Ashley told BestColleges.

Teaching future social workers to be anti-racist is not a niche idea relegated to uber-liberal programs.

The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) recently updated its accreditation standards for social work programs. Perez said those competencies used to simply urge programs to embrace DEI practices, but the updated standards take it one step further to call on social workers to engage in anti-racism, diversity, equity, and inclusion in practice.

Just talking about diversity is not enough, Perez said.

Social Work Accreditation at Risk

Applying anti-racist practices in social work requires proper education. Experts worry that the barriers laws like Florida's anti-DEI law put in place mean the next generation of social workers won't get the chance to learn these principles.

It's unclear how these laws could impact accreditation, but some experts fear the worst.

People need a master's degree from an accredited program to become licensed social workers, so earning a degree from an unaccredited program has little to no value for aspiring social workers. Many employers look down on a degree from an unaccredited program.

Perez said the worst-case scenario is that CSWE refuses to accredit social work programs in states with laws like Florida's.

You're going to see a lot of prospective students choose not to go to a program in one of those states if that's the case, Perez said.

The alternative, she said, is that accreditors will tolerate programs failing to implement anti-racist teachings. That would protect students from the effects of their school losing accreditation, but it would hurt the quality of graduates.

State legislators are also aware of the accreditation issue.

In Texas, for example, the House of Representatives added language to its anti-DEI bill that said if an accrediting agency requires DEI programs, the institution may submit a statement highlighting a school's work in helping underserved student populations, according to The Texas Tribune.

In Florida, some lawmakers filed an amendment to the state's anti-DEI bill to remove all language related to diversity, equity and inclusion over concerns that the bill would negatively impact accreditation for some programs. That amendment ultimately failed, but its existence highlights that legislators know this law could run afoul of accreditation standards.

CSWE did not respond to a BestColleges request for comment on how Florida's law may impact the state's accreditation of social work programs.

The Larger Effects of Anti-DEI Laws on Social Work

Students may struggle if more states adopt laws similar to Florida's, even if social work programs keep their accreditation.

Ashley of CSUDH said even without these laws, getting funding to perform studies involving sensitive topics like race is difficult. That extends even to California, a traditionally liberal state.

It's always been tough to get funding for anything involving anti-racist concepts or marginalized groups, she said.

Harvey's ongoing dissertation focuses on the educational experience of Black children in the foster care system. She worries that if she were in a state like Florida, she'd be encouraged to adopt a more colorblind topic for her dissertation.

It would probably be impossible to get funding for the projects I have, she said. The next step would be to water it down.

Without research like hers, social workers would continue to perform services without considering the different experiences Black children may have in foster care compared to their white peers.

That is a huge disservice not only to the youth in this community, Harvey said, but it really does a disservice to the practitioners that work with this community.

This trickle-down effect wouldn't just apply to research, Ashley added. It would also lead to poorer outcomes for the populations that social workers serve if they aren't trained to see their work through a DEI lens.

If you choose not to see color, Ashley explained, then you aren't acknowledging the whole experience of the client you are working with. In not doing so, social workers can't come up with the best solution to different problems.

Nonetheless, Ashley said she's generally optimistic that social work programs in higher education will be able to work through the problems presented by anti-DEI state laws. Professors will ultimately find ways to incorporate the values of social work into their courses, even if it's not explicit in syllabuses or course descriptions.

The point of academia is to challenge the status quo, so she believes faculty will continue to do this and push the social work agenda forward.

I simultaneously am fearful, Ashley said, but I also believe social work is progressive by nature.