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Counseling student questions school’s “privileged identity” pledge

“It feels like a theology and it’s not my theology,” she says

Counseling student questions school’s “privileged identity” pledge

Leslie Elliott only has a few more courses to take in the graduate clinical mental health counseling program at Antioch University in Seattle before she can become a licensed clinical counselor. Yet she does not see how she can continue in the program because it is requiring her to endorse a “civility pledge” which violates her conscience. She is on a leave of absence to explore her administrative and legal options.

The pledge, which Elliott says is now included in most syllabuses, reflects the social justice mission of Antioch. It states: “I acknowledge that racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, ageism, nativism, and other forms of interpersonal and institutionalized forms of oppression exist. I will do my best to better understand my own privileged and marginalized identities and the power that these afford me.” Antioch added the statement starting in 2020 after the death of George Floyd.

For Elliott, the offense came when the first assignment in one of her required courses was to affirm the pledge by rewriting it in her own words and stating her agreement. “That really felt like a purity test to me,” she said. “I felt compelled to confess to this worldview that sees myself as an intersectional group of identities that have privilege and marginalization attached to them, and I don’t agree with this framework. It feels like a theology, and it’s not my theology.”

A political liberal, Elliott knew social justice was a core tenet driving the ethical standards of the program when she entered it. But she soon learned that her idea of social justice was very different from that of her professors and administrators. To Elliott, social justice meant striving to provide access and opportunity and eliminating exploitation and unfairness when possible. “It seemed like a beautiful ideal you would find in most world religions and most positive philosophies,” she said.

But she found the teachings at Antioch opposed her beautiful ideal. Her professors and administrators viewed social justice as a critical lens through which Western society must be viewed to deconstruct cultural norms and values rooted in white supremacy, racism, and oppression of marginalized people. She believes this conceptualization of social justice is socially destructive and an anti-resilience philosophy.

Dr. Catherine Lounsbury is the chair of the clinical mental health counseling department at Antioch. In a podcast shared on the program website, she explained her view of social justice.

“The history of colonialism as related to this land that we now call the United States is one of brutal subjugation of indigenous people, enslavement of African people, and carving out these racial categories as a way to justify white supremacy asserting that there is a legal and religious obligation to take over the land and culture,” she said. She went on to explain that everything that was previously understood about psychology must be questioned because it is “based upon ideas of human development and human thriving that are Eurocentric, created by white cisgender men.”

Dr. Lounsbury declined to be interviewed by WORLD but provided a link to the American Counseling Association code of ethics, which lists social justice as a core professional value.

The social justice teachings in the program troubled Elliott even more when she saw the racial division it caused in the lives of her fellow students. The university started hosting segregated student groups, including a “Black, Indigenous People, and People of Color Support Group” and a “White Accountability Group.” A classmate told her that what she had learned at Antioch had caused her to question her motives for marrying and having children with a white man. The friend wondered if her own internalized white supremacy had led her to choose the wrong husband. “That disturbed me because I felt like the teachings that she was being exposed to were risking her family,” said Elliott.

Elliott has felt pressure from the faculty to change her views to succeed in her coursework. When she questioned the social justice framework in an assignment, her professor told her she needed mental health therapy to work out her racial issues. She received a poor grade in the course and filed a grievance against the professor, but it was denied.

First Amendment free speech protections do not apply to private universities such as Antioch, but private university students can argue fraud or breach of contract if the school violates its own policies, said Brad Jacob, a constitutional law expert at Regent University School of Law. Antioch has a Student Academic Rights, Freedoms, and Responsibilities policy that states the university “adheres to the principles of academic freedom and intellectual pluralism as both rights and responsibilities.” It asserts that students “should be free to develop and express reasoned interpretations of the data or points of view that may differ from those offered in any course of study” and that they should not be “unfairly evaluated based on any such expression.”

Elliott says she is pursuing legal action against the university. “She may well have a winner,” said Jacob.

Ashley Vaughan

Ashley is a World Journalism Institute mid-career course graduate.


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