Franciscan University’s Sociology Course Description Comes Under Fire

An unofficial alumni group says a textbook’s assessment of homosexuality as ‘deviant behavior’ shows bias.

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Franciscan University of Steubenville (FUS) has come under criticism by members of an unofficial alumni group for a course description in the school’s social-work program.

Members of the Franciscan Gay Alumni and Allies Facebook group — a 106-member group that has no official connection to the university — were offended by the course description for a social-work class. They not only asked the university to change the description, but alerted the country’s only social work accrediting agency of their concerns.

The course description being questioned is for “Social Work 314,” a class on deviant behavior.

“Deviant behavior focuses on the sociological theories of deviant behavior, such as strain theory, differential association theory, labeling theory and phenomenological theory,” states the course description. “The behaviors that are primarily examined are murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness and drug use. The course focuses on structural conditions in society that potentially play a role in influencing deviant behavior.”

Members of the Facebook group said that they were offended by the description and that they tried to contact university officials just before school began.

“There was an uncoordinated effort to try to contact the university,” explained Gregory Gronbacher, a 1990 graduate of FUS and member of the Facebook group. “I reached out via email, but didn’t hear back. All of the emails bounced back.”

A Franciscan computer technician said that the university employs a content filtering system that prevents emails containing certain words from being delivered.

“We’re asking them to look at and change the course description,” said Elizabeth Vermilyea, a 1991 FUS graduate and founder of the Facebook alumni group. “It lists both homosexuality and mental illness in the same class as deviant behaviors. We felt it was really inappropriate. It’s incredibly marginalizing. It’s an improper characterization of the course, the book and these two conditions.”

According to Gronbacher, the day after they attempted to email the university, he and Vermilyea released a press release, sending it to the Council on Social Work Education, an accrediting agency. National Public Radio (NPR) reported on the story, suggesting that the accreditation for the school’s social-work program could be threatened.

“We found the course description offensive. We were not asking for an apology or for the university to teach anything other than what the Church teaches,” said Gronbacher. “We just want to be sure they’re teaching proper social science and not offering biased science.”

Gronbacher and Vermilyea took exception with the term “deviant.” The press release referred to the course as “pseudoscience.”

“This should be put in a theology class, not a sociology class,” said Vermilyea.

Up until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association classified homosexuality in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a mental disorder.

“It strikes me that the gay alumni group, as so often happens, are overreacting to the word ‘deviant,’” said Phil Sutton, a psychologist and psychotherapist in South Bend, Ind., who launched Franciscan University’s master’s degree program in counseling 23 years ago. “Whereas in psychology we talk about ‘abnormal’ or ‘dysfunctional’ behavior, sociologists talk about ‘deviant’ behavior, meaning self-defeating behavior that is outside the norm. Franciscan’s use of the word is consistent with sociology, and, in that sense, they are not wrong to use it.”

“The research shows that same-sex behavior is medically, psychologically and relationally harmful,” added Sutton. “So there is nothing in the ‘deviant’ definition that is unrealistic. There is no doubt that you can talk about those who engage in that behavior as psychologically distressed, and there is no doubt that, in a secondary sense, it’s harmful to those who participate in it.”


Franciscan Responds

“We checked with academics, public relations and the alumni offices, and no one in any of those offices received any emails or phone calls from the group,” said Tom Sofio, associate director of public relations for the university. “We had no contact from them before their press release went out.”

Sofio acknowledged that after the group’s press release was made public, an official from the university reached out to the group.

“The course description for this class, to which some are taking issue, is little more than abbreviated chapter headings from the primary course textbook,” the university stated in its official press release.

That textbook, Sociology of Deviant Behavior, the statement also noted, is “used in more than a dozen public universities and uses the term ‘deviant’ in the sociological sense, simply meaning different from the norm.”

In fact, homosexuality is the topic of one of the textbook’s chapters, as are the other words listed in the course description.

“Changing standard sociological definitions is beyond the scope of our work,” said the university’s release. “So, too, is changing the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Noting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the university’s statement said that it “bases its educational mission on the teaching of Christ, as proclaimed in sacred Scripture and Tradition and authoritatively interpreted by the magisterium of the Catholic Church.”

“Accordingly, Franciscan University follows Catholic Church teaching in regard to homosexuality and treats homosexual persons with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity’ (2358), while holding homosexual acts as ‘intrinsically disordered’” (2357).

“This is an example of what the future holds for any faithful Catholic institution. The attacks on religious liberty are coming from all fronts, and Franciscan University of Steubenville certainly did not invite this sort of attack,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Manassas, Va.-based Cardinal Newman Society. “Whereas Franciscan’s course was in no way an infringement on anyone’s rights, the complaint is a radical infringement on the rights of Catholic institutions to operate within Catholic teaching, or even within the bounds of reason.”


Accreditation Not at Risk

“Unfortunately, I used the term ‘red flag’ in my conversation with NPR,” said Stephen Holloway, director of the office of social-work accreditation with the Council on Social Work Education. “It would be completely inaccurate to say that a course description which may connote a pejorative interpretation of homosexuality because it’s listed with other terms is sufficient to put the accreditation in jeopardy.”

Accreditation, said Holloway, is determined by a 25-member commission that meets three times each year. Holloway said that he has contacted the university seeking additional information about the course, the content and how diversity is handled in the program.

“We do have a standard on diversity, which speaks to some of these issues,” explained Holloway. “Our standard speaks to a curriculum and learning environment that emphasize respect for, and acknowledgment of, all the variables that go to make up human diversity. There is a list with 20 categories, and homosexuality is one of them.”

In response to the concerns, the university plans to review the course description.

“They’re convening a group of academics to consider changing the description,” said Gronbacher of the Facebook group.

Holloway noted that faith-based universities with social-work programs tend to manage the diversity issue well.

“Even the really conservative Protestant ones do a good job with this standard,” said Holloway. “I suspect that’s what we’ll find out [with Franciscan].”

Tim Drake is the Register’s senior writer.