Yesterday and Today - Viewpoint from the Dean

Published in the Spring 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

-By Jeanne C. Marsh

As I reflect on SSA's Centennial, it is striking that the work of today's School, faculty, students, and alumni address the same issues that were salient 100 years ago. We have made progress, but we are still re-examining and grappling with significant issues fundamental to creating a more just and humane society.

It is the responsibility of the researcher and the practitioner to uncover the truth, to improve public programs, and to advocate for more effective public policy. Decades ago, Charlotte Towle fought against censorship and illuminated the connection between understanding human behavior and administering social welfare programs. Today, we work to reduce the stigma of mental illness and treatment— and to make treatment more accessible.

Grace Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge insisted that a well-functioning democracy care for its weakest members and helped to lay the groundwork for public welfare programs such as Social Security. Today, SSA is expanding its Older Adults Studies Program to train a new generation of social workers who will be faced with the care of one of the largest populations of older citizens this country has ever seen.

At the beginning of the last century, Edith Abbott, with Breckinridge, conducted one of the largest housing studies in Chicago and reported the vast inequities across many Chicago neighborhoods. Today, Associate Professor Robert Chaskin studies the outcomes of mixed-income programs to help shape improvements in housing policy. SSA has retained its long and ground-breaking tradition of mixing research with work in the field.

One hundred years ago, William Rainey Harper, president of the University of Chicago, said, "Democracy has scarcely begun to understand itself. It is for the University—as a center of thought— to maintain and advance the ideas and ideals so essential for the success of democracy." Harper understood that the dynamic exchange between the University and the world beyond campus was critical to the development of knowledge in all areas, including the growing field of social welfare.

SSA's commitment to this exchange inspired the faculty to organize 10 public symposia, a conference, and lectures across the country in honor of our Centennial. I was happy to see so many of you in attendance. I was consistently impressed by colleagues, peers, and alumni and learned so much at each symposium. I want to thank Professor Dodie Norton, the chair of our Centennial, (and resident historian), for her tireless efforts in the planning and execution of the Centennial events. And I also want to thank Professor Sydney Hans and Associate Professor Julia Henly, our cochairs, for their efforts in the development of the symposia.

Our students did a wonderful job kicking off our Centennial last May with a symposium, "A Diverse Profession: Social Work in the Twenty- First Century," which examined the many ways that social workers and the social work profession enhance peoples' lives and promote the principles of social justice worldwide.

Dexter Voisin and Susan Knight began the academic year with their symposium for our field instructors, highlighting SSA's heritage as a leader in social work education. Their panelists presented innovative approaches to teaching practice competencies in the classroom and in the field, and spoke of field education— the signature pedagogy of social work education—and its importance in our efforts to train the next generation of social workers, administrators, and policy experts.

We celebrated the official start of the Centennial year in November with a party attended by University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer and many friends and alumni, who enjoyed a special performance by the Court Theatre. The weekend continued with a symposium given by Professors Charles Payne and Melissa Roderick, and Assistant Professor Michael Woolley that framed the School's work and accomplishments over its first 100 years in Chicago-area and urban school improvement efforts. Sophonisba Breckinridge once said, "To the social worker, the school appears as an instrument of almost unlimited possibilities." Today, our Community Schools program works with many of the more than 100 Chicago Public Community Schools, allowing thousands of students to explore unlimited possibilities of their own.

We joined many of our friends and alumni from academia at the Society for Social Work Research (SSWR) conference in New Orleans in January and examined whether methods and perspectives drawn from psychotherapy can adequately address issues that arise in social work. We returned to Chicago in March to join Associate Professors Julia Henly and Susan Lambert for a symposium that addressed how research can be "put to work" to support and advocate for vulnerable workers through effective public policy and legislation.

Associate Professors Colleen Grogan and Harold Pollack held a symposium in April about America's health safety-net that examined the role of various health care reform approaches—what they are and ought to be—for vulnerable populations. Their symposium also highlighted the history of SSA's involvement with health care issues through the Center for Health Administration Studies (CHAS).

Echoing Sophonisba Breckinridge's trip to Paris to attend the First International Conference of Social Work in 1928, SSA and Assistant Professor Robert Fairbanks held an international symposium at the University's Paris Center to examine a comparative analysis of the historical shifts in welfare states and the consequences for social policy and practice across a range of national contexts.

As I write this, Associate Professors Robert Chaskin and Evelyn Brodkin, Professor Tina Rzepnicki and Senior Lecturer Stan McCracken are preparing for the last three symposia. And the staff is preparing for SSA's closing Gala celebration, where we will present the first Julius Rosenwald Award to Frank Clark, Chairman and CEO of ComEd and a devoted Visiting Committee member. He is tireless in his work as a philanthropist and we are indebted to his support, kindness, and wisdom. Frank's support is inspiring as it allows SSA to continue to be at the cutting edge—as evidenced by each of the symposia.

Frank and all of our supporters enable SSA to experiment, push, and grapple with the fundamental issues of how we can continue our mission of helping individuals, families, and communities achieve a better quality of life. I hope that his example will inspire you to continue to support SSA both now and into the next century.